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Farewell to Christmas

Chicago Catholics, do you think the Christmas season ends with the gifts of the Magi? Think again.
Chicago Catholics, do you think the Christmas season ends with the gifts of the Magi? Think again.

Goodbye, Christmas season! Monday, January 13, 2014, marks the official start of “Ordinary Time” in the Roman Catholic liturgical calender.

This may come as a surprise to many Catholics. Didn't the twelve days of Christmas end long ago? Many Catholics assume that Christmas ends with the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6th. While traditionally that has always been the case, it has changed in recent decades. The Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men, and it is the last major Christmas feast day in the Roman Catholic Church. However, the Baptism of Our Lord marks the end of the liturgical season of Christmastide. (As I have noted in many other columns, eastern Christians continue to celebrate Christ's baptism on the Epiphany). For Roman Catholics, Pope John XXIII set the Solemnity of the Baptism of Our Lord to the fixed date of one week after the Epiphany, with the rank of a second-class feast.

Since “Ordinary Time” doesn’t officially begin until the Monday after the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, this means that the Christmas season of the Roman Catholic Church actually extends beyond the traditional “Twelve Days of Christmas” now. Some older traditions kept the Christmas season even longer. In fact, the “Christmas season” used to “officially” last until Candle-mas, also known as the Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of the Lord, which falls on February 2nd. Today, that date is usually associated with Valentine's Day.

Pope John Paul II began a custom where the Pope marks the end of the Christmas season and the Baptism of the Lord by baptizing babies in the Sistine Chapel. This tradition has been continued by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. For January 12, 2014, Pope Francis baptized 32 children in the Sistine Chapel. Most of those baptized by the Holy Father were the new-born children of Vatican employees. In his Sunday homily, Pope Francis noted that Jesus was free of sin and did not need to be baptized, but did so in order to set the example and show his followers they must go into the world to baptize. He ended his homily by saying “Today the choir sings...but the most beautiful choir is [the choir] of children”. He explained, “Some are crying, because they are uncomfortable, or because they are hungry. If they are hungry, mothers, give them something to eat... they are the central figures, the protagonists [of this celebration].”

And so, the time has finally come where we bid farewell to Christmas. In Roman Catholic parishes throughout the Chicago area and most of the world, priests will now be usually be dressed in green vestments, the designated liturgical color for Ordinary Time. Don't start getting too complacent about it, however. The Lenten season is coming up soon, and just around the corner.