Let’s Try Forty Days of Christmas!

In the annual despair of trying to hang onto Advent in the midst of the secular Christmas season (running from Halloween in the US, or Remembrance Day in Canada, until December 24), a new sadness has crept into ecclesial music circles – Christmas music in Advent, and no music in the Christmas season. In a number of smaller churches, selling the season has meant moving children’s Christmas pageants up to Advent II or III, and various Christmas musical events (within and outside of liturgy) into the same weeks, resulting in exhausted musicians by the second day of Christmas. In a conversation with a bishop who is also a singer in a choral group, the two of us commiserated on the reality that as Christmas approaches and both of us had a bit of spare time, there were literally no Christmas concerts to go to, let alone participate in. Having surrendered to the aural onslaught around us, many communities have missed both the music of Advent and Christmas – what’s a church to do?

For pastoral musicians thinking of next year, I can vouch for the fact that Advent music is both beautiful and enriching (and here, I particularly mean texts that explore and express the full richness of Advent – expectation in both joy and trembling of the second coming of Christ, recalling the need to reorient ourselves to what has begun and what continues to demand much of us, and the remembrance of God become flesh in the first coming of Christ, as well as the challenges of keeping before our eyes the everyday coming of Christ in this and all seasons). In the university chapel this year, we added a Wednesday evening Advent lessons & carols to the Sunday observances. In spite of clearly advertising the service as Advent, a number of people came expecting the usual Christmas lessons & carols. What was surprising were the comments about how beautiful the Advent music was, how enriching the scripture readings were, and how calm the chapel was in its simple greenery and purple. It was a joy to reintroduce people to Advent – this can happen!

But there still remains the seemingly eternal struggle of keeping the commemoration of the first coming of Christ in all its justice and beauty. What would it be like to extend Christmas through its full 40 days – until February 2nd, the Presentation of the Lord, or Candlemas? Some parishes have started (or never lost) a sense of celebration on Epiphany – keeping cultural and religious observance of 12th night, or reinventing it to round out Christmas in its December 25 to January 6th stretch. But 40 days – that would really counter some cultures – it might even exhaust the retail industry! Freely admitting that members of many cultures are simply shaking their heads at this point and wondering where we’ve been – they never stopped doing this – it is a reality that many Christians do not connect the dots between Christmas and the layers of meaning biblically, ritually, and theologically of the 40th day after Christmas. February 2 also marks the mid-point of winter, half way between the winter solstice (shortest day) and the spring equinox, another day, another feast with a focus on light. But it is not December 25th, then January 6th, then February 2nd that I wonder about, but the joyful space of these 40 days, to paraphrase Tertullian. What if these days were punctuated with Christmas concerts, or communities making music? What if the time grew to be anticipated to the extent that we chose these days for Christmas music rather than November or early December? What if visiting various creches started on the 24th of December? What if? Could an extension of this magnitude be enough to turn the tide toward a true Christmas season preceded by a true Advent season in Christian practice?

Part of the appeal is the popular religiosity woven together with official liturgy of February 2nd, particularly the blessing of candles and the procession – there are never enough of those, and certainly a perfect opportunity for good ritual music and movement! But there is a direct link to Christmas in ways far firmer than early Advent to Christmas that lends these 40 days a unified integrity. From the perspective of this second week of Advent, it may be helpful once again to reflect on the introduction to the liturgy, and hear anew the connections:

Dear brothers and sisters,
forty days have passed since we celebrated the joyful feast
of the Nativity of the Lord.
Today is the blessed day
when Jesus was presented in the Temple by Mary and Joseph.
Outwardly he was fulfilling the Law,
but in reality he was coming to meet his believing people.
Prompted by the Holy Spirit,
Simeon and Anna came to the Temple.
Enlightened by the same Spirit,
they recognized the Lord
and confessed him with exultation.
So let us also, gathered together by the Holy Spirit,
proceed to the house of God to encounter Christ.
There we shall find him
and recognize him in the breaking of the bread,
until he comes again, revealed in glory.

                  From the first form with procession of the Roman Rite


  1. I believe St. Peter’s in Rome keeps its Christmas decorations up until Feb. 2.
    We have both the shortest Advent and Christmas seasons this year. What a pity! Maybe we need to revive Carnivale in our culture to prolong the joy and glory of Christmas.

    Another possibility is to slowly eliminate the Christmas/winter decorations between Feast of the Baptism and Lent. A little bit gone each weekend, but keep decorated tress and such to give some warmth in the cold.

      1. It was odd because this happened under a pope from Bavaria, where, along with Austria, there was a cultural tradition of observing 40 days of Christmastide. (While my family put up the tree and creche on Christmas Eve and kept it up for a least the third or sometimes fourth weekend of January, we didn’t do the full 40 days – but I had first-generation German Catholic classmates whose families did.)

        Another thing to consider about the 40 days of Christmastide is how they preceded the pre-Lenten carnival season (while was quite a different thing from *liturgical* pre-Lent).

  2. We need a reform of the Calendar for these forty days. And probably for the variable gap up to Lent.
    In England, where by indult we can conclude the Prayer of the Faithful with a Marian prayer, we could use the Alma Redemtoris Mater throughout. This is, with Advent, the period in which it is traditional and has a concluding prayer specific to these forty days.

    1. The calendar needs no reform for this, though I’d be quite happy in the USA to keep Epiphany on January 6th and ditch the MMOG HDoO on January 1. And make our parish celebrations of the Epiphany something splendid and generous that people become deeply drawn and attached to.

  3. Another Karl +1
    We keep the season until January 6 but really not any later than that. I am dismayed at the lack of interest in the Baptism of Jesus when it falls on any day other than Sunday. We really don’t seem to grasp the concept of theophany in the RCC. I think we have much to learn from our Orthodox brethren in this regard.
    I would welcome a full 40 days of extended celebration for the Advent – Chritmas cycle. We talk about bringing beauty back into our liturgies but we never give it the time it needs to develop in the human heart.

  4. By all means, keep the Nativity Scene up until February 2. Advertise, advertise, advertise the Feast of the Presentation. Start the procession at the crib, or make it a “station” on the way to the sanctuary. Encourage people to bring their own candles to be blessed for the procession, or make sure the old “Purification Candles” (Remember those?) are available and reintroduce the practice of having these blessed sacramentals in the home for family prayer, etc. And have some Christmas music, certainly!

  5. The real problem is that in our post-Christian culture, Christmas is gradually reacquiring its status as a pagan feast of light in winter, hope, new life, solstice, etc. Specifically Christian themes are disappearing. And we seem to be colluding with this. Even my local RC Secondary School is sending out non-Christmas Christmas cards!

    One of my former colleagues in the Seminary who later became Russian Orthodox, used to say what a relief it had been to him to celebrate Christmas on January 7th, so that it was well separated from the secular fandango (his term), which the Latin Rite has simply caved in to.

    The older I get the more I agree ! Isn’t it time we applied the doctrine of separation here? Itis time to get out of Babylon.


    1. It happened to Easter first, btw.

      I don’t think of the secularized Christmas being particularly pagan – that would be an insult to pagans.

      In the USA (other than perhaps Alaska) it’s not a really a feast of light (when we are not terribly inconvenienced by lack of it as were humans before gas/electric-powered light became widespread and reliable and cheap)), nor new life (that would be what secular Easter in the Northern hemisphere is about).

      It’s really just a consumption for family and friends and business network “feast”.

      It’s one week of New Year’s, in other words.

      No genuine pagan or heathen content to it in any meaningful way.

      1. OR go for broke and transfer the Presentation to the first Sunday in February with an obligation to attend Mass after sundown.

      2. Candlemass & the Super Bowl probably do serve similar purposes as an end of winter feast to drive the cold winter away. Even with the advent of artificial light and advanced heating, the winter still weighs on a lot of people.

    2. Yes, I always make it a point to join the Russians on 7 January. I don’t know how it is so, but I always feel more of the spirit of the old church amongst them than in a church like Ssma Trinita in the City which reminds me of Van Allen’s + rather negative remarks on Anglican Caldey’s use of Latin.

      For those who prefer a Western means to tease out religious Christmass from secular Christmas the scholarly S. Lawrence Press on its blog offers a real Tridentine experience according to the Julian calendar.

  6. O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

    1. In a similar vein, our parish (with our bishop’s permission) adapts the cycle:

      Dec 25 – Christmas (vigil and Daytime)
      26 – Motherhood of the Theotokos
      27 – Holy Name
      28 – Presentation
      29 – Epiphany
      30 – Holy Innocents
      31 – Holy Family
      Jan 1 – Incarnate Word

      We also have long kept only the Palm Gospel on Palm Sunday. We use John’s passion every other year on Friday, and use the passion for the gospel year in the alternating year.
      Sunday falling 2-6 January – further on Incarnate Word
      Sunday falling 7-13 January – Baptism of our Lord

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