The church celebrates the "octave," or the eight days following Christmas, almost as though it were Christmas day itself. So, Jan. 2, the day after the octave concludes, could be a good day to take down a Christmas tree.
Q: When I was a kid, we put up the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and took it down a day or two after Christmas. As an adult, I put the tree up a day or two after Thanksgiving and left it up until Jan. 2. Now as a Catholic, what is the best way for me to handle the Christmas tree? When does it go up and when does it come down? (Indiana)
A: Unlike certain other kinds of holiday decorations, such as an Advent wreath, a Christmas tree is neither a sacramental nor part of a liturgy. Because of this, there are no strict right or wrong answers as to when a Catholic should put up or take down a Christmas tree. Yet depending on your family's own particular holiday traditions and spiritual needs, there are some dates that might be especially appropriate in your own household.
In terms of when to put up a Christmas tree, there is nothing to prevent a Catholic from setting up a Christmas tree right after Thanksgiving if they so choose. But for other families waiting until Christmas eve to set up a tree could be a helpful way of respecting the season of Advent as a time of quiet and even penitential preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas. In contrast to the secular emphasis on pre-Christmas celebrations, waiting until Christmas to set up a tree makes it clear that Advent is not Christmas, but rather its own important season of waiting.
And of course, it's always possible to find a middle ground between these two extremes. For example, perhaps a family could set up a Christmas tree earlier on during Advent, but only start decorating it closer to Christmas.
Or, you could take some cues from our liturgy as for when to set up your Christmas tree. One option would be to wait until Gaudete Sunday -- the "pink" Sunday of the third week of Advent -- when the church's prayers specifically tell us to rejoice at the closeness of Jesus' upcoming birthday.
Another liturgically fitting day to set up a Christmas tree would be Dec. 17, one week before Christmas Eve. This is the day when the church starts praying the "O antiphons" (antiphons which are most popularly well-known as the inspiration for the Advent hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel") before the Gospel at daily Mass and before the "Magnificat" prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours. The beginning of the "O antiphons" marks a shift in the church's liturgy, where Christmas is anticipated with a more immediate sense of urgency.
You can use a similar sense of liturgically informed prudential decision-making when deciding when to take down your Christmas tree. Although in my own opinion, it's good to keep in mind that for Catholics Christmas Day is just the very beginning of a whole Christmas season.
The church celebrates the "octave," or the eight days following Christmas, almost as though it were Christmas day itself. So, Jan. 2, the day after the octave concludes, could be a good day to take down a Christmas tree. Still, you would be more than justified in keeping your tree up even longer!
Jan. 6 is the traditional date of the feast of the Epiphany or "Three Kings' Day," a feast which marks the last day of the 12 days of Christmas. But officially, the Christmas season doesn't end until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which the church celebrates the Sunday after Jan. 6.
Finally, even if late January is technically considered Ordinary Time, the latest feast in our celebration of the Incarnation is actually the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2. This is the last day that the Vatican keeps up their Christmas tree and crÈche in St. Peter's square in Rome, so a Catholic who follows suit can hardly be criticized for keeping up their Christmas decorations until this point!
- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.
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