How long is the Christmas season? The answer varies from place to place and from age to age. In the United States today, the Christmas season is often equated with the shopping and GIFT-return season. In other times and places, calendar customs or related observances opened and closed the Christmas season.
In past eras Europeans began their Christmas season on a variety of dates on which Christmas-related events and observances took place. In medieval and Renaissance times the English sometimes selected a local LORD OF MISRULE, a kind of clown who presided over Christmas festivities, as early as Halloween or All Saints’ Day (November 1). The first day of Advent, which occurs on the Sunday closest to November 30, also served as an important date with regard to the European Christmas season. In some parts of Europe the Christmas season began on December 6, ST. NICHOLAS’S DAY. In Sweden the season still begins with ST. LUCY’S DAY on December 13.
For many centuries the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS stood at the heart of the European Christmas season. The Twelve Days begin on DECEMBER 25 and last until TWELFTH NIGHT. This period includes a number of other observances such as ST. STEPHEN’S DAY, ST. JOHN’S DAY, HOLY INNOCENTS’ DAY, the FEAST OF THE CIRCUMCISION, and New Year’s Day.
Virtually no one ended their seasonal celebration on December 26, the day after Christmas. Even today, Americans extend the Christmas season through New Year’s Day. In the past, however, many Europeans assumed that Christmas ended on Epiphany, January 6. An old English folk custom sent farm laborers back to work on PLOUGH MONDAY, the Monday after the Twelfth Day of Christmas. Women resumed their labors on ST. DISTAFF’S DAY, January 7. Scandinavian folk beliefs taught that the Christmas season ended on January 12, the twentieth day of Christmas, which the Swedes and Norwegians celebrate as ST. KNUT’S DAY. In Scotland’s Shetland Islands, however, Christmas lasted until Old Twenty-Fourth night, which was marked by a festival called UP HELLY AA (see also OLD CHRISTMAS DAY). In past centuries some English Christmas customs, such as decorating homes with GREENERY, extended as late as CANDLEMAS, February 2. In other areas of EUROPE people finally dismantled their NATIVITY SCENES on Candlemas.
In Latin America, eastern Europe, and the Middle East different dates and observances may mark the beginning and the end of the Christmas season. In SYRIA the Christmas season opens with ST. BARBARA’S DAY on December 4. In a few Latin American countries the Christmas season begins on December 8 with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In the PHILIPPINES and some parts of Latin America, the holiday season begins on December 16 with a Christmas novena (a series of special religious services or private devotions offered on nine consecutive days; see also MISA DE GALLO; LAS POSADAS). In RUSSIA Orthodox Christians still schedule their feast days according to the old, Julian calendar (see Old Christmas Day). Therefore, they celebrate Christmas on January 7, as do Orthodox Ethiopians (see also CHRISTMAS IN ETHIOPIA). Orthodox Armenians living in the Holy Land who follow the Julian calendar celebrate Epiphany and Christmas together on January 19 (see also CHRISTMAS IN ARMENIA).
In recent years COMMERCIAL interests have defined the Christmas season for many Americans. In the early twentieth century retailers promoted the idea that the Christmas shopping season begins on the day after Thanksgiving. These days, however, retailers may bombard consumers with Christmas merchandise and promotions as early as October.