When should we take down our Christmas decorations?
For many of us, it's simply a practical question. We might take down the decorations when we have time, perhaps the weekend after Christmas, or perhaps when the needles on the tree start to dry up and fall off.
Others of us wait until after the new year. We realize that New Year's celebrations are connected with Christmas (happy holidays!"), although we probably aren't too sure what their connection is, other than the fact that they are both holidays that happen to fall one week apart.
And so the holiday season gradually fades away. Lights come down, house by house, over a period of days and weeks, and finally, imperceptibly, the holiday season is over.
Yet Christmas was not always like this. Traditionally, Christian societies celebrated the Christmas season, not just the day. They followed a liturgical calendar - a way of marking time that differs from our ordinary calendars. For those of us caught up in the busy modern lifestyle, it wouldn't be a bad idea to recover a sense of that liturgical calendar - the slower rhythms of the church seasons.
The church year actually begins with the season of Advent - four weeks before Christmas Day. It's a time to prepare oneself spiritually to celebrate the day that forever changed our human history: the day that God himself came to us in the form of a helpless baby.
Christmas is not understood as one day, but as a season lasting from Dec. 25 until the celebration of the baptism of the Lord (usually the Sunday after Epiphany). The high point of the Christmas season, however, is the time between Christmas and Epiphany - the 12 Days of Christmas familiar to most people from the popular carol.
Today is Epiphany. In the Western church, this day celebrates the visit of the wise men from the East to the newborn Jesus; in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the focus is on Jesus' baptism. The connection is the concept of epiphany - a revelation or manifestation. The visit of the wise men represents Jesus' manifestation to the non-Jewish world; at Jesus' baptism, the voice of God himself revealed Jesus' identity, This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.
As we now give gifts at Christmas, so too did the wise men at Epiphany. Their gift of gold recognized the baby as a king; their offering of incense honored him as divine; their presentation of myrrh (a spice used to anoint the dead) foreshadowed Jesus' offering of his own life for the sake of a lost, suffering humanity.
The tradition of gift giving continues during the Christmas season, as described in the carol's list of 12 gifts. The carol's gifts, however, according to a common interpretation, are symbolic . They represent the spiritual gifts given by our true love: God. (The four calling birds, for example, are the gift of the four Gospels).
So let us not be too hasty in putting away those Christmas decorations. Christmas is a season, not just a day. It takes time to prepare, to ponder and to truly celebrate and appreciate that great gift of love that God revealed to all of us in the manifestation of his Son on earth.
Martin Albl teaches religious studies at Presentation College. Write him at email@example.com.