The holiday season

For reference, an outline of what constitutes the holiday season. A complicated matter, since there’s both a secular and a religious notion in this domain, and the two are intertwined.

The secular season begins, in the U.S., the day after Thanksgiving (this year that’s today) and lasts through New Year’s Day. (Elsewhere, the beginning of the season is less clearly defined, though things are pretty clearly underway by December 1st.)

The religious season begins, in Western Christianity (the dates are somewhat different in Eastern Christianity), with the first Sunday of Advent (this year that’s November 27th). The season comes in three pieces:

Advent (through four Sundays, ending just before Christmas Eve, December 24th; St. Nicholas’s or St. Nicholas Day, December 6th, and St. Lucy’s Day, December 13th, fall in there);

Christmastide, from Christmas Eve through January 5th, with Christmas (Day), December 25th, as its centerpiece (the secular holidays of New Year’s Eve, December 31st, and New Year’s Day, January 1st, fall in there, as does St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th, and the solstice — the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the summer in the Southern — on December 21st or 22nd, the 22nd this year);

and Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, January 6th.

In counterpart to these occasions, there’s Hanukkah (this year, from sunset on December 21st through sunset on December 28th) and Kwanzaa (December 26th through January 1st).

And in addition to the religious season (a technical notion) and the secular season (an ordinary-language notion), there’s what you might call the commercial season, the period of advertising, selling, and buying before Christmas and of after-Christmas sales; and of what you might call the public-celebration season, characterized by holiday movies and tv shows, holiday lighting, the playing of holiday songs, holiday parties, exchanges of greetings, performances of The Nutcracker and The Messiah (and in some places, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy), holiday food and drink, and so on. Both the commercial season and the public-celebration season are fuzzily defined, but tend to take in longer periods than the religious and secular seasons.

Seasons’ greetings!

5 Responses to “The holiday season”

  1. Michael Vnuk Says:

    This is useful. Although I realised that this “season” is complicated, I hadn’t thought it through. Just naming facets helps to provide some perspective.

    In Australia, we don’t hear much of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but we have a stronger emphasis on the “holiday” component because Christmas falls during our long school holidays. School students have about six weeks off and university students have a longer period.

  2. mollymooly Says:

    Maybe there are some BrE–AmE differences here. For me December 25 is “Christmas Day”; “Christmas” tout court means “Christmas time” (“Christmastide” is archaic). Thus something can happen “at Christmas” or “over Christmas” but not “on Christmas”.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      For Christmas, OED2 has:

      The festival of the nativity of Christ, kept on the 25th of December. Usually extended more or less vaguely to the season immediately preceding and following this day, commonly observed as a time of festivity and rejoicing.

      with cites in the ‘Christmas Day’ sense going back to Old English.

      I don’t know how widespread the distinction you make is in BrE.

  3. Marc Leavitt Says:

    Don’t forget the celebration of the winter solstice, the dying and rebirth of life, as exemplified by the various fertility cults throughout literate and illiterate history. Put another yule log on the fire to drive away the dark.

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