01/02/2013 12:27 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

When Should Holiday Decorations Come Down?

Now that Hanukkah and Christmas are over and we are wishing "Happy New Year" to everyone we see, when is, or when was, the proper time to take down holiday decorations? There are several answers to this question, depending on what one means by "holiday" decorations.

If you are a commercial business with no thought to the religious meaning of "holiday," you will probably be taking down your decorations on Jan. 1 or 2 or very soon after. Or, even if you are not a commercial business but still give little thought to the religious significance of the so-called holiday season, thinking more in general terms about the excitement and celebrations leading up to Christmas and ending on New Year's Day, you will also probably be taking down your holiday decorations anytime now. But if you think of the holiday season in religious terms, when you take down your holiday decorations depends on which holiday, or more correctly, which "holy" days, you have been celebrating. Let me explain what I mean.

The word "holiday" is the combination of two Old English words: "holy" and "day." Originally, all "holidays" were "holy" days -- that is, days set aside by the Church to commemorate a religious event. Gradually, the word holiday became a generalized term to be used in referring to any number of days we have come to call holidays. In the United States, for example, we have many so-called holidays, such as Martin Luther King Day, Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day, to mention a few. One may be able to give some religious significance to some of these holidays, but they did not originate as "holy" days. Other countries have their own designations of secular holidays. And in many countries one's "vacation" is referred to as one's "holiday."

So what "holy" day(s) you are celebrating, or what your interpretation of that day(s) is, will shed light on when you probably feel most comfortable about taking down your holiday decorations. In December 2012 there were two well-known "holy" days relatively close to each other -- the Jewish Hanukkah and the Christian Christmas. But this is not the case every December. In the Western World Christmas is always observed on Dec. 25, but the date of Hanukkah, always an eight-day observance, changes from year to year.

In 2012 Hanukkah started Dec. 8 and ended Dec. 16. So if you were observing Hanukkah, your "holy" day decorations, which historically are considerably less elaborate than Christmas decorations, would probably have been taken down very soon after Dec. 16. In 2013 the date of Hanukkah is Nov. 27-Dec. 5, and in 2014, Hanukkah is very close to Christmas -- Dec. 16-24. But whatever the date of Hanukkah, the decorations will usually be taken down the day after the last day of the Hanukkah observance.

Now turning to Christmas, when the decorations are taken down varies depending on one's interpretation of some Christmas customs. If you adhere to what is referred to as the liturgical calendar, church year, or "high church," you will take down your Christmas decorations on Epiphany day or the day after. For the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches Epiphany (like Christmas) is a set date and always falls each year on January 6. In these Western churches, Epiphany originally commemorated the baptism of Jesus and then the marriage feast at Cana. But since the fifth century, Epiphany is the holy day that commemorates the arrival of the Wise Men or Magi who are portrayed as bringing gifts to Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12). Many people celebrate Epiphany with the giving of gifts. Some people do this in addition to giving gifts on Christmas, and others do this instead of giving Christmas gifts.

And referring to the "Twelve Days of Christmas," Christmas day, among most Christian churches in the West, is considered the "first day of Christmas," and the Christmas season officially ends on the "12th day of Christmas," that is, on the eve of Epiphany. These 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany are also referred to as Christmastide and provide the inspiration for the well-known song "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Some people mistakenly think that the twelve days of Christmas refer to the days immediately prior to Christmas.

There are many Christian denominations that pay very little attention to the liturgical calendar, or church year as it is frequently referred to, and do not observe or celebrate Epiphany. Members of those denominations, for the most part, consider that the Christmas season ends on New Year's Day and take down their Christmas or holiday decorations on New Year's Day or as soon after, as time and weather permits.