She spread out Christmas to last from Saint Nicholas Eve
until Twelfth Night; and burned the greens on the hearth
with a choked feeling of utter desolation" (103).
from Roller Skates (1936)
by Ruth Sawyer
[more on my book blog]
Seems so short a time ago that we were bringing them home.
In fact, this picture of Ben and our neighbor Tammy,
carrying home her greens from the Farmers' Market,
was taken a long time ago --
just before Christmas 1995, on Beaumont Avenue, Philadelphia
If you start counting with Christmas Day as the First Day, then January 5th is the Twelfth Day of Christmas (as in the song), tonight is Twelfth Night (as in the Shakespeare play), and tomorrow is the Epiphany -- the day the Wise Men arrived with the gifts.
For the last hundred years or so, in England and the U.S. anyway, the Christmas Season pretty much comes to a close with a New Year's Eve Party & New Year's Day Parades; but pre - Dickens, it was more the custom to celebrate the full Twelve Days (as suggested by the elaborate gifts in the song; or in the church with a saint for each day). Twelfth Night was the time for a big party with a huge frosted King's Cake, containing hidden surprises (nowadays the British Christmas Cake or the American Mardi Gras Cake).
In either tradition -- whether you conclude the season on New Year's Eve or Twelfth Night -- January 5th was considered a good time to put away all the decorations, though earlier medieval custom allowed the greens to hang until February 2nd, the cross - quarter day that brings the Winter Solstice half-way to the Vernal Equinox (which explains why we celebrate with the Ground Hog on that day).
PS. My personal tradition allows me to keep the trees up WAY past any of the above designated dates . . . but that's another story! It always seems to me that you can leave the tree up beyond Twelfth Night if you want; however, any leftover Christmas Cake or Pudding must be polished off before midnight!