The presents have long been opened. No one can find anything decent to watch on TV. It feels weird to still say ‘Merry Christmas’ so we’ve all switched to saying ‘Happy New Year’ instead. But no matter! We still have Twelfth Night to celebrate!
I know, I know, it’s not exactly the most popular of holidays anymore. You don’t see greetings cards for the occasion and I doubt it has its own GIFs.
So what is Twelfth Night? Why and how is it celebrated? Hit play below to or keep reading to find out!
What is Twelfth Night?
Twelfth Night is an often forgotten festival in the English calendar. Put simply, it’s the final night in the Twelve Days of Christmas. This Christian season starts on Christmas Day and ends on 5 January. It’s the period between Jesus’ birth and the arrival of the three wise men.
Christopher Hill points out each of the Twelve Days took on significance of their own, either based on the events of the Nativity or the lives of the saints (2003: 91). So December 28th became Holy Innocents’ Day, or Children’s Mass (later shortened to Childermass). This day honoured the babies murdered by King Herod. December 26th was the Feast of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
We’re not going to get into the many differences between Christian orthodoxies. But sufficeth to say, this was a period of merrymaking in England in the Middle Ages. The Tudors used it as a time for feasting, playing games that were illegal during the rest of the year, and putting on plays.
You may have heard of one of them – Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare.
Confused about the date?
In theory, the traditional date of Epiphany is January 6th. Twelfth Night is the eve of Epiphany, so it should be January 5th. But there’s still confusion as to when Twelfth Night actually is.
Is it the 5th or the 6th January?
Most people include Christmas Day as the first of the Twelve Days. That makes January 5th the right day for Twelfth Night.
But if you start counting the Twelve Days on December 26th, then Twelfth Night falls on January 6th. That’s the evening of Epiphany itself.
Why does the date matter? Well, let’s dig into the folklore and find out!
Twelfth Night and Folklore
The biggest belief is that it’s unlucky to leave Christmas decorations up after Twelfth Night. Some people take theirs down on New Year’s Eve so if that’s you, you’re off the hook! But this is precisely why getting the date right matters.
In my family, we work on the assumption that Twelfth Night is January 5th. In recent years we’ve taken them down on 4th January. Though that’s as much due to practicality as it is folklore.
Some believe that tradition of taking down Christmas decorations at Epiphany actually refers to the festival of Candlemas. Celebrated on 2 February, the festival celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. In some Christian traditions, that’s when Christmas decorations come down.
2 February is also known as Imbolc in some pagan traditions. And some believe it was also the fertility festival Lupercalia for the ancient Romans.
But let’s move forward to medieval England.
Hail, the Lord of Misrule!
Twelfth Night marked the end of the winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve (Halloween).
The festivities revolved around the Lord of Misrule, and it was a time of turning the world upside down. During the Twelfth Night festival, a bean was hidden in a cake. Whoever got the slice containing the bean got to rule the feast – even if they were a peasant.
At midnight, the feast ended, and the Lord of Misrule stepped down. Reality returned to normal. If you think the tradition sounds familiar, it’s not surprising. It dates back to Saturnalia, the ancient Roman winter festival, that some people believe coincides with Christmas.
It was a time for masters to bow to their servants. Imagine if the modern workplace did that now! I suspect it would go a long way to improving managerial relations with workers…
(Jennifer C. Vaught even claims the Lords of Misrule actually reigned from November 1 until Shrove Tuesday!)
Other modern customs still focus on these Twelfth-cakes, containing beans or peas to help choose the rulers of the night’s festivities.
And the Drury Lane Theatre in London has provided such a cake since 1795! Robert Baddeley left a bequest of £100 to provide cake and punch to the resident company every 6 January.
Baddeley, in case you were wondering, was a pastry chef by trade. He became an actor, specialising in comedy.
The Twelfth-cake has largely been replaced by the Christmas cake. Its hidden charms are sometimes found in the Christmas pudding instead.
In parts of Kent, some families hang an edible decoration on the tree. It’s the last thing to be taken down on Twelfth Night, and it’s shared out among the family.
According to Vaught, traditions in Louisiana saw the Twelfth-cake become a “King Cake”. A plastic baby now hides in the cake, and whoever finds it becomes the king or queen to lead the festivities. Twelfth Night often marks the start of Carnival.
But whichever tradition you follow, it’s still customary to take down your Christmas decorations – if you haven’t already!
Twelfth Night folklore continues into the ‘now’
Other traditions continue into modern times. In the eastern Alps, the Perchtenlaufen tradition marks Twelfth Night. Masked men run around in the streets ringing bells to drive away evil spirits. Until 1616, children in Nuremberg ran through the streets and knocked on doors to chase away the spirits. It’s like an inversion of Krampusnacht.
According to Western Folklore, an annual Twelfth Night Festival started in Boulder in 1939. They played carols over a loudspeaker and Santa Claus dropped by to “thank the audience for a pleasant season” (1947: 188).
The journal also ran a piece on New Year carols, a neglected part of the festivities. Clifford Gessler theorised that the carols had “been more or less obscured by the intensive attention given to the Christmas repertoire” (1948: 184). He did note there were songs to help ring in the New Year, such as Auld Lang Syne. But he thinks older New Year songs were lost when the calendar shifted and the ‘new year’ moved from autumn to midwinter (1948: 184).
That could refer to the Celtic belief in Samhain, now Halloween, as the start of a new year. Though given how long ago that was, I’m not sure his theory holds much water.
According to Borgna Brunner, the Romans started their new year on March 1st until 153 BC, when the new year was moved to January 1st (2017). This was scrapped during the medieval period, and Christians celebrated the new year on December 25th, March 1st, and March 25th, depending on where they were based.
By 1582, the introduction of the Gregorian calendar moved new year back to January 1st. That said, Britain didn’t adopt this calendar until 1752, and in the meantime, continued to celebrate the new year in March. So I have no idea where the idea of an autumn new year comes from.
We can’t talk about Twelfth Night folklore and not talk about wassailing. In some places, revellers drink wassail, a type of punch. It’s particularly traditional to drink it on Twelfth Night (hence ‘wassailing’).
This is an example of wassailing from West Sussex. The Broadwood Morris Men wassail the apple trees on Twelfth Night. Hopefully, it’ll ensure a good harvest. The Morris Men beat the trees to scare away demons.
Next, they anoint the ground with cider, recite a verse, and make noise with instruments. It’s also common to hang toast soaked in cider from the trees. Any birds who eat it will carry away any evil that was still present.
Similar concepts of ‘toasting’ the success of a harvest emerge elsewhere. In Worcestershire, farmers built twelve bonfires in one of their wheat fields. They made bonfire larger and named it ‘Old Meg’. Then the servants and their families drank warm cider around Old Meg before toasting the master and drinking to the health of the crops (Jones 1961: 320).
In these traditions, Twelfth Night becomes a way to ‘tie up’ the old year and sow the seeds of good fortune for the new year. Whether you celebrate it for religious reasons or not, now’s a good time to put those resolutions into practice!
Do you celebrate Twelfth Night? If so, what do you do?
Brunner, Borgna (2017), ‘A History of the New Year’, Infoplease, available at https://www.infoplease.com/calendar-holidays/major-holidays/history-new-year. Accessed 29 December 2019.
Gessler, Clifford (1948), ‘New Year Carols’, Western Folklore, 7:2, p. 184.
Hill, Christopher (2003), Holidays and Holy Nights: Celebrating Twelve Seasonal Festivals of the Christian Year, Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Society.
Jones, Lavender M. (1961), ‘Some Worcestershire Calendar Customs’, Folklore, 72:1, p. 320-322.
Vaught, Jennifer C. (2013), ‘Twelfth Night and the New Orleans Twelfth Night Revelers’, in Twelfth Night: New Critical Essays, edited by James Schiffer, London: Routledge.
Western Folklore (1947), ‘Twelfth Night in Boulder’, Western Folklore, 6:2, p. 188.
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