Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Merry Twelfth Night a bit late

I wanted to wish you a very merry Twelfth Night but I am a little late. It is the traditional end of the twelve days of Christmas festivities. In the church calendar, January 6 is Epiphany, the day the three Kings arrive to honor the miraculous baby, who is the symbol of our new hopes.

Twelve nights of what?

For what ever reason, the "Twelve days of Christmas" span the period between Christmas and Epiphany, a period which obviously includes various other end of the year festivals (Boxing Day, New Years Day etc). What we're looking at here is a bundle of Winter festivals jammed up together with various traditions getting confused and conjoined. The winter solstice (the shortest day) is an obvious time to mark the end of one year and the beginning of another, and at no time do you more appreciate a big feast and a party than in the depths of winter - equally when food is most scare and the weather is at it's worst is probably the time you most want to turn to whichever deity you admire.

The Viking festival of Jarlstag (Earl's Day) which we now know as Yuletide was typical of religious festivals having a feast day, and an associated season - leading up to and cooling of from the festival itself. In the case of Jarlstag this meant twelve days before - each day represented the arrival of an Earl to give a gift to Odin before his feast, and twelve days after, marking their departure. With the last, twelfth night, being the last chance for a feast before returning to work-a-day life. This Viking festival was also marked with a raft of traditions the Christian calendar normally associates with Halloween, it was the time when spirits of the dead were abroad, and Cere Arras protected us from the wicked spirits, hunting them with dogs, while Freya rode through the sky these twelve days on a sleigh pulled by reindeer giving gifts to those the spirits favoured in honour of the Earls gifts.

It seems that Jarlstag was the festival which had most influence on what was to become Twelfth Night. As the Christian church appropriated pagan festivals it made the solstice celebrations Christmas and tied in the gift giving of the twelve nights of Jalstag with the gift giving of the Magi. The folk memory of the twelve Earls became symbolic of the twelve Apostles, so that in some traditions each night represents one apostle.

In the middle ages the church made Twelfth Night the "festival of fools".


Epiphany, (from the Greek epiphania) means "manifestation", and marks the day when the Magi saw Christ - an important event as this manifestation to the gentile 'wise men' is what gives the goyim the right to be included within the Christian Church. The festival was placed by the church to replace the Roman (pagan) festival of Saturnalia.

Traditionally Epiphany was celebrated on January 6th - but recently the Church has moved the date of the festival to the second Sunday after Christmas. The twelve days of Christmas relate to this tradition as being the period of the journey of the Magi.

Prague: Dressing up

The wild hunt

The Staw Bear

The Kings Cake

In the middle ages the Church introduced the ‘Festival of Fools’ to secede the pagan twelfth night celebrations in Scotland, France and England. In many ways the practices of this festival seem similar to those of the festival of All Souls. People would dress up in masks and fancy dress, the place of honour going to a lead reveller ‘the Bishop of Fools’. The Bishop (and his archbishops) presided over the chaos between the two years and for a night led the guisers in feasting and partying or all kinds. For one night ‘all things were turned upon their heads’, Bishops brought Chaos and merriment rather than order and piety, the peasants could be kings and the women could dress as men – foolish notions indeed.

By the 15c this practice had become seen as ‘pagan’ itself and was outlawed for it’s lewdness the disrespectful representation of the clergy and a sanitised version put in its place. The Bishop was replaced with a ‘king’ to tie it in with Epiphany – ‘The Lord of Misrule’ in England, In France ‘Prince des Sots’ and in Scotland he was called The Abbot of Unreason. No matter where one thing was central, the head of the festival would be selected by the cutting of the King Cake.

Those pesky pagans get everywhere though, and this tradition dates back even further to the Roman festival of Saturnalia. In Roman times a black or white stone or bean was used for voting in elections, and during the Roman feast of Saturnalia in early January, the king of the festival was also chosen by means of a bean. In the modern version of the festival the bean (or sometimes a coin or a figure of Chist) is placed within the Kings Cake. Whoever found that bean in their slice of cake would lead the parade through the streets, and would carry his good fortune through the year.

In the 18th century French settlers took this custom to the USA and it remained associated with Epiphany, these days however the Lord of Misrule now rules through to Mardi Gras, and the Kings Cake is cut every week between festivals.

In the north of Scotland many of the practices of the Medievil festval continue in Antonmass or Uphellyaa was celebrated on Twelfth Night or 'old twelth night' (the date in the pre-Gegorian calendar). These were then incorporated into the to the modern Up Helly Aa festivals celebrated in Shetland.

Recipies Two recipies are common throughout Europe, one for Kings Cake and one for Twelth Night Bread - depending upon the region the bean is hidden in one or the other, but both are usually on offer.

Twelth Night BRead is made in the shape of a crown (ie. a ring) and decorated with jewels of candied friuts or icing.


The Yule Log and Taking down the Trimmings.

In accordance with the Norse tradition the Yule Log should be burnt on Yuletide. It was kept burning for the twelve days of the festival, it's warmth adding to the festive spirit and the time that light was shortest, and then on Twelth Night, with the advent of the New Year, it was put out, and it's ashes saved to kindle the next years log. Bringing good luck, and ensuring that time kept running one year into the next.

As fire's in houses became smaller, not wishing to see a good tradition go to waste some homes would not burn the Yule Log at all, but just brought a log or a bough, or in Germany even a whole fir tree, into the house. For others the log became part of the feasting, and a chocolate Yule Log would be made to eat on Twelth Night. (Recipe?)

Just as the Yule Log was a way of brightening your house in a seasonal fashion, as time went by other decorations became used, some religious and some purely aesthetic. But just as good luck for the year came to those who stopped burning the Yule log on the Twelfth, bad luck would descend upon those who failed to observe this and kept decorations up past this date. Folklore would have it that if a single bawble(sp) or piece of tinsel remains in place, then witches or the devil can make their home in it and bring disorder to the house.

The Plays: Mumming and Shakespeare.

The Twelve days of Christmas, but particularly Twelfth Night, is the time for Mumming. Now mainly performed by special societies and morris groups the Mummer's Plays were

Shakespear's play Twelfth Night contains no mention of the festival or the season, so why the title? Well the play was commisioned for performance on Twelfth Night - following in the tradition of performing special plays on Twelfth Night that was still strong at the time.

The story telling tradition along with the notion of spirits walking abroad are also evident in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a 13th century poem. Following a challenge from the ghostly Green Knight and a test by the witch Morgana Le Fey the court of Camelot elects to use boughs of Ivy decoration to ward off future evil during the time that spirits are abroad.

Thank you BBC for help with all the details!

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I grew up in Chautauqua County, NY. I graduated from Edinboro University of Pennyslvania in 1981 with a BFA in Jewelry and Metalworking. I have been married 31 years. I currently run a small business with my husband. We both enjoy the outdoors and animals a great deal and live on a tiny farm in Western, NY.