Christmas Traditions : Twelfth Night

Photo RL Pieterse

The culmination of the Christmas season used to be celebrated on “Twelfth Night”. Even today, Christmas trees, balloons and tinsel are usually packed away before midnight on the 6th January.  There are rumours about the appalling consequences of not doing so but, like walking under a ladder, no one knows exactly what they are nor should be willing to find out!

Photo RL Pieterse

Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night” marked the end of the Christmas festivities in Elizabethan England. “These most brisk and giddy-paced times” he wrote, which aptly described the festival.

Also referred to as the Feast of Epiphany, the Christian aspect of this celebration commemorates the visit of the Wisemen to the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem, Judea. Their gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh. Even today in the Chapel Royal of St James’ Palace in London, these offerings are made by the British Royalty on the 6th January each year. The gold is changed into money and given to pensioners, the frankincense is used in worship and the myrrh is presented to a hospital.  The gold represents man, born to be King. Frankincense represents the holy man, and myrrh, a bitter herb, represents the crucifixion.  The monarch is represented by two men from the Lord Chamberlain’s office, a tradition which began as far back as the reign of George III because the King was considered too mad to handle the ceremony.

Photo RL Pieterse

In the Green Room of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, another ceremony takes place. In the late eighteenth century as actor/chef, Robert Baddeley, died in his dressing room. He bequeathed 100 pounds to be kept in trust and he willed the interest to be used to”provide cake and wine for the performers” each Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night cakes were essential and much artistry went into their creation. They were iced and displayed for crowds to gasp in awe at the creativity shown.  Mrs Beeton’s cookbook bears no reference to a Christmas cake, only a Twelfth Night cake. She mixed charms into the mixture which symbolised the coming year – she also mixed a pea and a bean. An anchor meant a journey; a thimble, an old maid; but, whoever found the pea and the bean (which symbolised the King and the Queen), led the dancing. The only remnants of this tradition are the charms or coins which we find in our Christmas pudding.

Photo RL Pieterse

Before the calendar was revised in the early eighteenth century, England celebrated Christmas on the 6th January. The eve of that day, the 5th January, is still known as Old Christmas Eve.

Puerto Ricans celebrate “Three King’s Day” on the 6th of January when “The Three Kings” deliver gifts to the children.
Christmas for the Irish lasts from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night. Irish refer to this holiday as “Little Christmas”.

A firm tradition was the “wassailing” of fruit trees. A “wassail” bowl would be prepared and broken roasted apples were placed in it. The men gathered beneath a fruit tree, drank a cup of the brew and threw the rest onto the roots of the tree. They fired shotguns into the branches and shouted, urging the tree to be bountiful. In Surrey, rather than fire guns, they whipped the trunk of the tree. Instead of shouting they sang.
In Somerset their song went,
“Apple tree, apple tree, I wassail thee
To blow and to bear ….”

Twelfth Night is no longer the celebration it used to be.  Maybe, after all the decorations are taken down and the Christmas cards packed away, we should round off the Christmas season of festivities and love by preparing a Twelfth night cake or a wassail bowl as a tribute to Christmases past.

Photo RL Pieterse

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