Friday, January 05, 2007

In praise of Twelfth Night

Here's my piece on a sadly neglected Christmas tradition, from today's Daily Express.

Have you taken down your Christmas decorations already? If so, you are not alone.
While decorations seem to go up even earlier each year, it’s also true that that more and more Britons are packing away their trees, lights and tinsel much sooner than they used to- sometimes with a sense of relief that we can get back to business as usual.

I walked along a few streets to my local shopping centre earlier this week and was taken aback at how few decorations remained. The space in the square where a few days earlier, a beautiful Christmas tree had stood with bright, twinkling lights, was now empty. How sad. It’s not just about missing the cheery spectacle that lights and decorations provide us on a grey and miserable day. It’s also about honouring a long-standing and colourful Christmas tradition, that of Twelfth Night, which has all but disappeared.

It’s curious that retailers, given the way they have promoted other festivals, such as Valentine’s Day or Halloween to their great commercial advantage, haven’t been tempted to do the same to Twelfth Night. There might be rich pickings in it for them if they do.

Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking". There are however many, including ‘The Lions Part’ (see sidebar), who hold that Twelfth Night should in fact be commemorated on 6th January, i.e. the twelfth full day after December 25th, due to the old custom of treating sunset as the beginning of the following day. However, some hold that Twelfth Night should be on January 6th- that is, the full 12th day after December 25th.

Twelfth Night marks the end of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, the length of celebration being based on a sequence of verses in The Bible (Matthew 2:1-12), and a belief that it may have taken 12 days for the Three Kings to travel to Bethlehem after first seeing the star signifying the birth of Jesus.

Those who believe that modern Christmases have degenerated into a feast of excessive eating and drinking, should consider the Bacchanalian manner in which the Twelve Days of Christmas were celebrated by our ancestors. In the Middle Ages, the festive period was one of continuous merrymaking.

In Tudor England, the celebrations were riotous. A ’Lord of Misrule’ (known as Abbot of Unreason in Scotland) , who was generally a peasant or sub-deacon, was appointed to be in charge of the revelries up to Twelfth Night. They promoted drunkenness, promiscuity and gambling. Even the sovereign had to follow his commands, however ridiculous.

Twelfth Night was considered the climax of the Christmas celebrations which the Tudors celebrated even more enthusiastically than Christmas Day itself. Everyone attended parties, in which practical jokes were played. A popular trick included hiding live birds in an empty pie-case, so that when a guest opened the crust, the birds would fly out. It was commemorated in the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’.
The performance of plays, or ’mummings’ was also an important aspect of the celebrations. The characters, who were often masked, varied from play to play- but the hero was always St George who fights the power of evil, traditionally represented by the Turkish dragon.

William Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night‘, was written specifically for the festivities and was first performed in 1602. The play, in line with the Twelfth Night traditions of reversed roles and disguises, has a woman Viola, dressing a up a man, and a servant, Malvolio imagining that he can become a nobleman.
The festivities came to be associated with certain types of food and drink.

There was the ‘Twelfth Night Cake’, a rich and filling fruit cake which traditionally contained a bean. If you got the bean you were the King and Queen of the bean and could tell everyone else present what to do. But there were other, less desirable items in the cake as well. If you got a clove, you were a villain. If you got a twig, you were a fool. And if you got a rag, you were a ‘tarty’ woman. Nobody seems to know what a man who got a rag was called.

A hot, spiced punch called ‘wassail’, which was served in huge silver or gold bowls, was associated with Twelfth Night since the 1400s. It derived its name from the Old English toast ‘Waes hale’ meaning ‘be thou hale’- that is, be healthy. A related drink called ‘Lambs Wool’ . made of cider or ale, sugar, spices and roasted apples was used by farmers in England and Ireland to ‘wassail’ their apple trees on Twelfth Night, hoping to ensure a good harvest for the next year.

Another custom involved the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury. Pilgrims went to Glastonbury Abbey to see the ‘miraculous’ thorn tree that flowered at midnight. Legend has it that when Joseph of Arimathea reached there in AD63 with the Holy Grail, the staff he thrust into the ground miraculously blossomed.

Taking down Christmas decorations was, by contrast, not a Twelfth Night custom until comparatively recently. Before the days of Queen Victoria, people in England kept their homes decorated with holly, mistletoe and yew up until Candlemas on 2nd February, the Christian festival which falls exactly 40 days after the birth of Jesus. The tradition of taking down decorations on 5th/6th January- and of it being bad luck to take them down either earlier, or later, appears to have originated in colonial America. There, a Christmas wreath was always left up on the front door of each home, and would be taken down at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, so that any edible portions would be consumed with the other foods of the Twelfth Night feast.

Now it seems that we are in such a rush to forget all about Christmas that many of us have taken down our decorations well before Twelfth Night. Not only that, but we’re missing out on a celebration which our ancestors regarded as the best party night of the year.


* If you do want to celebrate Twelfth Night in traditional fashion, head for Bankside, outside the Globe Theatre, on the south side of the River Thames in London, at 2.45pm tomorrow afternoon. (Saturday, 6th January). A group of actors called The Lions Part celebrate Twelfth Night with what they describe as ‘a fun combination of old and new seasonal traditions‘. To herald the celebration, the extraordinary Holly Man, the Winter guise of the Green Man from pagan myths and folklore, and decked in fantastic green garb and evergreen foliage, appears from the River Thames. Further details on 020 8452 3866.

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