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Boost your New Year with a little bit of Twelfth Night folklore!

6 min read

Twelfth Night by Shakespeare engraving 1870

The presents have long been opened, Santa is probably on holiday, there are nothing decent to watch on TV, and It feels weird to still say ‘Merry Christmas’ when we’ve all switched to saying ‘Happy New Year’ instead.
But no matter, as we still have Twelfth Night to celebrate!
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 like our Christmas, New Year or even Epiphany Day.

So what is Twelfth Night?
Why and how is it celebrated?

Throughout history the Twelfth Night, which falls on 5th January, has been special and mysterious…and even when anything can happen!
It marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas and, according to popular belief, you should remove the Christmas tree and decorations from your home to ensure you have good luck for the year ahead.
The myth is that the greenery that is bought indoors for Christmas is full of spirits who long to be outdoors and, by keeping them indoors after the 12 days of Christmas you can annoy them which leads them to cause mischief in your home.
So what do you do if you forget to take them down?
Well, you’ll be all right, provided you leave them up until Candlemas Day on 2nd February but make sure you take them down on that day!
Candlemas celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and 2 February is also known as Imbolc in some pagan traditions. Some also believe it was also the fertility festival Lupercalia for the ancient Romans.

But we’re not going to get into the many differences between Christian orthodoxies and not only.
Hail, the Lord of Misrule!
Twelfth Night marked the end of the winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve, our Halloween.
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.
During this period, the Twelfth Night was a festival in its own right that marked the world turning upside down.
On this day, the King and noblemen would become peasants, and vice versa.
The Lord of Misrule, usually a peasant, would be in charge of the revelries and to lead the Feast of Fools, that would largely be seen as the one time of year when it was OK to make a mockery of the ruling classes.
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!

The Twelve Days of Christmas themselves were brought in by the Council of Tours in 567 as a way of unifying the Julian calendar, which was dictated by the sun, with the lunar calendars of Rome’s eastern provinces and, as centuries passed, they took on their own customs within different regions.
Twelfth Night was the last evening when Christmas carols could be sung, and people often had their homes blessed to mark the end of the season, as they removed the garnishes they had put up and put out the yule log which had been burning since Christmas Eve.
Its ashes were then kept beneath a bed for good luck and used as kindling to light the next one a year later.
As a lot of decorative items would be baked goods, on this last day of Christmastide they would be eaten and shared with relatives and neighbours.
The main event of the celebration, however, was a large cake that would have a dried pea in one half and a bean in the other. Women would be served from the left, men from the right. The man who found the bean in his slice would be King of the Revels for the evening and was responsible for rousing good cheer. The woman with the pea in her slice would be crowned Queen of Twelfth Night and could command all to do her bidding, without question. Something similar is popular still today somewhere, for example, in France.
In any case the celebrations were banned by Queen Victoria, though some elements remain popular, such as the taking down of Christmas adornments on Twelfth night, and the sharing of the edible decorations amongst family and friends.

Today many Christians mark 5th January as the night before the three kings visit baby Jesus in Bethlehem to present him with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Whilst it marks the end of the Christmas festivities there is one more day of feasting, 6th January, Epiphany Day, when the three kings visited baby Jesus and that also marks Christ’s baptism.

Some traditions continue also into modern times.
For example, in some parts of Kent, South East England, some families hang an edible decoration on the tree and It’s the last thing to be taken down on Twelfth Night, then shared out among the family.
In the eastern Alps, the Perchtenlaufen tradition marks Twelfth Night: masked men run around in the streets ringing bells to drive away evil spirits and, until 1616, children in Nuremberg ran through the streets and knocked on doors to chase away the spirits, like an inversion of Krampusnacht.
According to Western Folklore, an annual Twelfth Night Festival started in Boulder, Colorado, in 1939, in which people played carols over a loudspeaker and Santa Claus dropped by to “thank the audience for a pleasant season”.

But we can’t talk about Twelfth Night folklore and not talk about wassailing.
In some places, revellers drink wassail, a type of punch, and It’s particularly traditional to drink it on Twelfth Night, most popular perhaps in the counties of England where cider is produced, with it being performed in orchards to wake the trees for spring.
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 also elsewhere.
For example in Worcestershire, in the West Midlands of England, 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.
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.

Other places in England have even more unique Twelfth Night traditions, with one of the more famous being held in Haxey, Lincolnshire, in the East Midlands of England.
On the 6th of January, the little village holds what is called the Haxey Hood, a rowdy contest which see the more game villagers join together into a huge scrum, called “the sway” to gain the titular hood (a leather tube) and attempt to transport it to one of four pubs in the village. The origins of this annual game are unknown but we do know it dates back to at least the 14th century, and it is still played with great pleasure (and occasional minor injuries) to this very day.

Also called “Little Christmas” in Ireland’s Twelfth Night, there were generally 12 candles lit in every house, made out of rushes. The people got the rushes out of the bog and they peel them for the night, then at night they mix cowdung and ashes and they put the candles in it. Then they say the rosary, and they leave the cake up on the rafters till the next year.
The person who owns the candle that goes out first dies first and the person who owns the candle that burns longest lives the longest.

In any case, whether you celebrate Twelfth Night for religious reasons or not, now’s a good time to put your good resolutions into practice before having to return to work!

Images from web – Google Research