Thursday, January 5, 2012

Twelfth Night

Happy Twelfth Night to all!  (or did you even know the significance of today's date?)

Not so long ago Twelfth Night meant nothing more to me than the name of a Shakespearean play.  That it had any significance as an actual date never occurred to me….

Many years ago, when my children were still small, I became frustrated when a family member said on Christmas night, "Well, it's all over for another year."  Their tone was fatalistic, even a little pessimistic, and it irked me.  I had spent too much time and energy, searching for gifts that would surprise and delight, baking favorite goodies, planning  family meals and celebrations for it all to be dismissed with a simple "it's over".  But what could I say?

A few years ago I became interested in, and began studying, other traditions of the season.  Chiefly, the celebration of Yule and the Solstice, which pre-date Christmas and are the origins for many of the traditions of the season.  As these began to become personally meaningful to me, they became part of my life, and I blended them in with everything else that was part of my preparations for the family Christmas.  Perhaps next year I will explain that a bit more.

But it was at this time that my holidays lost their confinement to a single two or three days and became a season of celebration, and I was happy to find that my personal perspective had backing in old, if mostly forgotten, traditions.

Yes, Virginia, there really are Twelve Days of Christmas.

Christmas Day is only the first day of Christmas; January 5th is the twelfth day of Christmas.  According to some Christian churches, the period represents the time from the birth of Jesus until the arrival of the Magi.  Epiphany, celebrated on January 6th, was thus separated from Christmas festivities.

In England during the middle ages, these twelve days were a period of continuous feasting and merrymaking.  Some of the traditions observed were derivatives of the customs of Yule.  The Yule log was to be kept lit for the entire 12 days:  if it went out before Ephiphany it was considered a bad omen for the upcoming year.

Food and drink are always important for celebrations – ever listen to the carol with the line, “ a-wassailing we go”?  Wassail was a punch consumed throughout Christmas time, but especially on Twelfth Night.  Nowadays, wassail is a mulled cider; historically the drink was more likely to be mulled beer or mead.  Wassailing was (and still is) a traditional ceremony in the cider producing counties of southwest England that involves singing and drinking to the health of the apple trees so that they will thrive after winter’s end.  The idea was, to awake the apple trees from their winter slumber, so as to scare away evil spirits and ensure a good harvest the following autumn.

Fresh fruit was hard to come by at that time of year, and so, were fine gifts and proper decorations.  The early settlers of colonial America brought many traditions with them from England.  A Christmas wreath was hung on the doors of homes – traditionally set out on Christmas eve – and taken down on the last day of Christmas, as was the Christmas tree.  Any fruit used to decorate the wreath or the tree was then incorporated into the Twelfth Night feast.   Personally, I think it is very sad that the only remnant of these traditions that remains for many people is that this day is the day you take down and box up your decorations…. If they even wait past New Year’s Day. 

Twelfth Night was celebrated much like Mardi Gras in the 18th century – one big party!  People wore masks and costumes, and at the beginning of the evening, a cake that contained a pea or bean was eaten.  Whoever got the bean in their piece of cake ruled the feast as the “Lord of Misrule”.  During his reign, the normal order of things was reversed: the lords and ladies became the servants, and the staff would assume the high places.  At midnight, the Lord of Misrule’s reign ended, and all returned to normal.  This aspect of the celebrations has very old roots – the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia.   

Most of these traditions have been forgotten or discarded over time…. Replaced only with the anticipation of after-Christmas sales.  Our loss.

Well, my tree is still up; the lights are on;  I still have boughs and pine cones around.  Yes, it is time for me to take them down; the pine cones will make fine tinder for my wood stove.  But I will enjoy one last evening, enjoying guilt free until tomorrow the last of our Christmas goodies.  I might even pretend there’s wassail in my wine glass! 

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