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Twelfth Night (holiday)

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Twelfth Night is a festival in some branches of Christianity marking the coming of the Epiphany and concluding the Twelve Days of Christmas.

It is defined by the Shorter 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".[1] However, there is currently some confusion as to which night is Twelfth Night:[2] some count the night of Epiphany itself (sixth of January) to be Twelfth Night.[2] One source of this confusion is the Medieval custom of starting each new day at sunset, so that Twelfth Night precedes Twelfth Day.

A recent tradition in some English-speaking countries holds that it is unlucky to leave Christmas decorations hanging after Twelfth Night, a belief originally attached to the festival of Candlemas (2 February).[3]

Origins and history

In medieval and Tudor England, the Twelfth Night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve — now more commonly known as Halloween. The Lord of Misrule symbolizes the world turning upside down. On this day the King and all those who were high would become the peasants and vice versa. At the beginning of the twelfth night festival, a cake that contained a bean was eaten. The person who found the bean would rule the feast. Midnight signaled the end of his rule and the world would return to normal. The common theme was that the normal order of things was reversed. This Lord of Misrule tradition can be traced to pre-Christian European festivals such as the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia.[4]

Traditions

Food and drink are the center of the celebrations in modern times, and all of the most traditional ones go back many centuries. The punch called wassail is consumed especially on Twelfth Night, but throughout Christmas time, especially in the UK. Around the world, special pastries, such as the tortell and king cake are baked on Twelfth Night, and eaten the following day for the Feast of the Epiphany celebrations. In English and French custom, the Twelfth-cake was baked to contain a bean and a pea, so that those who received the slices containing them should be designated king and queen of the night's festivities.

In colonial America, a Christmas wreath was always left up on the front door of each home, and when taken down at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, any edible portions would be consumed with the other foods of the feast. The same held true in the 1800s - 1900s with fruits adorning Christmas trees. Fresh fruits were hard to come by, and were therefore considered fine and proper gifts and decorations for the tree, wreaths, and home. Again, the tree would be taken down on Twelfth Night, and such fruits, along with nuts and other local produce used, would then be consumed.

In the eastern Alps, a tradition called Berchtenlaufen exists. Two to three hundred masked young men rush about the streets with whips and bells driving out evil spirits.[4] In Nuremberg until 1616, children frightened spirits away by running through the streets and knocking loudly at doors.[4] In some countries, and in the Catholic religion worldwide, the Twelfth Night and Epiphany marks the start of the Carnival season, which lasts through Mardi Gras Day.

In literature

Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night, or What You Will was written to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment. The earliest known performance took place at Middle Temple Hall, one of the Inns of Court, on Candlemas night, 2 February 1602.[5] The play has many elements that are reversed in the tradition of Twelfth Night, such as a woman Viola dressing as a man, and a servant Malvolio imagining that he can become a nobleman.

Robert Herrick's poem Twelfe-Night, or King and Queene (published 1648) describes the election of king and queen by bean and pea in a plum cake, and the homage done to them by the draining of wassail bowls of "lamb's-wool", a drink of sugar, nutmeg, ginger and ale.

In Harrison Ainsworth's novel Mervyn Clitheroe (Ch. 6), the eponymous hero is elected King of festivities at the Twelfth Night celebrations held in Tom Shakeshaft's barn, by receiving the slice of plum cake containing the bean; his companion Cissy obtains the pea and becomes queen, and they are seated together in a high corner to view the proceedings. The distribution has been rigged to prevent another person gaining the role. The festivities include country dances, and the introduction of a "Fool Plough", a plough decked with ribands brought into the barn by a dozen mummers together with a grotesque "Old Bessie" (played by a man) and a Fool dressed in animal skins with a fool's hat. The mummers carry wooden swords and perform revelries. The scene in the novel is illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). In the course of the evening the fool's antics cause a fight to break out, but Mervyn restores order. Three bowls of gin punch are disposed of, and at eleven o'clock the young men make the necessary arrangements to see the young ladies safely home across the fields.

References

  1. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993 edition.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Christmas ends in confusion over when Twelfth Night falls". http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/4126725/Christmas-ends-in-confusion-over-when-Twelfth-Night-falls.html. 
  3. "Of late years a belief has grown up that it is unlucky to leave [evergreens] hanging after Epiphany Eve (5 January), but this seems to be a modern notion [...] The older tradition was that they must come down by Candlemas, the day on which the wider ecclesiastical Christmas season ends." — Radford, ed. Cole (1961). Encyclopaedia of Supersitions. London: Hutchinson.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Miles, Clement A.. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance. Courier Dover Publications, 1976. ISBN 0486233545. Robert Herrick (1591–1674) in his poem "Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve" writes:
    "Down with the rosemary, and so
    Down with the bays and mistletoe;
    Down with the holly, ivy, all,
    Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall"
    As Herrick’s poem records, the eve of Candlemas (the day before February 2) was the day on which Christmas decorations of greenery were removed from people's homes; for any traces of berries, holly and so forth will bring death among the congregation before another year is out.
  5. Shakespeare, William; Smith, Bruce R. (2001). Twelfth Night: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford/St Martin's. pp. 2. ISBN 0312202199. 

Further reading

  • "Christmas". Catholic Encyclopedia. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03724b.htm. Retrieved December 22, 2005.  Primarily subhead Popular Merrymaking under Liturgy and Custom.
  • Christmas Trivia edited by Jennie Miller Helderman, Mary Caulkins. Gramercy, 2002
  • Marix-Evans, Martin. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Peter Pauper Press, 2002
  • Bowler, Gerry. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. McClelland & Stewart, 2004
  • Collins, Ace. Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas. Zondervan, 2003
  • Wells, Robin Headlam. Shakespeare's Humanism. Cambridge University Press, 2006
  • T.D. Fosbrooke, c 1810, 'Encyclopaedia of Antiquities' (Publisher unknown)
  • J. Brand, 1813, 'Popular Antiquities', 2 Vols (London)
  • W. Hone, 1830, 'The Every-Day Book' 3 Vols (London), cf Vol I pp 41–61.

Early English sources

(drawn from Hone's Every-Day Book, references as found):

  • Vox Graculi, 4to, 1623: 6 January, Masking in the Strand, Cheapside, Holbourne, or Fleet-street (London), and eating of spice-bread.
  • The Popish Kingdom, 'Naogeorgus': Baking of the twelfth-cake with a penny in it, the slices distributed to members of the household to give to the poor: whoever finds the penny is proclaimed king among them.
  • Nichols, Queen Elizabeth's Progresses: An entertainment at Sudley, temp. Elizabeth I, including Melibaeus king of the bean, and Nisa, queen of the pea.
  • Pinkerton, Ancient Scottish Poems: Letter from Sir Thomas Randolph to Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester dated 15 Jan 1563, mentioning that Lady Flemyng was Queen of the Beene on Twelfth-Day that year.
  • Ben Jonson, Christmas, His Masque (1616, published 1641): A character 'Baby-cake' is attended by an usher carrying a great cake with a beane and a pease.
  • Samuel Pepys, Diaries (1659/60): Epiphany Eve party, selecting of King and Queen by a cake

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