Happy Christmas! Yes, we can still say it. Just. The 12th day is upon us.
Alright, in some parts of the world they celebrate Christmas beyond Twelfth Night – it’s Orthodox Christmas Eve today in fact, so it’s Russian Christmas any mo. But for most of us, this weekend sees the decorations come down. Trees will be dragged to join their big pile of relatives in the village hall car park.
So this is the annual time to say goodbye to this Yule blog for this year. We might pop back again in the run-up to next Christmas. Or we might consider that we’ve done enough Yule blogging (you can explore the back catalogue throughout this kneeldownstandup.wordpress.com site – anything from August 2017 – January 2018 is on the history of Christmas).
The entire blogging venture has been off the back of my new book ‘Hark! The Biography of Christmas’, which I’m delighted to say scraped the Amazon Top 100 and was a bestseller in a bunch of categories, from ‘Christianity’ to ‘Anthropology’ to ‘Crosswords’ (that last one’s not true, just checking you’re paying attention). So thanks if you bought it! If you didn’t – well there’s always next Christmas.
So as Christmas wraps up for another year, why do we have a Twelfth Night then?
Well. A few hundred years post-Nativity, Rome had started celebrating Christmas in some form. But the Empire was big – and in the East, they preferred January 6th as a celebration date – the day commemorating Jesus’ baptism, and the visit of the Magi. So Epiphany has been a day for thinking on those Three Wise Men for some time. Then there’s the Gregorian/Julian calendar split, which also helped shift the date of Christmas for many. So either way, Christmas then seems to span these twelve days. To this day, 6 January is Orthodox Christmas Eve.
In 567, France hosted the Council of Tours (the original “Tours de France”) to settle several key disputes of the day. These included the marital state of clergy (monks should live in dormitories not cells; women shouldn’t be allowed in monasteries – and you know I’m talking to you, Sister Florence…) and when exactly to celebrate Christmas. To satisfy both sides of the church, the twelve days between the Western church’s 25 December and the Eastern church’s 6 January were in their entirety deemed holy days – or “holidays”. So the origin of our twelve days of Christmas – telling us when to take down our decorations, or a ditty about five gold rings and a partridge – is built on compromise, to satisfy both sides of the church. Because what are Christmas holidays about, if not keeping both sides of the family happy?
For centuries, Twelfth Night customs made for almost a bigger Christmas party than Christmas itself. There was a Twelfth cake, with a bean or pea inside – and whoever took that slice was elected king or queen for the night – Lord of Misrule – directing the antics. It’s a tradition kept in my local pubs in Guildford to this day – and I’ll be along to see the Pilgrim Morris Men perform their Mummers play around Guildford pubs this January 6th, this very weekend.
Twelfth Night is VERY English. One of the most English things there is. It includes a spot of carolling, passing the wassail bowl around, and blessing the pub by daubing some cider. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane still keeps the tradition of Twelfth cake too, with the customary cake and shared wassail bowl for the cast each January 6th since 1795, the lucky blighters.
Speaking of plays, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is of course then a Christmas play, though for the very end of Christmas – and it has the usual tropes of an old-fashioned Christmas, with some cross-dressing and general ribaldry. It even debuted at the end of the Christmas season, on… not Twelfth Night, but Candlemas, on February 2nd, a.k.a. Groundhog Day.
The hardy Christmas enthusiast keeps celebrating till Candlemas, but February 2nd seems a bit far for most people. So assuming your tree’s now down or a-falling, may I be the last to wish you a very Merry Christmas. Till the next one…