Twelfth Night? What is it? The twelfth night of what? A well known Shakespeare play of course, but its significance in Medieval culture runs deep in tradition.
Americans are not as familiar, as are our friends across the pond, with the festivities of the twelve days of Christmas. This festive time begins on Christmas Day and ends on the twelfth night, either January 5 or 6th, depending upon your church tradition. The Twelfth Night is also known as Epiphany, the celebration of the Magi visiting the Christ Child.
Today. most people have at least heard of the term, “the twelve days of Christmas.” Most of us are familiar with the bizarre gifts in the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, the most important being the proverbial “partridge in a pear tree.” Some Brits still celebrate this, almost a fortnight, of Christmas cheer in modern revelry. But in the Middle Ages the need to find a way to combat the cold, “bleak midwinter” doldrums was crucial. The twelve day feast was a way to celebrate the winter solstice – the increase of the sunlight beginning in late December was something to rejoice in. Men would fell a large log which was set on fire and continued to burn for approximately twelve days. But more important than the return of physical light, the dispelling of spiritual darkness with the light of the Savior was essential to the Medieval Christian.
In a delightful book, “Christmas Folk” by Natalia Belting and illustrated by Barbara Cooney, the medieval “folk” frolic through the pages enjoying the twelve day feast. “On December 24, “the mummers go out…wissal, wassail through the town, if you’ve got apples throw them down. And with them go Snap the Dragon, Hobby the Horse and the Christmas Bull… For this night Comes Christmas in.”
Mummers wore masks, costumes and generally “frolicked” about the town adding to the merriment. “The Christmas folk dance, in the lanes, in the halls, past fall of the night.”
The culmination of the festivities on January 5 , was the dinner, complete with the Twelfth Night Cake. A bean and/or a pea were hidden within the cake/s and whoever found the treasure in their slice of cake became the Christmas king or queen and donned the Christmas crown.
“January 5, “the season of Yule now comes to its end. Twelfth Night, the Christmas folk dance, sing merry and feast on meat and fowl. And he whose slice of the Twelfth Night cake has the bean, is king of the revels. And she is his queen who has in her slice the lucky pea.”
Our family adopted this tradition many years ago and combined it with the “Baby Jesus birthday cake” on Christmas night. Although every family member protests heartily that they don’t want to get the pea in their slice, they secretly hope they will be the lucky one to wear the crown after all!
“Yule’s come and Yule’s gane,
And all have feasted weel,
So Jock takes up his flail agane,
And Jenny spins her wheel.