Twelfth Night

Posted by Tory Historian Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Taking time off discussions about important dates, Tory Historian has been contemplating the problem of truncated Christmas celebrations. It all seems to be centred on Christmas Day with no other celebrations visible for most people, at least not in Britain.

St Nicholas is still welcomed by children all over Central, Northern and Eastern Europe with newly cleaned shoes put out in the window on December 5 with goodies found in it the following morning.

Epiphany, the arrival of the Three Kings or Magi with gifts, is seen as the rightful time to give presents in southern Europe.

Twelfth Night (actually, the evening of January 5 but generally remembered these days on January 6) should be the end of the Christmas celebrations, December 25 being the first day but the festivities starting on Christmas Eve. In Tory Historian's childhood the tree was decorated on December 24 and the family exchanged presents that evening. Christmas Day became a more social event with friends visiting each other. The decorations were dismantled on January 6.

However, with trees going up haphazardly all over December they are discarded soon after New Year's Day, not a day that is in any way part of the Christmas celebrations. Of course, originally decorations stayed up for 40 days till February 2 (the Purification of the Blessed Virgin) but that did not survive the Reformation.

Twelfth Night did, however, with special cakes baked for the occasion and much merry-making with wassail being drunk liberally. Inside the cake there should be three dry beans for the three Magi. (The picture is of a Portuguese cake.)

There are other traditional though now largely forgotten aspects of Twelfth Night, many dating back probably to pre-Christian times. This winter festival was the day of the Lord of Misrule. It was the world turned upside down - the peasant who found one of the beans became the head of festivity until midnight. Sometimes there would also be a pea in the cake and she who received it would be the Queen for the nonce.

Those themes crop up in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night or What You Will", in Tory Historian's estimation one of the Bard's best.


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