Lost festival of Twelfth Night

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by Heather Elvidge

Once the New Year celebrations are over there’s a rush to pack away the decorations. But the season can’t end before the Wise Men have arrived.

January 6 is Epiphany, the church festival celebrating their journey. The Wise Men’s gifts to the infant 
Jesus were gold, fit for a king; frankincense, an incense used in religious ceremony; and myrrh, a resin used by physicians and embalmers.

Mystery surrounds these travellers from afar. They were believed to be Persian, followers of Zoroaster; however an eighth-century manuscript found in the Vatican archives suggests that they were from Shir, in what is now China. Matthew’s Gospel says only that the Magi were from the east.

The star that drew them was probably a conjunction of two major planets, possibly Venus and Jupiter. In those ancient times, when astronomy and astrology were one, that would have been a great portent.

Lost festival

Then there’s Twelfth Night, one of our lost festivals. The Twelve Days of Christmas date back to 567, when the Council of Tours declared that the whole period from the Nativity to Epiphany was to be one religious festival.

Tudor aristocracy celebrated Twelfth Night with pageants and gifts, but by the eighteenth century things were more subdued. Typically, families invited friends for games and a modest meal.

Alcohol and a cake were essential. The Twelfth Cake - the forerunner of our Christmas cake - was decorated with white icing, red and green knots, yellow crowns, and heraldic beasts. Baked inside were a bean and a pea, which were replaced in Victorian times by a thimble, ring and coin. The finders, designated King and Queen of the revel, were expected to organise the fun.

A huge wassail bowl of Lamb’s Wool kept everyone merry. This traditional winter brew was based on hot ale or cider spiced with nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon. Baked or roasted apples floated on the surface and their frothy white pulp gave the drink its name.

Twelfth Night was kept throughout the nineteenth century, when it became a day for cakes and pastries of all kinds. Confectioners drew crowds to admire their window displays, with an elaborate Twelfth Cake as the centrepiece.

Eventually Twelfth Night gained a reputation for cards and gambling; once Queen Victoria expressed her disapproval its days were numbered. The Twelfth Cake survived into the early twentieth century, when changing fashion transferred it to Christmas Day. Its charms ended up in the plum pudding.

In rural areas this was one of the nights for wassailing apple trees, bees and cattle, in order to keep them healthy. Equipped with bowl or bucket of steaming Lamb’s Wool, revellers would gather in the byre to toast the best ox, or in the orchard to raise their tankards in honour of the oldest tree.

So when is Twelfth Night? Counting Boxing Day as day one makes January 6 the twelfth day, and so the evening of January 5 is Twelfth Night. On the 6th decorations should be taken down and all the holly burnt, for every leaf left behind is an invitation to a goblin to enter the house and make mischief.