When does Christmas end? It’s a bit confusing. For retailers it’s Christmas Eve, while those with festive phobia manage to last until Boxing Day. But for most, New Year’s Eve is the natural finale.
Some even wonder what we should call that fallow period between the big day and January 1. Well, it already has a name – Christmas. Traditionally the festival lasts for 12 days, ending with Twelfth Night on January 5.
Family and friends used to gather on that last evening for a final round of food, drink and games. At the centre of the table was the Twelfth cake, a jolly affair decorated with red and green knots, golden crowns and flowers. Baked inside were a dried bean and pea. Whoever got the bean, male or female, became King of the Revel, and the finder of the pea became Queen. Their role was to organise the games.
In rural districts they were out on Twelfth Night, banishing malign influence from apple trees, bees and cattle. Equipped with a wassail bowl of hot, spiced ale, revellers would serenade beast or tree to ensure its health in the forthcoming year.
As for all those evergreen decorations, they were burned on January 6. But mistletoe was kept to protect the house, while some farmers fed any palatable greenery to their animals.
Twelfth Night brought the curtain down on Christmas until the 20th century. Then the cake – its icing greatly tamed – was transferred to Christmas Day. Wassailing trees and bees continues, kept alive by Morris sides.
After the changes of 1752 chopped 11 days from the calendar, there were people who continued to hold their festivals on the Old-Style dates. Most of these anomalies were gradually sorted, yet in the last century a few still clung to Old Christmas Day. Maybe you’re one of them. In that case, you’ll be celebrating Twelfth Night on January 16.
In the church calendar January 6 is Epiphany, the day to remember the Wise Men’s adoration of the infant Jesus. The Bible tells how they offered gifts to the holy child. They brought Him gold, a gift for a king; frankincense, an incense used by priests; and myrhh, a precious oil used by physicians.
The medieval church, keen on dramatic re-enactment, did not disappoint with its Epiphany service. This began with a procession during which a gilded Star of Bethlehem descended from the rood loft, to guide the Wise Men to the Nativity scene.
By 1500 the Wise Men were known as the Three Kings, and to show their spiritual kinship, European monarchs began to make offerings in person. Today, two ushers to the Queen carry on the custom, presenting frankincense and myrhh at a service in the Chapel Royal, Windsor. Afterwards gifts of money are given to pensioners, in place of the Magi’s gold.
So, that’s it. When the Wise Men have called, it’s definitely time to take down the decorations. Or is it? Before the Victorian era evergreens could be left in place until the Christmas season ends in church, which is Candlemas on February 2. Every last leaf had to go then, for any bit left behind would attract goblins into the house.