Twelfth night celebration

The Adoration of the Magi, by Edward Burne-Jones, 1887
The Adoration of the Magi, by Edward Burne-Jones, 1887

With the turbulent weather we’re having, these lines from Tennyson have seldom seemed so apt:

Ring out wild bells to the wild sky

The flying cloud, the frosty light;

The year is dying in the night

Ring out wild bells, and let him die.

As the New Year celebrations bring the festivities to a close, life returns to normal. But is this too soon? Though the solstice is behind us and the days are slowly growing longer, the coming weeks are the bleakest of the year. We need something to cheer us; the tail end of the sales just doesn’t hit the spot.

For our forebears Christmas did not end until Twelfth Night (January 5, the eve of the 12th day of Christmas). The 12 days date from 567 when the Council of Tours declared that the period from the Nativity to Epiphany was to be one religious season.

Generally, the further north people were living, the longer they managed to make the festivities last. In Shetland, where the light comes back more slowly, the descendents of Vikings stretched Yule to the end of January.

While we’re not going to get away with that, we could easily celebrate Twelfth Night when friends used to gather for cards, games and snacks. A Twelfth Cake, decorated with red and green knots, yellow crowns, and flowers, stood at the centre of the table. “Lambswool”, ladled from a wassail bowl of hot, spiced ale with the pulp of roasted apples floating on the top, kept everyone merry.

Trees and beasts weren’t left out on Twelfth Night. Bees in their hives, apple trees, and cattle in the byre were all wassailed to keep them healthy.

Equipped with a bucket of Lambswool, the wassailers would enter the byre to toast the cows and oxen with a song: “Fill your cups my merry men all! For here’s the best ox in the stall …”

When the revellers rolled home they would find the doors locked. This was part of the ritual. Before they were let in, the men had to guess what the women were roasting over the fire —a wrong answer meant more time spent sobering up in the cold.

Finally Twelfth Night gained a reputation for gambling. Once Queen Victoria had expressed her disapproval, its days were numbered. The Twelfth Cake survived by morphing into the Christmas Cake in the early 20th century.


January 6 is Epiphany, the church festival celebrating the journey of the Wise Men. Their 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; but an eight-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, the Wise Men would have recognised this great portent in the night sky.