Sunday, 6 January 2008

Twelfth Day

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas my true love gave to me……an ultimatum: the Christmas tree must come down. In the Christian church January 6th, today, is Twelfth Day, celebrated as Epiphany and known also as the day that The Three Kings or wise men brought gifts to Jesus. The last day of The Twelve Days of Christmas.

But in our house there is some confusion as to which is Twelfth Night: the night that the Christmas decorations must be down before midnight in token of the end of the Twelve Days. And, if you're superstitious, so as not to bring bad luck. I think it's tonight – my Best Beloved thinks it's January 5th. Fortunately we could both be right.

According to some religious sources The Twelve Days are counted from the evening of the 25th December, which makes the 5th January Twelfth Night and January 6th the Twelfth Day. According to others, only the full days are counted which means that the 5th January is the eleventh day and the 6th January therefore the Twelfth Day and Twelfth Night.

In the 1600's the Christmas holiday lasted throughout January, and the evergreens would be renewed not taken down. But in the 1700's children would be out on Twelfth Day playing tricks on passers by. In the 1800's, as daylight faded in London, everyone would be drawn to the pastry cooks shops to admire the glittering windows: framed by evergreens and filled with candles reflected in mirrors and cakes covered in snow white icing sugar.

In many European countries children still dress up as Kings on January 6th and, carrying a large star, go from house to house singing carols and receiving treats. In some there are childrens' parties on Twelfth Night with a rich, dark, iced fruit cake and perhaps a game to choose the King and Queen and all their attendants for the night.

Not so long ago, on Twelfth Night, the shrivelled ivy leaves and dead tree would come down to be put on the bonfire: the burning of Christmas. In the USA some still remember the Christmas tree bonfire on 6th January and the family parties where treats from the tree and Stollen cake were eaten, washed down with warming Gluhwein: it's easy to see how this ritual must have travelled there from Teutonic Europe.

In some cider making areas of England the primitive ritual of Wassailing on Twelfth Night is still celebrated, ostensibly to ensure a good crop of apples for the coming season. Men and women – previously these would have been farm workers – go out to the orchards with a pail of warm cider: each takes a drink of the cider and throws the remains of their cup over the roots of an apple tree. A piece of cake soaked in cider is left in a fork of the branches for 'the robin' and sticks beaten against the branches or guns banged to wake up the sleepy spirit.

This Saxon ritual differed from place to place but the laughter and merriment that is part of it, still includes the toast of Middle English: "Waes hail!" (be in good health!).

I hope your trees will bear and bow
Apples and pears and plums, I do vow,
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full,
All under the trees, hooray, hooray!
And a little heap under the stairs.)

Songs like this were used to serenade the tree spirits and the ritual celebrated New Year not the nativity.

I'm afraid that January is now better known for its Bargain Sales than its wassails. Shame. But carols and good wishes still survive: "Good health to you, and to you and you and you, and we wish you a merry New Year, New Year, New Year, and we wish you a Merry New Year!"


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