The Twelve Days of Christmas Song? Well, there were twelve nights, too! Twelfth Night is the last night of the twelve days of celebrations, an end to the Yuletide season. Customs and traditions vary—even the date the celebration can take place is disputed. Some say the celebration takes place on January fifth—the last day of the Medieval Yuletide festivals. Others dictate that it’s the day after. If you count Christmas itself, then Twelfth Night celebration would fall on the fifth. Other sources argue that you start counting on the day after Christmas so it’s the sixth.
My family always counted Christmas day, so we celebrated on the fifth. Mum always swore January fifth was the January Thaw. You often had cold weather before, and certainly would after, but on the fifth the world seemed to take a deep breath and mark the halfway point in winter. From that time, you begin counting how many days until spring. Every year, she would always bring up the January Thaw. I would laugh, but every year January fifth it would warm up. I think this year is the only time I cannot recall that holding true.
So how does one celebrate with a Twelfth Night party?
In a book written in 1923—Dennison’s Christmas Book—he speaks that there should be a king and queen, chosen by cutting a cake. The Twelfth Night Cake (sometimes called a King Cake). Likely where fruit cake got its origins. The cake has a bean and a pea baked into it. A man who find the bean in his slice of cake becomes the King for the Night, whilst the woman finding the pea takes her place as his Queen. You can see a similar celebration in my novel A Restless Knight, where they choose the King and Queen of May Day. They baked rings in the cake, and whomever found the rings were the king and queen and ruled over the land, not just for a night, but for the whole coming year.
Once the royal couple is chosen, they are given crowns, scepters and cloaks—the more ornate the costumes of regalia, the better. Then, they are enthroned and rule over the night’s festivities and feasting. There were games, charades, dancing and singing carols. And did I mention there was feasting? Delicious foods—Manchet Bread, fruit preserves, soft cheeses, roast pork and venison, potage, sugared nutmeats, and cakes, puddings and mince pies, all washed down by copious tankards of ale, mead, mulled cider or wine.
Some say the celebration evolved from the Roman Saturnalia festival, that marked the onset of the winter solstice. I think they go back even older, as you see many of these themes echoed over and over throughout countries all over Europe. James Fraser’s The Golden Bough is an excellent book that investigated the commonality of such ancient beliefs and traditions. No matter the subtle changes, these customs originated in Pagan fertility rites, the circle of life, death and rebirth being the focus of their lives. The rebirth of the sun, bringing the spring and crops, was not just a time of celebration, but the desperate hope for an abundant harvest in the coming year. To our ancient ancestors, crops meant the difference between life and death.
During the 17th and 18th Centuries these festivals were common place, and involved Mummers and Minstrels, singers, musicians, actors and dancers would roam the streets of villages, visiting homes unannounced to beg for treats and drinks. Often they wore grotesque masks. Some believe encouraged by the Church to make fun of ancient Pagan deities.
Whatever the origins, it was quickly absorbed and made of regular part of the street entertainment, which now includes Morris Dancing and Sword Dancing.
Meanwhile, in the castles and estate houses of society's upper crust, dancing remained an important part of the holiday in the form of formal balls. Often, the performers would go to the castle and beg to perform. The lady of the castle would pass out treats, and alms to the poor as well.
Personally, I think Twelfth Night is a wonderful celebration that needs to make a comeback