Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, Eve of the Epiphany

The close of the Christmas season begins here, and just as our Christmas celebration began in the nighttime hours of Christmas Eve, so the same comes Twelfth Night. If this is confusing (that Twelfth Night should come on the Eleventh Day), remember that even today, much of the way we celebrate holidays is based on traditional reckoning of time, in which a new day begins at sunset. This is why the nights before holidays are so important: Consider Christmas Eve, of course, but other nighttime events, as well, like Hallowe’en (the Eve of All Hallow’s) and at Easter, Holy Saturday, with its vigil Mass that begins only with the setting sun. And so Epiphany Eve, which is tonight, ushers in Epiphany the next day. The night is best known, though, as Twelfth Night, and it has long been a night of great festivity. When it comes to Twelfth Night, the more raucous the celebration, the better. It is a true vestige of the Roman Saturnalia festival of ancient midwinters, right down to one of the most common Twelfth Night customs: the baking of a cake that contains a hidden bean. In some places, it’s a bean and a pea. He who finds the bean is crowned King of the Bean; she who finds the pea, Queen of the Pea. These folks get places of honor at the revels. In the old engraving above, which pictures a grand old Twelfth Night gathering, you can be sure there is a King of the Bean somewhere amongst those folks, and maybe even a Queen of the Pea.

I am always fascinated by images of rousing old parties like this. I think it’s because I am the most awkward person at parties; and yet I picture the Van Tassels’ Quilting and Merrymaking Frolic in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or the Fezziwiggs’ Christmas Eve party in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and I am pretty confident I’d have a blast at either one. There would be fiddler and a caller and an abundance of food and steaming punch and, well… if you have a party like this, I hope you’ll send me an invitation. I’ll be there with bells on.

There is very little of this Twelfth Night festivity nowadays, especially here in the States where the colonial Puritans did a very good job of setting the pace for work, work, work… not to mention putting the cabbash on Christmas in general. But Christmas survived in this country despite their best efforts. Twelfth Night, however, might be considered a casualty. But I think we need Twelfth Night. Old Father Christmas comes to be with us each year for a visit that lasts but a couple of weeks. It’s only right to send him on his way again in proper fashion, and in our house, that means a celebration––even a small one if that is all we have left in us––is in order. Dinner should be a good one, and a festive Christmas punch is a nice accompaniment, as would be the same wassail we drank on New Year’s Day. Friends and family would be a great addition, as well as good music and an old game or two, like Snapdragon: Fill a shallow bowl with golden raisins and pour a bit of brandy over them. Darken the room (like the darkness of midwinter) and carefully set light to the brandy. Play the game while the brandy is aflame: Each person in the room snatches a raisin from the bowl and makes a wish upon the raisin before popping it into his or her mouth. This old game from Scotland may sound dangerous, but it’s less so than it would seem. Be careful all the same, of course. Each person’s wish should be granted before the next Twelfth Night… or so the story goes.

Christmas ends each year with Epiphany, which will come tomorrow. New things, meanwhile, are just stirring. Twelfth Night and Epiphany usher in the Carnival season. In place like Acadiana, tonight’s revels roll over into the parades and balls hosted by the local krewes that culminate with Mardi Gras, which this year falls on February 9. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself. As for Epiphany, it marks the day the Magi arrived at the stable in Bethlehem after nights of following the star that announced the birth of the Christ child. One of the most endearing figures in the story is an old Italian woman who is known as la befana. She and the Magi are the last of the midwinter gift bearers. Those three kings (los tres reyes) are the ones who bring presents tonight in Spain and Latin America, but in Italy, this is the job of la befana. As the story goes, at that first Christmas oh so long ago, the Magi stopped at la befana’s house and asked her to join them on their journey, but she declined the invitation. “I have so much housework to do!” she told them. And so the Magi left her home and continued on their way.

But as she swept her floors, la befana began to feel a bit remorseful, and once she finished her sweeping, she set out to find the Magi. But she never did find them, nor the child they had told her about. She searched and searched but to no avail. Still, to this day, on each Twelfth Night, la befana sets out upon her broom to seek them. As she makes her rounds, searching high and low for the child and the three kings, la befana leaves small presents for all the sleeping children. Even the ones who were naughty: they get coal, but la befana’s coal is sweet as candy, so even her coal is a nice present to receive.

It is la befana’s job to sweep away Christmas, and so she does this each year. She sweeps and sweeps, and by the time she’s done with her sweeping tomorrow at Epiphany, Christmas will be done. The Magi will return to their distant countries, and Old Father Christmas, whether he was welcome or welcome not, will be on his way back to the Northland. But the wheel of the seasonal round will continue to turn and new days of wonder will be upon us, even as we just begin to miss the Yuletide visitors who came to spend these dark midwinter nights in our company.


Image: “Twelfth Night Merry-Making in Farmer Shakeshaft’s Barn,” an engraving by Hablot Knight Brown (better known as “Phiz”) from the book Mervyn Clitheroe by William Harrison Ainsworth, c.1850. Today’s chapter of the Convivio Book of Days is a slightly moderated version of last year’s chapter for Twelfth Night. Like a visit from an old friend, or from old Father Christmas, slightly older, slightly wiser.


10 thoughts on “Twelfth Night

  1. Louise Edwards says:

    Thank you for all that you have shared with us of the Christmas celebrations.
    I have often felt Christmas is missing something, and assumed that it was here in Australia Christmas is somewhat out of season in full summer. But probably it is for the same reasons you have mentioned in the states with the prolonged commercial hype beginning in late Oct, which is exhausting and then nothing. My son noted this week that the local supermarkets have already started selling hot cross buns.
    We enjoy Xmas lights in and out of the house and this year I have thought more about the significance of the light and it’s contrast to darkness and that darkness cannot overcome it, symbolic of hope that sustains us throughout the long year.
    Promise to continue reading your blog, even though we get it a day late and I think it might shape how we think about next Christmas.
    Merry Christmas

    • John Cutrone says:

      Hi Louise. Christmas is often a warm affair here in Lake Worth, too; this Christmas has been particularly summery, up until two nights ago when we finally had more normal seasonal temperatures. So I don’t think it’s so much the heat as it is what your son is talking about. One way around is to do your best to check out as best you can from all of that: take what you need to from it, but in your home, keep the traditional ways. I think it helps, anyway, and I will continue to advocate for those ways.

      And thank you; it’s really good to know that folks on the other side of the world are reading the Convivio Book of Days, too. Much appreciated! Merry Christmas.

  2. A pleasure to read and chance to learn more about 12th night. January Sixth was my mother’s birthday and, as she emphasized MANY times, allowed me no excuse to forget it. She regretted, as a child, her world took down all the decorations on her day of celebration. I prefer to think of it as the BEGINNING of the New Year.
    Cheers – and a happy, prosperous one to y’all, from ‘Cracker Country’ ;^D
    Later – Jack

    • John Cutrone says:

      Oh, that would be a sad situation! Too bad your mom couldn’t convince her family to follow the tradition that keeps the Christmas greenery up until Candlemas. Cheers to you, as well. We’ll be wassailing tonight! All the ingredients are ready to go.

  3. Natalie Kavanagh says:

    We still celebrate Old Christmas here on Cape Hatteras Island. Here is a bit I wrote about it for my shop a few years ago. Someone had asked why our Christmas decorations were up for so long and this was my answer. The northern villages on the island still have a big party, but we remember by a visit to the kids from Old Buck and a good dinner that night.

    Thank you for your blog posts. I enjoy them very much!

    • John Cutrone says:

      Natalie, your story is wonderful. I love hearing this more local stories and community gatherings and traditions. Book of Days readers: follow the link and read Natalie’s story. You’ll enjoy it!

      Happy Old Christmas, Natalie.

  4. Dixie says:

    Thank you for another wonderful Christmas blog. I have been sharing your daily entries with my neighbors and we have done much to keep the Christmas Spirit alive in our homes. Decorated Christmas trees still stand in our living rooms, outdoor lights still shine through the night, and we have had several evening gatherings to celebrate during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Thank you for sharing your traditions and inspiring us to develop our own. Best wishes for a Merry Twelfth Night to you and yours!

  5. Thank you, John. We enjoy your writing.

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