Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Traditions and Customs of The Twelve Days of Christmas

‘If music be the food of love, play on!’ proclaimed Count Orsino as the iconic opening line of William Shakespeare’s famous play ’Twelfth Night’.  But what is the meaning of the Twelfth Night and what are the origins, history and traditions behind The Twelve Days of Christmas?

Traditionally, the Twelve Days of Christmas begin with Christmas Day as the first day and end on the eve of Epiphany on 5th December.  The Twelve Days of Christmas are celebrated very differently from country to country, as in some places they give gifts on Christmas Day, in some gifts are given on Twelfth Night and in some places gifts are given on each of the twelve days.  As this time of year is the darkest in the northern hemisphere bringing the light back is a very important part of the traditions, so in some countries a candle is lit on each of the days and there is also a tradition of lighting a Yule Log on the first night of Christmas and letting it burn until Twelfth Night.  Celebrating for twelve days at the this time of year, the time of the Winter Equinox, has its origins way back in pagan traditions and the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

During the Middle Ages the Twelve Days of Christmas was a time of great celebration and there would be feasting on every day and long into the night.  The climax of the Christmastide celebrations was the festivities of Twelfth Night.  A Lord of Misrule would have been chosen and he was responsible for overseeing all of the feasting and revelries during the Christmas period.  The Lord of Misrule was generally a peasant, and was known as the Prince des Sots in France, the Abbot of Unreason in Scotland and a Boy Bishop was appointed for festivities run by the Catholic Church.  The celebrations held during the Twelve Days of Christmas were often drunken, debauched, wild affairs, and it was the job of the Lord of Misrule to try and create as much mayhem as possible and disrupt the normal, smooth running of the household.  Another tradition was that the Lords and Ladies switched places with the servants and peasants so  they in turn had their chance of living the high life for a few hours!  A cake, known as the King cake, would have been specially baked for the Twelfth Night celebrations that contained a bean or a small bauble, and the reveller who got the piece of cake would have to do certain things and received various privileges.  The rule of the Lord of Misrule ended at midnight and normal service resumed!

Twelfth Night Merrymaking in Farmer Shakeshaft's Barn

A special alcoholic drink called wassail was prepared to be drunk during The Twelve Days of Christmas, and especially on Twelfth Night.  Wassail was a hot, spicy punch and the practice of wassailing is toasting the gods to ask for abundance and a good harvest.  In the Middle Ages in Europe, the ingredients of the wassail would have included sugar, which was a rare and expensive commodity back then, nutmeg, ginger, ale and cinnamon.  These would have all been put into a large bowl, heated up and then had ‘sops’ of toasted bread placed on top.  Another festive sweet treat was mince pies, which have been eaten during the Christmas season since the 16th century.  Tradition has it that if you eat a mince pie on each of the twelve days then the following twelve months will exceptionally happy. The celebration of Epiphany, where the Three Wise Men or ‘Magi’ arrived to give gifts of gold, frankincense or myrrh to the infant Jesus, is an important occasion in some countries.  In Spain they have processions with people dressed as the Three Kings who throw out sweets for the children in the crowd to catch.

It is believed that the traditions of The Twelve Days of Christmas were taken to America by the early Colonists.   They probably started the tradition of hanging evergreen wreaths on the front door of their houses during the Festive Season.  They would create a wreath from local produce and greenery on Christmas Eve, and then hang it out on the first day of Christmas and would bring it back in on the morning of Epiphany.  It is still a common tradition in England and other parts of the world that all Christmas decorations and Christmas Trees have to be taken down by 6th January, which is Epiphany, and that any festive food that remained had to be eaten or stored away.  It is considered to be bad luck if any decorations are left hanging after that date, but if they are not down by Twelfth Night  to stave off that bad luck they are supposed to be left hanging for the rest of the year.   In earlier times the evergreen wreaths and garlands would have been left in place until Candlemas which is the 2nd January.  The bad luck was supposed to stem from the spirits of the holly, ivy, mistletoe and other Christmas greenery.  These plant spirits were said to be happy to be in the warmth and comfort of the house during the snow and frost of the mid-winter, but once the milder days returned they wanted to go back outside where they belonged in nature.  It was said that if they were not returned to the woods and hedgerows all the plants and leaves would not start to grow again and the spring would not come back again, causing great hardship for all.

There is an English Christmas Carol called ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ that enumerates the gifts that a very special someone received on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  It starts with a ‘Partridge in A Pear Tree’ on the first day and ends with ‘Twelve Drummers Drumming’ on the twelfth day.  In my experience most people know the words up until the fifth day, but once past the golden rings they tend to start getting their ‘Lords a-Leaping’ and ‘Maids a-Milking’ pretty mixed up.  It also depends how much wine was consumed with Christmas Dinner!  The carol may have been French in origin, and could date back until the 16th century, but was first published in England in 1780. 

It is believed that this famous carol first started out as a memory game that was played by the revellers who attended Twelfth Night feasts.  The participants in the game would have to remember all of the earlier verses that had been sung and then add a verse on the end.  If they failed to remember the verses, they would most likely have to pay a forfeit, such as giving someone a kiss or giving a sweetmeat to another reveller. The lyrics of the carol are also said to contain religious symbolism, such as the ‘Seven Swans a-Swimming’ referring to the seven sacraments of the Church, or the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.  This may have originated from the time when the Roman Catholic Church was being suppressed in England, and needed to pass on the Catholic faith in a hidden manner, such as in the words of a popular song, although there is no evidence to support this.

So when you find yourself singing this popular carol this Christmas season, or you start to get anxious about getting your Christmas Decorations down on time, stop and take some time out to remember the history and traditions of The Twelve Days of Christmas and where these seasonal customs came from.

Image Wikimedia Commons  Public Domain 

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