Twelfth Night

1280px-Mummers _by_Robert_Seymour _1836
Just calculating which night is Twelfth Night is a madness of calendars and churches. I am afraid to even say with certainty that the twelfth day of Christmas is Epiphany, since not everyone agrees. (Susan King had an explanation or two about the date
) So I will not declare today, January 6th, anything at all but will talk about Twelfth Night in general.

960px-Haydel_King_Cake_New_Orleans_Feb_2019Way back in 567 the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany were declared a sacred, festive season. The Tudors, naturally enjoying festivities, decided Epiphany was the start of still another season called Epiphanytide to extend the fun and games. They hid a bean or pea inside a Twelfth-night cake and whoever found the pea in their slice became king or queen of Twelfth-night and led the feast and fun.

The feasting and fun included Christmas carols, mumming (a blog all of its own about costumed Yule logcharacters!), wassail and wassailing, and king cake (a New Orleans tradition to this day. Our esteemed Jo Beverley had more to say here). In many places, decorations had to come down on this day, but this was also the day to add the kings to the nativity scene. In earlier times, Christmas trees were decorated with fruits and nuts—hard to come by and expensive—so when the tree came down, everyone gathered to feast on the ornaments. I kind of prefer that to stuffing all that junk back in boxes to be stored for another year! Of course, this was also the night the Yule Log was removed, leaving only a flame to light the next fire.

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was written to be played on this night’s revels. That’s a rather fine mummer’s play! A little bit more about mummers here .

R_Staines_Malvolio_Shakespeare_Twelfth_Night(although this image appears to be Italian and a lovely spring day, not exactly an English 12th night!)

I’m not sure I have the energy to carry festivities for twelve entire nights! Christmas and New Years are about my limit. I wonder if in medieval times this wasn’t a way of the poor squeezing just a little bit more food out of the wealthy during a time of year when food was hard to come by? They could dress in costumes, put on plays, and the wealthy would provide banquets for the entertainment. Food has certainly been a large part of Christmastide, with little to do with the perceived origin of the holiday.

But today we all go back to work, so I’m guessing king cakes aren’t on anyone’s agenda. When do you take your tree down?

Bûche de Noël

Bûche_de_Noël_chocolat_framboise_maisonPat here, drooling over the images of the chocolate Yule Log (or bûche de Noël) fellow Wenches have been posting. I’ve never been in a place with a French bakery and have never tasted this dessert, although, since it’s made of sponge cake and decked out in meringue mushrooms (this image, disappointingly, isn't), I’m not much interested. I like my cake rich, flavorful, and moist—give me carrot cake, and we’ll talk. But the bûche de Noël is a symbol of our pagan past.

Many of you may be familiar with the tradition of the Yule log that burned in medieval fireplaces for the twelve days of Christmas. But did you know that the tradition dates back to the Iron Age? The pagan Celts Hillingford_Yule_Logcelebrated the winter solstice intelligently—by burning an enormous log and keeping warm. But because they were human like us and decorating is what we do, they made it special by adding holly, pinecones, ivy, and whatever else they could find. Sometimes they offered wine and salt to the fire as well, because all gods like to be appreciated. And once the log was burned to ashes, they collected the ashes for their perceived medicinal benefits and/or to guard against evil.

I don’t know who first dragged the log to an inside hearth—those medieval castles had fireplaces large enough to house half a dozen knights. But eventually, smaller fireplaces became prevalent and a twelve-day log no longer fit. We don’t know who baked the first bûche de Noël, either, although I’m betting they were French. But marzipan, meringue, and sponge cake can be found in recipes as far back as the 1600s. Chocolate, maybe not so much, but a cake worked better in the new smaller fireplaces!

I like the idea that the tradition of our pagan ancestors has carried through the generations in the form of a delicious little cake. What traditions do you enjoy?

An Edible Yule Log

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

As my first contribution to our Wenchly Yuletide posts, I want to talk about the Yule log, which was a special, usually very large, log brought into the home to burn for the Christmas holidays. The custom is found in a number of European countries.  Probably it was originally a pagan Germanic tradition that was repurposed for Christmas.  I suspect the original meaning had to do with light and warmth in the depths of winter, and celebrating the winter solstice and the return of the sun.  

But the French go one better: their Bûche de Noël–Yuletide log–is a spectacularly decadent log-shaped holiday cake.  A sponge cake is baked in a shallow pan, then rolled into a cylinder with lavish amounts of butter cream icing inside and out.  The outside is usually textured to look like bark, and the bûche is decorated with seasonal symbols such as meringue mushrooms or berries or little miniature trees.  

Bon Jour cakes

I photographed these cakes at a local but very authentic French bakery called Bon Jour.  The classic version is yellow cake with chocolate butter cream, but as you can see, variations are easy.  Feast your eyes!  And if you can find a good bakery that makes a Bûche de Noël, feast your taste buds as well.  <G> 

Happy holiday delights!

Mary Jo, who bought two of their miniature bûches for self and Mayhem Consultant. 



The Lights of the Solstice

DSCN1430Joanna here, writing about the Winter Solstice.
And lights.

If you want to be picky about it, we're two days past the solstice, which was on December 21 this year, but I will just go ahead and talk about the Winter Solstice anyhow.

So. What is this Solstice I speak of?

Your ordinary woman in the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Centuries and in all the days right back to when women woke up and stretched and strolled out of the cave in Laxcaux, France, might watch the sunrise every morning.

Authorial intrusion here to say that I wake up every morning at sunrise because that is when the dog and cat wake up and they want my company. They are worried if I don't get up.
They are determined.

But, anyhow, let's say our historical woman is shuffling through the farm yard to empty the chamberpots or feed the chickens. She Before sunrise 2notices the sun does not just get out of bed any old where along the horizon. When she stands on the doorstep in July, the sun is rising from that pointy pine over there.

Every morning the sun gets out of bed a little to the left of where it got up the morning before.
Not enough so's you'd notice it from one day to the next.
But enough so's you notice it over weeks and months.

In December when she drags herself out of bed and stands shivering at the door, there's the sun waking up all the way over next to the church spire.

That extreme, leftmost sunrise she sees, on December 21 or 22, is the Winter Solstice. From then on, day by day, the sunrise heads back in the other direction. Our New Year is tied to that astronomical event, being a little inexact about it.

But did our pre-tech ancestors know about the Solstice?
And why would they care?

StonehengeSunrise1980sWe are not talking quantum mechanics here. Our actually-very-bright ancestors were well aware that the change in where the sun rose was related to length of day. The shortest day of the year is . . . ta dah! . . . the Winter Solstice. In London, that means about eight hours of daylight. Six months later, the Summer Solstice, June 21, is the longest day, with over sixteen hours of sun.
Well, folks noticed.
They lined up Stonehenge with the solstices because they noticed.

The long and the short of it is, folks used these astronomical events in practical ways — the Winter Solstice was a good time to slaughter beasts you couldn't afford to keep for the whole winter. And they celebrated.

The Solstice meant a long, cold, hungry time was still ahead, but from that date, every day was going to be a little longer. The sun had begun its journey back toward summer.

Is it any wonder folks celebrated this 'rebirth' of the sun with fire festivals? Traditional December celebrations often have a fire theme, linking to that ancient joy in the return of the sun. Lucia_in_Vienna

In Northern Europe, on Santa Lucia's Day, young girls are crowned with lighted candles. The old Iranian festival of Yalda celebrates the birth of Mithra, the God of Light and Truth, associated with the sun. One custom calls for eating red-colored fruit, perhaps to bring to mind the red of the sunrise.

Yule, the big Midwinter celebration of Germanic peoples, involved feasting, blood sacrifice, getting as drunk as possible, and lighting bonfires. Four hundred years ago the 'Yule log' was dragged in — a huge log, by preference — by the men of the house, who were rewarded with free beer for this service. It's said households competed to see who had the largest log.
Really, some things never change.

Bûche_de_Noël,_with_chocolate_moose_and_meringue_mushrooms,_2009_(2)If you make or buy a Bûche de Noël dessert, that's a modern interpretation of the Yule Log. Much easier to drag one of those into the house or whip it up in the kitchen than to bring in a Yule log.
In the spirit of author intrusion, I will say that I used to make these every year.

So, since we're celebrating the Season and enjoying the lights that remind us of the Solstice and the upbeat message it brings …

What kind of Holiday lights and candles do you have out now or are just packing carefully away?
Something beloved and traditional?
Or do you like to experiment every year?