Susan here … is your tree down, the ornaments packed away, your wreath off the door, the cookies and goodies all gone? Hang on, the party's not over yet … it's Twelfth Night!
At least it's Twelfth Night for some. January 5th marks the twelfth day (or night) after Christmas (counting Christmas as Day #1 – some count December 26, Boxing Day, as Day #1 after Christmas, making Twelfth Night Jan. 6, as if it wasn't complicated enough!). January 6th, for many, is the feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi visited the child in the stable and recognized in baby Jesus the manifestation of prophecies of the Divine.
But first – a party!
Jan Steen, Twelfth Night, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Twelfth Night was by custom an evening of raucous and rowdy partying, revelry, pranks and shenanigans, wassailing, role-playing and gender-swapping, all under the rule of a king (often called the Lord of Misrule) and a queen chosen at random by a bean and a pea, respectively, found in pieces of a Twelfth Night cake, usually made with candied fruits and nuts. Historically, Twelfth Night was celebrated with well-established traditions in the medieval era through the Regency and Victorian eras. It made it across the ocean to America, as the Colonials celebrated it too, but while it is still enjoyed today in many places, it's not much of a holiday in the States. Many of us see it more as Taking Down the Christmas Tree Day. Growing up Catholic, my family always kept the decor up until the Feast of the Epiphany, but I heard very little about Twelfth Night beyond Shakespeare.
In fact, Shakespeare's famous play is not about Twelfth Night, although plenty of revelry, shenanigans and role playing goes on – very likely it was performed on Twelfth Night and its subtitle, What You Will,
may have been its original title.
Jan Steen, Twelfth Night, 1662, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Twelfth Night had some of its origin in the rowdiest of parties, the Roman Saturnalia, and became part of the Christmastide tradition and was especially popular in Europe (or at least wildly popular with 17th century Dutch painter Jan Steen, who painted several scenes of Twelfth Night partying). Mary Queen of Scots was recorded to have celebrated it too – one of her ladies, Mary Fleming, found the bean in the cake, and instead of becoming king for the night, she was declared queen for the evening, and even got to wear something fabulous from Mary's own wardrobe.
Lord of Misrule, book cover 1911, Poems by Alfred Noyes
A night of chaos and craziness, a night of misrule and fools and frivolity – just the sort of contrast that makes the following day, the Feast of the Epiphany and its miraculous mood, all the more special. And perhaps that was the point for the people of those earlier centuries – the contrast of chaos and misrule, and with the dawn, a new order and a sense of something magical and inspiring.
Gerard David, Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1515, National Gallery, London
And with the end of the holiday season, we Wenches wish you all the best in the new year!
Was your holiday special this year, and did you make a wish list for 2019?
I didn't make any resolutions this time – I'm just looking forward to a better year than last year, with good luck, health, peace, and happiness for all!