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.
Way 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 characters!), 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 .
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?