Saturday, January 5, 2019

Twelfth Day and Twelfth Night

The twelfth day, much like the seventh day, was celebrated more for the evening it became, rather than the day it was. Just as December 31—the Seventh Day of Christmas—is now known more for its role as New Year's Eve, the Twelfth Day of Christmas becomes the eve of Epiphany. And, in the partying atmosphere of the European middle ages, that same eve became known as Twelfth Night, the culmination of a season of merry-making.

Traditional events for Twelfth Night included playing games (mostly with eggs), going wassailing, and including music played by pipes, especially bagpipes. A typical food during this celebration was known as the king cake—though, unlike the king cake familiar to mardi gras revelers, this rich cake of eggs, butter, fruit, nuts and spices was considered to be more like the Italian panettone than the New Orleans version offered before Lent. Still, it included a hidden token, but unlike the mardi gras version with its baby king, the Twelfth Night cake usually concealed a bean and a pea; those finding the tokens were then crowned the lord and lady of "Misrule" for the night, and dressed like a king and queen.

In some traditions, this same Twelfth Night equated with what we celebrate as Christmas eve, for in some countries, the tradition of gift-giving was not acknowledged on Christmas day, but on Epiphany. Perhaps your family has memories of such a tradition, despite modern pressures to conform to the commercial representation of Christmas; if so, such a clue may lead you right to your ethnic heritage.

With the close of this evening, the Christmastide celebration all comes to a culmination, following this Twelfth Night, with the arrival of Epiphany tomorrow, January 6. Whether your family's custom was to celebrate the arrival of the Magi with gifts for each other on Epiphany, or simply mark the day as when we can—finally!—put away all our Christmas decorations, we've come to the end of a long stretch of partying. And then—at least during the Middle Ages—back to work!  

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