Saturday, January 3, 2009

Twelfth Night

Twelve nights after Christmas, Twelfth Night arrives. It is also called Old Christmas because the holiday was celebrated on January 6th in older times, under a different calendar. More on this later in this post.

Bill Baker, on his website about Old Christmas, describes some of the beliefs of the Appalachian people about this day:

"Mountain people knew the Day of Epiphany as "Old Christmas". One of their beliefs concerning the Day of Epiphany was that a person should never lend anything to anybody on Old Christmas Day, because the lender would never get it back. Also, they regarded the Eve of Epiphany as a night when the Holy Spirit would manifest Itself upon the earth in many subtle ways. Upon that night, mountain folk believed, that no matter how hard the ground was frozen ... elder bushes would sprout up out of the ground."

I remember celebrating it as "Epiphany" when I was young and my family followed the Catholic customs. Epiphany, my mother explained, meant "baptism." In my reading, the word, of Greek origin, seems to have many meanings--sudden realization, awakening, or manifestation. Under the Julian calendar, this was the day on which Christmas was celebrated.

In Ireland, the day is known as "Little Christmas," or Nollaig Bheag. The men would on this day take on all the household duties for the women, so it was also known as "Women's Christmas." What a great idea! Except, of course, my husband often does my housework when he's laid off and I'm working....I'm blessed every day :-)

Because the Magi brought gifts, my mother also gave us gifts on Little Christmas. Sometimes we also gave each other little gifts like pencils, pieces of bubble gum, etc. With twelve siblings, these little trinkets could make quite a pile by our dinner plates. It was yet another way to extend the happiness and giving of the season.

Twelfth Night is the night that apple trees were wassailed. (What is wassail? Read about it on my blogpost from last year).

The trees were honored by revelers for the good food they provided. Warm wassail was poured over their roots or hung in the branches, and merrymakers circled the trees singing songs.

One song is not only praise, but also a veiled threat:

Apple-tree, apple-tree,
Bear good fruit,
Or down with your top
And up with your root.

Chamber's Book of Days describes the activities this way:
"'In the south hams [villages] of Devonshire, on the eve of the Epiphany, the farmer, attended by his workmen, with a large pitcher of cider, goes to the orchard, and there encircling one of the best bearing trees, they drink the following toast three several times:

Here's to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayst bud,
and whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! caps full!
Bushel—bushel—sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza!

"This done, they return to the house, the doors of which they are sure to find bolted by the females, who, be the weather what it may, are inexorable to all entreaties to open them till some one has guessed at what is on the spit, which is generally some nice little thing, difficult to be hit on, and is the reward of him who first names it. The doors are then thrown open, and the lucky clod-pole receives the tit-bit as his recompense. Some are so superstitious as to believe, that if they neglect this custom, the trees will bear no apples that year." Gentleman's Magazine, 1791, p. 403.

A modern-day apple tree wassailing can be found on Mara Freeman's blog.

What is considered the "real" twelfth night varies from one place to another. Twelfth night under the Gregorian calendar is January 6th (and it is so listed in Chamber's Book of Days) ; some sources place it on January 11th or 12th; Ireland's Own places it on January 13th. Still others use Old Christmas as the starting day and place it on January 17th.

Robert Herrick described the old way of celebrating Twelfth Night in his poem of the same title, also known as "King and Queen":

Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean's the king of the sport here;
Beside, we must know
The pea also
Must revel as queen in the court here.

Begin then to choose,
This night, as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here;
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelve-day queen for the night here!

Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurged will not drink,
To the base from the brink,
A health to the king and the queen here!

Next crown the bowl full
With gentle lamb's wool,
And sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale, too;
And this ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the king
And queen, wassailing,
And though with ale ye be wet here,
Yet part ye from hence
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.

What Herrick referred to in the first verse (and what the alternate title also refers to) was a cake baked with a bean and pea inside. Whoever got the bean was the king of twelfth night partying, and whoever got the pea was the queen. There are many places online to find the recipe, but this one sounds delicious, and the article's introduction offers more lore about the holiday.

Will you celebrate Old Christmas, Little Christmas, Epiphany, or any other alternate holiday? You could surprise your family with small gifts on January 6th, or perhaps drink a toast to your apple trees on the 11th or 13th. You will extend the good feelings of the holidays and brighten winter with a little more cheer, and who doesn't need that?


City Mouse said...

What a nice post, tomorrow being Epiphany Sunday. It's my first day at the organ, and I have a few neat things planned - and you really put me in the mood for it!

Janet, said...

I like Ireland's custom known as "women's Christmas". That may be where my grandma got her superstition of not hanging out clothes on Old Christmas.

Matthew Burns said...

My Dad said they used to still celebrate Old Christmas on the mountain when he was a kid. He said it was really good for him because January 5th is his birthday, too. But he tells it slightly different than how you mention it, and I don't know why, but they treated the night of January 5th as Christmas Eve and celebrated January 6th as Old Christmas Day.

Also, my mom still makes a Twelfth Night cake sometimes (or she used to when we were kids...she hasn't for the past few years). I'm sure she still has the recipe if you want it.

Interesting post. Didn't know the origins were in England though, although I do have lots of English ancestors. I just figured it was German since so many of the customs on the mountain originate from there. Neat.

Matthew said...

Please, Come see my MaMa's hand made Christmas balls.

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