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Twelfth Night

6 January 2010

Contemporary Western culture celebrates Christmas starting in October (God only knows why) until 25 December, some even taking down decorations that day. Catholic Christians (in all Catholic traditions, not just Roman) keep Advent, instead, during this time. Then, starting at sundown on 24 December, Christmas begins. It stretches–at least liturgically–until sundown on 6 January, the Feast of the Epiphany, a total of twelve days, the “Twelve Days of Christmas”. The Epiphany is the celebration the visitation of the Magi to the Child Jesus and the manifestation of his divinity to the Gentiles, marking the end of Jesus’ infancy and thus of Christmas. (In fact, Christmas decorations used to be kept up until 2 February, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary–commonly called Candlemas–when Jesus’ childhood ended with his bar mitzvah.)

The night before the Epiphany–the Twelfth Day of Christmas–is called Twelfth Night in accordance with the Jewish calendar where a day begins at sundown, not midnight. Twelfth Night was accompanied with lots of merrymaking, including the Orchard-Visiting wassail (literally going to an apple orchard and singing to the trees in hopes of good harvest) and the baking of Kings’ Cake–which celebrates the coming of the Magi on Epiphany–for the following day. In many European countries, gifts are given on Epiphany instead of Christmas, commemorating the gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh given by the Magi; Twelfth Night, therefore, is equivalent to Christmas Eve. A common example of this is that in Italy, it is a witch named La Befana who comes on Twelfth Night delivering presents. The biggest reason Twelfth Night is known outside of Catholic Christians is the Shakespearean play of the same name, which was written and shown as Twelfth Night entertainment.

Here are a few rhymes from the days where the Orchard-Visiting wassail (as contrasted with the House-Visiting wassail, like caroling) was practiced on Twelfth Night and Twelfth Day (i.e. Epiphany):

Wassaile the trees, that they may beare
You many a Plum and many a Peare:
For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
As you do give them Wassailing.

Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fulls,
Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah, Holler boys, holler hurrah.

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