Have you taken down your Christmas decorations yet? What! You haven’t? Well, you’d better do it now -or we won’t ever see Spring again!
According to tradition Christmas decorations must be taken down by the 12th Day of Christmas – or 5th January if you can be bothered to count. In the past it was considered extremely unlucky not to have taken down your decorations by then. It was believed that tree-spirits lived in the boughs of holly, ivy, mistletoe, box and laurel used for decoration. While it was a kindness to bring the spirits into the house during the mid winter days to share Christmas, it was vital that they were returned to nature once the festival was over. Fail to do so and spring would not come.
(None of this applies to those currently living in parts of Western Europe where decorations are often left up until after Candlemas – February 2nd. Members of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches are also untroubled because they celebrate the Nativity of Christ on January 6th, after the 12th day has passed.)
There are some good folk who insist that the 12th Day of Christmas falls on the 6th January, celebrated in the Christian calendar as Epiphany. This is the day on which the Three Wise Men, a.k.a the Magi, a.k.a Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar visited the infant Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The confusion comes in part from a misunderstanding of what “The 12th Day of Christmas” actually means. Some people read it as “The 12th Day after Christmas” but it is not that at all. The “12th Day of Christmas” means what is says – the “12th Day of Christmas”. Do the maths for yourself. Starting with Christmas Day, December 25th as Day 1 count off 12 days and you finish up on 5th January, the Twelfth Day.
Unfortunately 12th Night is now behind us and all we are left with is the return to work or school and the emptiness of homes devoid of decorations. This is a great shame because in the past Twelfth Night was an occasion for one final Christmas party. Practical jokes were played including hiding live birds inside an empty pie crust. As described in “Sing a Song of Sixpence” when the pie was opened the birds would fly out and surprise the partygoers. Guests were also invited to try a traditional “Twelfth Night Cake” which contained a hidden bean. If you were lucky enough to find the bean you would be nominated "Bean King or “Bean Queen” and be allowed to order the other guests around. The cake could also contain other surprises for the guests…
- If you found a clove you were nominated the knave.
- If you found a twig you were nominated the fool.
- If you found a piece of cloth you were nominated a flirt.
On 12th Night the Yule Log, burning continuously since Christmas Day, would be allowed to go out, although pieces would be saved to light the Yule log next Christmas..and with its dying embers the 12 days of Christmas would end.
With months of gloom and chill and economic austerity ahead of us all we can do now is to watch the year slip by until Christmas 2011 when the mirth comes again…
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 Twelfth-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 unurg'd will not drink To the base from the brink A health to the king and queen here. Next crown a bowl full With gentle lamb's wool : Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger, With store of ale too ; And thus ye must do To make the wassail a swinger. Give then to the king And queen wassailing : And though with ale ye be whet here, Yet part from hence As free from offence As when ye innocent met here.
TWELFTH NIGHT : OR, KING AND QUEEN.
by Robert Herrick
— from Martyn Day