Written by Lori Thiessen
Because the media and every expert has been making grim predictions about the year to come, I grabbed onto a little known and celebrated (at least in North America) end of Christmas festival called “Twelfth Night”. A little levity is needed to leaven this heavy load.
If the name seems familiar to you, it should. A plucky little lad from Stratford-upon-Avon named William Shakespeare penned a play with that very name.
Remember the carol too, The Twelve Days of Christmas? It begins, “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…” then it goes on to recount the most elaborate gift list ever dreamed of. Now if the first day of Christmas is the 25th then the 12th day, and last day of Christmas is January 5th.
It also goes by the name of Epiphany, though some traditions celebrate it on January 6th instead of the 5th. Traditionally, this is the day when the Three Wise Men turn up at the stable to bring the Baby Jesus some gifts.
Celebrating Twelfth Night, by all the sources I looked at, began in the Middle Ages. But like many Christian celebrations, Twelfth Night has its roots in a Celtic, pre-Christian past.
Winter festivals in any culture or religion generally have something to do with giving thanks for surviving the year and making hopeful symbolic gestures that the year to come will be good.
During Twelfth Night, the feasting isn’t just about stuffing yourself. Many of the Christmas decorations would have been made of fruits and nuts so instead of just throwing them out, people would eat them.
Think about the mincemeat pie. Once upon a time it was made of meat but now it is made of … fruit and spices. Apparently if you want good luck for the coming year, don’t cut your pie as you may ‘cut’ your luck too. I guess that’s why there are many more mince tarts than pies. A tart is easier to eat whole.
There is also a rich coffee cake-type dessert which is served on this final day of Christmas called the King Cake in English. In the cake is baked a bean and a pea, the man who finds the bean is the King of the Festivities and the woman who finds the pea is the Queen. Then the fun really begins. The point of the revels is to do very silly things as directed by the King and Queen.
Another part of the celebrations includes, at least in England, a man dressed in a wreath of holly comes up from the riverside to present “the green” to the King and Queen to ensure growth for the coming season.
The main drink for Twelfth Night is called Wassail. It’s rather like a mulled wine. People toast each other’s health then proceed to go outside to pour some of the powerful beverage on the roots of their trees give encouragement to sleeping fruit and foliage to wake up at the proper time and be abundant.
Since Twelfth Night is the last night of Christmas, it is on this day that all the Christmas decorations are taken down. To leave them up beyond this time is to court bad luck.
By celebrating Twelfth Night, Christmas comes to a close in a happy and definitive way.
The end of Christmas in my childhood was a very sad affair, indeed. It was generally done the day after New Year’s Day. The tree was taken down and hauled to the curb for disposal without much ceremony. The food was generally left overs, just heated up.
What fun it would have been to have celebrated the end of Christmas as we celebrated the day itself!
Now, I confess that this post doesn’t have much to do with cafe culture, but you can always serve coffee with your King Cake. 🙂
Until Next Time,
May Your Coffee Always Be Freshly Brewed!