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Paul Vallely: Whatever happened to Twelfth Night?

05 January 2024

It is a pity to cut short Christmas celebrations, argues Paul Vallely

Brett Hondow/iStock

OUR New Year’s Day walk took us past the house renowned locally for having the most spectacular Christmas illuminations — but more gaudy than gaudete. It had been stripped bare. Christmas was clearly over. But then, for them, it had begun at the end of November.

Our modern market-orientated merrymaking is set aside as soon as the January sales begin, or even before. Whatever happened to Twelfth Night? The usual explanations about the decline of religion in our times do not apply — for these were avowedly secular celebrations.

There are religious correlatives. Recently, York Minster revived the election of a chorister-bishop on the feast of St Nicholas — a medieval custom that had been suppressed by Henry VIII in 1537. This Episcopus Puerorum held sway until Childermas, when the boy preached the Holy Innocents’ Day sermon.

The unseating of the Archbishop, as the Magnificat reaches the lines about the mighty being put down from their thrones, has echoes of a social inversion dating back to the pagan Saturnalia — or the Feast of Fools and Lord of Misrule of the age, in which Shakespeare celebrated a cataract of gender reversals and status inversions in the play subtitled What You Will.

Twelfth Night, once a time of feasting and merriment second only to Christmas Day, became, in Shakespeare’s hands, a vehicle for excess, surfeit, and indulgence — in which, to quote Pascale Aebischer, everyone is “tired of feasting, but not quite ready to give it up yet”. Today, sadly, Twelfth Night has been reduced merely to the date when superstition demands that we take our decorations down.

It was the Industrial Revolution that began the shrinkage of Christmas. Victorian employers were anxious to get their mill-hands swiftly back to work. Queen Victoria condemned Twelfth Night celebrations as rowdy and unchristian.

We ordered a galette des rois from our local patisserie to mark Epiphany this year. Inside this buttery almond wonder the French hide a figurine. But English Twelfth Night cakes traditionally contained a bean and a pea, whose finders were designated King and Queen of the Feast and empowered to give the other guests silly things to do.

Variations accrued through the ages. In 1666, Samuel Pepys found a clove in his cake, signifying that he was Knave for the Feast; he surreptitiously slipped the offending spice into the slice of his neighbour, Captain Cocke. In Georgian times, partygoers drew characters from slips of paper; Jane Austen selected the character Mrs Candour and told tart home truths to her fellow guests.

Pepys throws up something else of interest. The Church of England designates Twelfth Night as 5 January, the eve of Epiphany. Yet Pepys routinely celebrates Twelfth Night on 6 January, traditionally the date on which it is marked by Roman Catholics, who calculate the first day of Christmas as Boxing Day, unlike Anglicans, for whom the first day is Christmas Day itself.

As for the taking down of decorations, before the Victorian era, they were kept in place until Candlemas, on 2 February. Taking down the holly and the ivy too soon, contrary to modern suggestion, was considered bad luck. Then, it was feared that the tree sprites that inhabited such greenery could harm the emerging crops if loosed prematurely outside. Tradition, it seems, is more elastic than we imagine.

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