The Twelve Days of Christmas that we all know from the carol were originally all feast days belonging to specific saints, beginning with the Feast of St. Stephen (think of Good King Wenceslas going out to visit the poor) on December 26th. Other honorees during this time included St. John the Evangelist, St. Sylvester, an early pope, and, pertinent for enthusiasts of English history, St. Thomas Becket, whose martyrdom in 1170 (as ASC patrons who saw The Lion in Winter this past fall may remember) was considered such a horror that ecclesiastical authorities kept the commemoration of his death on the day it took place, rather than moving it outside of Christmastide, as would have been common practice. Other days commemorated Jesus's circumcision and naming, which, while not as obviously celebratory, are interesting because they point toward the idea of Jesus as a living human, subject to the same customs as other Jewish males of his era. Prayer during Christmastide was joyful rather than somber, and the two weeks from Christmas Eve to Epiphany Eve were a time for rest from labor, for feasting, and for revelry. Gift exchange took place either on New Year's Day or on Epiphany itself, mimicking the visitation of the myrrh-, frankincense-, and gold-bearing Magi.
Most of Twelfth Night's traditions were food-and-drink-related, with fruits, cakes, and wassail particularly popular gastronomical focuses. January 5th was the day to eat and drink everything that had been prepared during the Christmastide season, as well as the last day to enjoy the festive decorations. The tradition of taking down Christmas decorations on Epiphany, January 6th, persisted into colonial America, and many still observe it to the modern day, considering it unlucky to leave decorations up any longer. Some of the traditions of Twelfth Night have, over the centuries, drifted into other holidays. Several early modern sources describe the baking of a Twelfth Night cake with a bean, a pea, or a penny inside of it. Whoever found the errant item in his slice would be proclaimed king for the day -- a tradition with roots in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, but which has since become attached instead to Mardi Gras celebrations on the eve of Lent. In some countries, the season of Epiphany was also the season of Carnival, which may explain the tradition's unmooring from Twelfth Night and getting stuck onto Mardi Gras instead. The extension of celebrations throughout the winter also makes logical sense for agricultural societies, where there was less work to do in the cold, barren months, and when people may have had greater need for good cheer.
|Stephanie Holladay Earl as |
Olivia in Twelfth Night.
Photo by Michael Bailey.
At the ASC, we carry the spirit of celebration with us year-round, with performances at the Blackfriars Playhouse 52 weeks a year -- Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany all included. Our Holiday Season shows, A Christmas Carol, The Santaland Diaries, and The Twelve Dates of Christmas continue through December 28th, and on the last weekend of the year, you can catch our Tempt Me Further shows before they head back out on the spring leg of the tour: Love's Labour's Lost, The Duchess of Malfi, and, of course, Twelfth Night. Then join us January 4th as we open our 2013 Actors' Renaissance Season with Julius Caesar. Whatever and however you celebrate, we at the ASC hope that you have a lovely holiday season. Cheers!