14 December 2012

Cakes and Ale: Christmastide and Twelfth Night in Early Modern England

While modern culture in the West has extended the holiday season backwards to Thanksgiving (and, at least judging by many big box retailers, all the way to November 1st), our medieval and early modern ancestors instead pushed the celebration later, into January. The four weeks before Christmas, during which we now haul out the holly and deck the halls, were the season of Advent, distinct from Christmas and bearing a rather less celebratory feel. Advent was a time of preparation -- specifically, preparation for the Second Coming of Christ, while thinking about his first visit to the earth. Most of December, therefore, was liturgically a time for spiritual contemplation and solemnity. Fridays and Saturdays during Advent were times of fasting and abstinence, and some traditions extended this self-denial to the entire season. The Christmas season did not properly begin until Christmas Eve, and it culminated in Epiphany Eve, or Twelfth Night.

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.
So what does any of this have to do with Shakespeare's play? Certainly a production could choose to set Twelfth Night during Twelfth Night, but nothing in the play necessitates that association. No dialogue refers to the holiday or gives any indication of the season, and the secondary title, What You Will, seems more appropriate both for the content of the play and as a sly bawdy joke in the same style as the other "festive" comedies, Much Ado about Nothing and As You Like It. The title might indicate that the Chamberlain's Men originally performed the play on Twelfth Night, but the earliest recorded performance isn't until Candlemas, February 1st, 1602. Was there an earlier performance that went unrecorded? Perhaps, and plays were certainly popular entertainment at court during Christmastide - but we don't know for sure. There are a few thematic similarities between the events of the play and the traditions of the holiday, but you have to squint and tilt your head a little sideways to see them. Toby and Andrew's cheerful inebriation would certainly fit with Christmastide celebrations, but it hardly seems a holiday-only indulgence for them. Viola's cross-dressing and Malvolio's determination to turn from steward to lord might be seen as reflecting the up-ending of social order that attended some Christmastide traditions such as the bean-finding or the Feast of Fools, but the connection is tenuous, particularly given those themes' prevalence in other plays as well. The criticism of Malvolio's revel-hating ways ("Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?") may bear some relevance to the Protestant tendency to pull away from the festivals that they saw as tainted by Catholic idolatry, but that religious trend did not become pronounced for a few more decades, peaking under the Commonwealth's outright banning of the Christmas holidays, and so it seems a more general indictment of Puritan hypocrisy. The threads of connection may be present, but they're definitely frayed. If nothing else, though, the title of Twelfth Night has helped to keep the idea of the holiday more prominently in the public consciousness than it might otherwise be.

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!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks you, ASC, for educating (as well as entertaining) us!