So you thought Christmas was over? Wrong! The twelve days of Christmas begin on the 25th December, making today (5th January) the last day of Christmas. Have you got your partridge in a pear tree yet? Me neither. The ‘Twelfth Night’ is famous as the name of a Shakespeare play, but few know where the term actually comes from. So here’s a quick rundown of what it’s all about.
The Twelfth Night, also known as ‘Epiphany Eve,’ is a Christian festival celebrating the last of the 12 days of Christmas. In modern day it also sometimes known as ‘Candlemas.’ Some count it as occurring on the 6th, as the lack of synchronised calendars throughout history means that Christmas occurs on either the 25th or 26th depending on what Church you happen to go to. They couldn’t agree that at the start, so it’s no wonder we’re still arguing today. In any case, it’s supposedly unlucky to leave your decorations up past the Twelfth Night – so start shoving things in the attic if you haven’t got long left!
The celebration is first formally recorded in a meeting of the Council of Tours in 567 AD. The Council was comprised of various Roman Catholic bishops from Europe which convened in the French town of Tours. There, the bishops proclaimed the 12 days of Christmas a “sacred and festive season” and that festivities continue right throughout the period, with parties often held to celebrate the Twelfth Night. But why do we need to remove the decorations before the Epiphany?
It’s likely this tradition goes back to before the advent of Christianity. Christmas itself borrows a lot from the Pagan festival ‘Yule,’ which is a festival celebrating the advent of Winter through the Winter Solstice. Like at Christmas, trees were decorated and festivities held to ask the powers that be for a good harvest in the coming Spring. Early Christian leaders probably adapted Yuletide traditions to emphasise the birth of the Christ child. In terms of taking the decorations down, it was once believed that small creatures like fairies lived in the greenery, and needed to be taken indoors to shelter whilst the plants dropped their leaves in the winter. Leave them inside too long however, and the plants would not return in the Spring.
And the Shakespeare play, ‘Twelfth Night,’ has very little to do with Christmas. It was probably written as part of the entertainment for one of Elizabeth I’s ‘Candlemas’ festivals, which was the main festival celebrated in medieval and Tudor England over the winter period.