This is Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany or Three Kings Day, and the end of the Christmas holiday season. In this tradition, one thing to do is get those Christmas decorations down or risk bad luck for the new year.
Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall.
~ Robert Herrick
This concludes the Twelve Days of Christmas and is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking”.
But you will also find it listed as being on the eve of January 4 in an older tradition from Hebrew and then Roman Catholic practices of the day. Then, it began at sunset rather than at midnight as it does now. In modern times, Twelfth Night generally falls on the night of January 5.
A belief has arisen in modern times, in some English-speaking countries, that it is unlucky to leave Christmas decorations hanging after Twelfth Night, a tradition originally attached to the festival of February Candlemas which occurs on February 2.
The origin of the celebration really goes back to the Roman Saturnalia which was celebrated before Christmas. Some of Saturnalia continued into medieval England when the holiday season began with All Hallows Eve.
Some people know Twelfth Night because of the Shakespeare play of that name which features the pranks, role reversals, and general Saturnalia-styled chaos – servants become masters men, dress as women etc.
In some countries, this is the day to exchange family gifts to commemorate the day that the three kings arrived in Bethlehem to honor the baby Jesus. Despite their appearance back in November in manger scenes all over the place, they did not even arrive on the day that Christ was born. My mother actually never let us put the baby Jesus figure into our crèche until late Christmas Eve, and the three kings stayed boxed until that twelfth day.
I have read that George and Martha Washington weren’t much for Christmas celebrations but that they did host pretty elaborate Twelfth Night celebrations – maybe because today was also their anniversary. In their papers at Mount Vernon, there is her recipe for Twelfth Night cake. (40 eggs, four pounds of sugar, and five pounds of dried fruit – a big cake)
Some of these traditions remained with the English who settled in the New World Colonies. In colonial Virginia, elegant balls with a king and queen were expected. The king gets to host the next year’s Twelfth Night ball, and the queen bakes next year’s cake. In America, Christmas overtook Twelfth Night in popularity only in the mid-1800s. Christmas was seen as a religious, rather than cultural, holiday. That’s a tradition I wouldn’t mind seeing return.
Twelfth Night traditions include choosing a king and queen for the holiday. In England, a plum cake is baked with a bean and a pea inside. If a man finds the bean, he is crowned the Twelfth Night King, also known as the Lord of Misrule. The woman who finds the pea is crowned Queen. But if a woman finds the bean instead of the pea, she chooses her own king. In France, there is a ceramic figure baked into the cake.
Twelfth Night was also associated with apples in some parts of England and you might go out to your orchards with hot, spiced cider and ale for the “wassailing of the trees.” This meant that you would put wassail on the trees’ roots, sing songs, and toast to a good growing season to come. Get a wassail recipe here