A History the Twelfth Day of Christmastide and Its Traditions
What Are Christmastide and Twelfth Night?
Christmastide is a season in the Christian liturgical calendar. The season includes twelve days of celebration that start on Christmas Day, which marks the birth of Jesus Christ. Historically, the first day of Christmastide breaks the Advent fast, which spans the previous twenty-four days. Each of the following eleven days was, and still is in the Catholic Church, a celebration of Jesus Christ and various Christian saints. Twelfth Night, the last night of Christmastide, is the night before Epiphany—the day that marks the visit of the three magi to the newly born Christ child believed to have been sent by God to save the world.
The Twelve Days of Christmas According to the Christian Liturgical Calendar
- Nativity of the Lord
- St. Stephen's Day
- Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
- Feast of the Holy Innocents
- Memorial of St. Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr
- Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph
- Feast of Pope St. Sylvester
- Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
- St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus
- Memorial of the Holy Name of Jesus
- Feast of St. Simeon Sylites
- Epiphany, Revelation of God Incarnate as Jesus Christ (Twelfth Night)
Who Were the Three Kings?
The three kings, or wise men, are thought to have been Eastern astrologers. The birth of a saviour of the Jews had been long predicted. It is mentioned in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 60,1–6. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the magi saw the birth of a new star, which they took as a sign that the Christ child had been born, and used the star as a compass to lead them to Bethlehem and Jesus.
...behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.— New Testament. Matthew 2..2
How Did Advent Fasting Begin?
In 567, the Council of Tours proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast.
Twelfth Night in Spain
In many Roman Catholic countries, the Twelfth Night of Christmastide is observed with a festival dedicated to the three kings—it is known as Fiesta los Tres Reyes Magos in Spain. In Marbella, I watched the magical spectacle of the three kings riding on camels and leading a spectacular parade followed by open trucks carrying children dressed as elves who scattered sack loads of candies onto upturned umbrellas held by the crowds who had gathered to watch the parade. The 6th January is more important than Christmas Day in Spain. It is the day on which the children receive their Christmas gifts, symbolic of the gifts presented to the baby Jesus by the Magi at Epiphany.
... they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincesense, and myrrh.— New Testament. Matthew 2.8.
Twelfth Night and the Lord of Misrule in Tudor England
In Elizabethan England, Twelfth Night is the climax of the Christmastide season. It is an occasion for music, elaborate fancy-dress masked balls, and parties, during which whoever finds the bean baked into a special cake os be declared "Lord of Misrule" for the night. This individual then presides over celebrations and issues instructions that all, including his superiors, must obey.
Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night, or What You Will, provides a picture of riotous revelry in Tudor England. The character of drunken, glutonous, Sir Toby Belch is sometimes interpreted as an example of the Lord of Misrule.
Recordings of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night
I studied Twelfth Night for my English Literature finals and have watched several productions of the play, both live and on DVD. If you would like to see a traditional production by the Globe Theatre, I recommend this recording of a live production, which I was fortunate enough to see at the Globe. The lead roles were played by Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry. in Victorian costume, produced by the lauded Shakespearean actor and director Sir Kenneth Branagh, is also available on DVD. An interpretation of Twelfth Night
Superstition About Twelfth Night
Superstition has it that Christmas decorations should be removed from the home before Twelfth Night turns into Epiphany—otherwise bad luck will fall on the house during the coming year. My Christmas tree stays in place until almost the last minute, despite the needles starting to fall, as I always host a Twelfth Night brunch for friends during the morning.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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