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The 12 Days of Christmas Traditions, Celebrations and Religious Significance Ending on the Twelfth Night

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The writer's interest in Twelfth Night was aroused by Shakespeare's play about Christmas carousing and on splendid Spanish celebrations

Shakespeare's Twelfth NIght Feste, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aquecheek

Shakespeare's Twelfth NIght Feste, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aquecheek

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. 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 by Christians to have been sent by God to save the world.

Who Were the Three Kings?

The three kings, or wise men, are thought to have been Eastern astrologers. The birth of a savior 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.

Three Kings Festival (Fiesta los Tres Reyes) in Spain

Three Kings Festival (Fiesta los Tres Reyes) in Spain

Three Magi see a new star born

...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

The Three KIngs Brought Precious Gifts to Jesus

... 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.

The Symbolism of the Gifts Presented to the Infant Jesus Christ by the Magi

  • The symbolism of the gifts reported in the Gospels as having been given to the baby Jesus appears to reflect both recognition of his status and a prediction of his death.
  • Gold symbolized kingship
  • Frankincense symbolized deity
  • Myrrh is an embalming fluid that symbolized death

Twelfth Night and the Lord of Misrule in Tudor England

In Elizabethan England, Twelfth Night was 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, gluttonous Sir Toby Belch is sometimes interpreted as an example of the Lord of Misrule.

A traditional English Twelfth Night  a rich  fruit cake

A traditional English Twelfth Night a rich fruit cake

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. An interpretation of Twelfth Night in Victorian costume, produced by the lauded Shakespearean actor and director Sir Kenneth Branagh, is also available on DVD.

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 normally host a Twelfth Night brunch for friends during the morning of 5th January.

The Twelve Days of Christmas According to the Christian Liturgical Calendar

  1. Nativity of the Lord
  2. St. Stephen's Day
  3. Feast of St. John, Apostle, and Evangelist
  4. Feast of the Holy Innocents
  5. Memorial of St. Thomas Becket, Bishop, and Martyr
  6. Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
  7. Feast of Pope St. Sylvester
  8. Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
  9. St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus
  10. Memorial of the Holy Name of Jesus
  11. Feast of St. Simeon Stylites
  12. Epiphany, Revelation of God Incarnate as Jesus Christ (Twelfth Night)

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.

© 2020 Glen Rix

Comments

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 12, 2020:

Thanks for sharing the information and the significance of this day. I also studied Twelfth Night, but missed so much of the meaning, Knowledge is fascinating.

Liz Westwood from UK on January 07, 2020:

Fascinating article. I also studied Shakespeare's play many years ago. You have reminded me about our visit to Marbella 4 years ago at this time. I thought the photo was familiar. It was certainly an interesting experience.

Glen Rix (author) from UK on January 06, 2020:

Thanks for your comments, Doris. I am surprised that you were not taught that the days leading up to Christmas are Advent in the liturgical calendar.

Do you not have Advent calendars in the US? Mostly, these are for young children. They are large, single sheet, picture cards on which there is a little closed flap for each of the 24 days of December leading up to Christmas Day. Behind each flag is either a nativity picture or a tiny chocolate treat. Children are intended to open one window each day, building up their excitement as Christmas Day approaches - but I suspect many cheat to get at the chocolates!

All good wishes for 2020

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on January 05, 2020:

Interesting to learn the story of the 12 Days of Christmas since coming from a non-Catholic community, I did not. I guess I thought the 12 days referred to the days leading up to Christmas Day. This was not taught in church or at our high school.

Glen Rix (author) from UK on January 05, 2020:

Hello, Peggy and Anne.All good wishes for 2020.

I have so many wonderful memories of twelfth night in Marbella, tinged with some sadness as it was at the time of the terrible tsunami in the Far East.

I gave a successful brunch for friends this morning, to round off Christmastide - a compote of prunes and clementine in a port syrup served with muesli and Greek yoghurt; scrambled eggs and smoked salmon; French roast coffee. After which we went to a matinee screening of Little Women - wonderful.

The tree is now in the yard, waiting for transportation to the recycling centre and, as you say, Anne, the house now looks very bare. I may rerun the dvd of Rylance production of the Globe’s Twelfth Night this evening. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the article.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 05, 2020:

It was very interesting learning the history and traditions regarding the Twelfth Day of Christmas from you. It must have been fun to see those festivities in person while in Spain. In the next day or two, we will have all of our decorations put up for the year. Wishing you a happy and healthy 2020.

Ann Carr from SW England on January 05, 2020:

Lovely to see a hub from you Glenis. This is great.

I too studied Twelfth Night, for my 'O' levels (now GCSEs of course!) and I loved it.

I try to leave taking down the Christmas tree for as long as possible. This year, I did it yesterday as I have other things to do this weekend and couldn't be sure I'd have time. It makes everything look so bare after the lights and decorations and cards all over the place.

Lots of interesting details here, most of which I knew. I didn't know what each night signified though so thanks for including the list.

I was in France for Epiphany once, many moons ago, and they too have a cake in celebration of the kings. Theirs hides a figure of a king and the one who has it in his or her piece is treated to a crown.

I hope you enjoyed Christmas and I wish you a very happy 2020.

Ann

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