Happy Twelfth Night to all.
This is a day when many traditions overlap.
What a great symbol of belonging to the human race and our relation to Time.
The Pagans had it first. Some gloriously raucous traditions to liven up the gloomy days after the Winter solstice, all the focus on bolstering fertility. Wassailing around Apple trees for a good harvest next Autumn, grabbing young maidens for dancing, all heralding the start to a year of fecundity.
‘Wassail’ is credited to both Old Saxon and Old Norse. Either way it means the same:
‘Be thou hale’ or ‘Good health to you’.
In the 18th and 19th centuries Twelfth Night was a big party, with an elaborate crowned Twelfth-cake. Baked inside were hidden a bean and a pea and the lucky guests who found them were crowned Twelfth Night King and Queen. And the one who found a twig in the cake was the Fool.
New Orleans has made Twelfth Night another excuse for parades and masquerade balls.
In London, Theatre troupe The Lion’s Part took hundreds of revellers time-travelling at the Bankside on Sunday afternoon, with the Green Man emerging from the Thames to bring fertility, Wassailing around the Globe Theatre and a traditional Mummer’s Play.
In Christian tradition Twelfth Night is Epiphany marking the visit of the three Magi, bearing gifts for the child they recognised as God the Son in the vulnerable form of a human baby. Epiphany meaning “manifestation”, from the Greek ἐπιφάνεια epiphaneia.
For Catalans tonight is the celebration of Tres Res. In a bizarre tradition, a little wooden puppet (a character like Santa) poohs out presents for the children. Ah, the joys of cultural diversity.
For the Eastern Orthodox Church it’s Christmas Eve this evening. Καλά Χριστούγεννα Kala Christoyenna to Greek friends.
In Jerusalem and Bethlehem the Orthodox Churches – Greek, Syrian, Coptic, Armenian, Romanian – are preparing. A cross-cultural celebration amidst a map of conflict: a modern Great Mystery.
In modern times it has become bad luck to leave decorations up after Twelfth Night. Time to chuck our tired Christmas tree out and box the gaudy baubles away. (Uphelpfully, a little confusion about whether that is actually on the 5th, being 12 nights from Christmas Eve.)
All these traditions mark an end to the festive revelry and the start of a new year: hoping for fruitfulness, mindful of challenges.
In his ‘Twelfth Night’ Shakespeare gave us a romp of laughter and sadness, as the characters learn to chase and cherish love.
Feste the fool reminds us of the transient nature of happiness and uncertainty of the year ahead:
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure
Twelfth Night: a host of rituals to celebrate the turning of the year, symbols of belonging to our many different communities.
May it mark a new manifestation and a fruitful year.
Christian, Pagan, or whatever tradition you belong to:
Be thou hale.
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