05 January 2012

5 January - Vigil of the Epiphany; Twelfth Night

Weather: the weather today foretells the weather of December (if you go by the 12 Days of Christmas or May (if you go by the first twelve days of January).

If the sun shines on the 12th day of Christmas, men will be weak and the earth will be quiet.

Of Twelfth-tide cakes, of peas and beans,
Wherewith ye make those merry scenes,
When as ye choose your king and queen,
And cry out, Hey for our town green!

For those who consider Epiphany to be the Twelfth Day of Christmas, this is Twelfth Night; in other countries it is known as the Eve of the Epiphany or the Eve of the Three Kings.  Everywhere, though, it was a time of great merriment and mirth, and in many places traditionally the day of the greatest celebrations in the Christmas season.  For those children not already visited by Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, tonight is when gifts will be left for them by the Holy Kings or by La Befana. 

Today, all Christmas decorations in and around the house must be removed and put away, or risk bad luck for the year. [Time to take down that Christmas tree and all the lights with which you have been dazzling your neighbors since Thanksgiving].

On the other hand, some traditions, like those in the Nordic countries, wait until the 20th Day of Christmas (January 13) to take down their decorations.  And some people consider that the season does not end until Candlemas, the Feast of Our Lady's Purification on February 2, or Septuagesima, whichever comes first (this year it will be Candlemas by a lead of four days).

So let us not go against tradition!  Pick one, and take down the decorations then.  Leaving some of the lights up might lighten a few spirits who are otherwise depressed by dull winter.

However, all the mistletoe under which couples have kissed over the Christmas season must be burned tonight or the couples will be foes before the year is out.

This is the day to wassail the apple trees, by taking a pitcher of cider [hard or soft is left to your discretion] and a few like-minded friends to the orchard, make a circle around one of the best bearing trees [if you don't know which one that is, pick a tree, any tree], and drink the following toast three times:

Here's to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and then mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full!  Caps full!  Three bushel sacks full!
And my pockets full too!  Huzzah!

The premier tradition of Twelfth Night is the choosing of the King and Queen, most usually by the finding of a bean or a coin in the Twelfth Night Cake, sometimes by drawing the King card.  Sheets of Twelfth Night Characters, like the ones seen here, were cut up, and the characters either assigned directly to the guests invited to the Twelfth Night party, or chosen by lot out of a hat or bag.   Some had amusing verses to be read to the assembled company; some had riddles.  The Character had to be maintained until midnight or risk a forfeit, and impromptu costuming as one's character was part of the fun.

This is a description of the latter practice from 1823 : "First, buy your cake.  Then, before your visitors arrive, buy your characters, each of which should have a pleasant verse beneath.  Next look at your invitation list, and count the number of ladies you expect; and afterwards the number of gentlemen.  Then, take as many female characters as you have invited ladies; fold them up, exactly of the same size, and number each on the back; taking care to make the king No. 1, and the queen No. 2.  Then prepare and. number the gentlemen's characters.  Cause tea and coffee to be handed to your visitors as they drop in."

"When all are assembled and tea over, put as many ladies characters in a reticule as there are ladies present; next put the gentlemen's characters in a hat.  Then call on a gentleman to carry the reticule to the ladies as they sit, from which each lady is to draw one ticket, and to preserve it unopened.  Select a lady to bear the hat to the gentlemen for the same purpose.  There will be one ticket left in the reticule, and another in the hat, which the lady and gentleman who carried each is to interchange, as having fallen to each.   Next, arrange your visitors according to their numbers; the king No. l, the queen No. 2, and so on.  The king is then to recite the verse on his ticket; then the queen the verse on hers; and so the characters are to proceed in numerical order.  This done, let the cake and refreshments go round..." 

Thomas Herrick wrote of finding the bean (and the pea for the queen):

“Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here;
Besides we must know,
The pea also
Must reveal, as queen, in the court here.

Begin then to choose,
(This night as ye use)
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king be the lot,
And who shall not,
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here:

This description of festivities in the Netherlands is similar to those once obtaining in England and France and other European countries: "Characteristic of Driekoningenavond [Three King's Eve] celebrations is the special cake which, according to tradition has a bean or an almond in the dough. Whoever finds the bean or nut in his portion is proclaimed King of the Feast and crowned with mock pomp. The King chooses his consort who is also crowned and rules with him."

"In some places the King gives a party to everybody else later in the year; in others guests draw lots to indicate the duties of various members of the Royal Household. Thus the Steward serves food; the Musician improvises entertainment on a paper-covered comb, pots, pans, or other musical instruments he can invent on the spur of the moment; the jester tries to make everyone laugh; the Wine Taster samples drinks and the Councilor gives sage advice. In other words, each member of the court has a special function to perform. If anyone forgets his allotted role he must pay a forfeit assigned by the Head of the Exchequer."  Source

Twelfth Night, or thereabouts, is a popular time for actors and playhouses to stage elaborate productions and feasts of medieval/Renaissance celebrations.  In the Smallest State, our Chorus of Westerly will have its annual Celebration of Twelfth Night next weekend (13th – 15th) with "music, tragicomedy, dance, swordplay, mythical beasts, and poetry," [and a Peasant's Feast], produced by "over 365 singers, actors, instrumentalists, acrobats, and dancers."  

A good way to start the Carnival season.

Next crown the bowl full
With gentle lamb’s-wool;
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must do
To make the Wassail a swinger.

Give them to the king
And queen wassailing;
And though with the ale ye be whet here;
Yet part ye from hence,
As free from offence,
As when ye innocent met here.