Twelfth Night

Today is Epiphany, the celebration of the day the magi or wise men brought gifts to the infant Jesus. It is also Twelfth Night, or the 12th day after Christmas. Our priest told us during today’s homily that during medieval times, Twelfth Night was the biggest celebration of the year. It was a night for merrymaking and revelry. Those of you who live in Europe or in the southern United States or other places who celebrate this day will no doubt be familiar with this celebration. We don’t observe it in my part of the world, though, so it’s been interesting to learn about it.

Sometimes Twelfth Night is celebrated on the eve of Epiphany, rather like Christmas Eve, and other times it is celebrated after sundown on Epiphany. Either way, our ancestors imbibed traditional drinks and prepared traditional foods for a grand celebration marking the near end of the Christmas holidays and heralding the upcoming Easter holy days, which will begin with Lent in February (if I recall correctly).

Next year, I may well do a Twelfth Night celebration. The wassail sounds wonderful; I plan to make some this week. Ale, apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, port? Interesting, to say the least. Then there’s the King Cake, so named because of the three kings (or wise men) who visited Christ.

If any of you observe this old tradition, I’d like to hear about it.

15 responses

  1. hello from Poland. I thought that since I’ve started to draw gigantic pleasure from reading your blog, then it feels quite right to share this small observation regarding the Epiphany here.

    We celebrate the day simply by attendding a Mass where myrrh, frankincense and white chalk are being consecrated and then there’s also a tradition to write initial letters of C+M+B (Christus Mansionem Benedicat) above the main entrance to the house (the latter is really something peculiar as in Poland there’s hardly any door without it;). And at last, since that day priests start visiting houses of the faithful with blessings while collecting money for charity.

    There was also a custom similar to German, with kids dressing up, singing and collecting apples and nuts -so remembers my grandmother. But somehow it’s different now.

    Best wishes. I’ll keep reading.

  2. We have a Lutheran hymnal that I always get out at Christmas for the carols. I notice that there are official Lutheran hymns for the circumcision of Jesus!

    Eve, I’m glad you looked into anthro-whatsit. However, there’s a lot of hysterical mud-slinging about it on the internet. I am happy to share my thoughts and understanding about it, but I just cringe a little when people say they’ve been checking up on it online. I think it would be like if you read a little about Hindu beliefs: you’d understand maybe 0.5% of it, and that would be skewed by the writer’s perspective.

  3. I don’t really remember ever celebrating in Cuba. I was 3 1/2 when we came to the states. I never thought about celebrating the Epiphany with my kids.

    I do think that six days of gifts is nicer than the overwhelming one day. I think they would probably enjoy the gifts more…I think I would too.

    You’ve given something to think about for next Christmas.

  4. Alida, do you think those six days of gifts were hard on your mom? ;o) I would think so!

    On the other hand, I really don’t like the way the American culture does Christmas. My European family observes Christmas much more sensibly and religiously, actually, than we do. And yet they’re not religious sorts. I find this fascinating since we claim to be largely “Christian” in this country; and yet, so materialistic.

    How did you like the build up to Epiphany as a child? And receiving a gift every day for six days? Do you think you’d want to do that with your kids?

  5. Jade, last year during Epiphany our RCIA class (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) had a king cake after class. The children were all rabid to find the baby. The adults just ate the cake!

  6. Tiv, interesting, I never thought about it before. Why *did* they arrive so conveniently on that day? One of my sons was circumcised on the 8th day and I was pleased about this because of the Biblical traditions. Very interesting indeed.

  7. Anthromama, I did a little (and I do mean a little!) reading last week about anthro-whatsit (I’ll get this down eventually!), and I was fascinated. I had never even heard of this belief system or way of faith until I met you in the blogosphere. I’m lucky to be able to learn, so keep on teaching!

  8. One more thing, in Cuba we don’t make King Cake. My husband is of Mexican descent, but his family never had King Cake either. We’ve fused some traditions by having a traditional Cuba feast on Christmas eve, except we substitute the roasted pork for pork tamales and we serve King Cake for dessert.

  9. When we lived in Cuba, we celebrated the twelfth
    night. We called it the day of the wise men. We have a big dinner Christmas Eve. The children received a small token on Christmas Day and a gift every night unitl Jan.6th. Each night the gifts were a little better. Starting with a bar of chocolate or socks and culminating with “the” gift on the twelfth night.

    When we arrived in the states, my parents whole-heartedly embraced Christmas and we never celebrated the twelfth night again. My mom however, refuses to take down the Christmas decor until the 7th of January.

  10. A friend who grew up in New Orleans was raving to me on Friday about King Cake and telling me how her devout Catholic mother celebrated every holiday, including the Ephiphany. I got to wondering if the three wise men were trying to get there in time for Jesus’ bris — Jewish ritual circumcision, 8 days after birth, which led her to telling me there was some sort of “obligatory” Catholic holiday of “the circumcision” that her mother also went to church for. Neither of us knew what we were talking about but it was the end of the work week. So I’m glad you posted this but there is much more to it I’d like to know.

  11. Here in Germany, Twelfth Night is a public holiday. It’s also culmination of a five day Sternsinger (carol-singer) action where over half a million German kids dress up as the three wise men and go door-to-door singing carols and raising money for children less fortunate than themselves. This year the charity was a street children project in Kenya, and my daughters took part. They had a wonderful time and it opened up chances to talk about children who have much less than them.

    This tradition has been going on for 50 years in Germany, and I think it is a wonderful one.

  12. We don’t celebrate Twelfth Night, but it’s fairly common in anthroposophical families to celebrate the holiday from Christmas Eve to Epiphany, and not beginning at Thanksgiving like the rest of the U.S.!

    The other things anthros do is put on Mystery Plays–I’ve been in a production of the Shepherds’ Play, and have seen a production of the Paradise Play. It’s harder to see the Three Kings Play, because it includes references to the slaughter of the innocents, and therefore isn’t as appropriate for little kids.

  13. I’ve only heard of this through some Puerto Rican acquaintances, and it was a few years ago. So I don’t even remember it with accuracy except for the spanish words “…los tres mages”, which is something to do with the three wise men. If I remember more, or come across the subject again I’ll post.

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