Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night party by PhizI am posting this on Twelfth Night. Well, at least, what my family have always called Twelfth Night. That’s the 6th January. It is a family birthday in our house, so it kind of sticks in the memory.

Only — maybe Twelfth Night is 5th January. The Anglican Church think that’s the right date.

SO WHEN is Twelfth Night?

partridge in a pear tree UK stamp 1977It all depends on when you count the Christmas festivities as starting. Twelfth Night is the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Which are essentially twelve days of partying.

A numerologically interested sort-of boyfriend of long ago (he gets a mention here) had a theory that Christmas Day when all the religious stuff was over. (He was also a medievalist.)

But by that time it was dark and so for all practical purposes nothing more could be done. The hunter was home from the hill, the sailor home from the sea. So it counted as the next day. OK, the junketing started after dark. But the business day, as it were, had already finished.

Twelfth Night - Goldsmith's companyThat always sounded a bit far-fetched to me. But then I started working in the City of London  and became familiar with the Close of Business concept. At that time any deals done after, I think, 3.30 pm counted as the next day for settlement purposes.

So maybe the mediaeval church had the same idea. Heck, maybe Close of Business started in the middle ages. All those City Guilds and Honourable Companies with their own coats of arms, like the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths!

WHAT is Twelfth Night?

Well, these days, it is the day you take down the fairy lights, strip the Christmas tree, remove the Christmas cards. Then you generally spit on your hands and head out into the winter snow to earn an honest crust. It’s supposed to be bad luck to keep the decorations up any longer.

But Wikipedia says that superstition is a) modern and b) confined to English-speaking countries. Do you detect the fell hand of the Puritan work ethic?

Twelfth Night cake from FranceIt’s certainly true that IF Twelfth Night is the 6th January, that’s also the Feast in Epiphany, when the Magi fetched up at the stable with their gifts. In France that means a Gateau des Rois. In the north you get bits of marzipan in it. In the south it’s more likely to be fruit.

The Spanish do something similar. Both are a lot jollier then the Anglo-Saxon doom-sayers’ version of the day, I must say.

WHO celebrated Twelfth Night? and HOW?

Now, this is the good one. These days, nobody really has the stomach for yet another cocktail party. But back in the days when it was the dark time of the year and candles were expensive, they partied. Hard.

Twelfth Night maskMy family used to say that in the country you had a party where the youngest was allowed to make everyone do what he wanted, someone was a licensed fool who went round pouring water over people, and guests dressed up as characters out of history, legend or farmyard.

(One recalls Gussie Fink-Nottle dressed as Mephistopheles in red tights for a costume party and shudders in sympathy.)  High embarrassment potential but, hey, they enjoyed it. Fine, if you like that sort of thing. I’d rather watch than participate.

Stephen Fry, Malvolio; Mark Rylance, Olivia in The Barbican production

And sometimes you could watch without getting pie in your face. You could go to a play.

Shakespeare worked out that there was a real opportunity here. Result? Twelfth Night, with its gender-bending plot and the servants running rings round the master class in a fantastical dance of tricks and deceptions. It even has a Fool. We know it was performed at the Inns of Court in 1602, so that was the lawyers getting their jollies.

But the Court partied, too. They saw Ben Jonson’s Twelvth Night Revells, now known as The Masque of Blackness in The Banqueting House in Whitehall, no less. Pre-Inigo Jones, of course, but still an impressive venue. Incidentally, that was on 6th January 1605.

WHERE did you celebrate Twelfth Night?

Private parties for the yokels. Performances for selected toffs at court, law courts, the two universities. Was that all it was?

Not always. Poor young Edward VI, the Tudor boy king, seems to have overseen two truly spectacular street parties in London in the Twelve Days of Christmas 1551-52 and 1552-1553.

They were run by a lunatic called George  Ferrers, a lawyer, courtier, MP, former servant of Somerset (then in the Tower under sentence of death with his rival, the Duke of Northumberland, now Lord Protector).

Twelfth Night London pre the Great FireFerrers was also a poet. He got the job of Lord of Misrule. And boy, did he give it his all. He ‘landed at Tower Wharf with a great number of young knights and gentlemen on horseback, “every man having a baldric of yellow and green about their necks”.’

After that there was a whole procession westwards to Cheapside, through what was then a heavily populated residential district, not the business-hours-limited area we know today.

Twelfth Night hogsheadThere were guns and trumpet players and every possible sort of musician. Ferrers, as Lord of Misrule, decked himself out in  fur-trimmed cloth of gold.

At Cheapside they ceremonially  “beheaded” a hogshead of wine. Ho, ho. Bearing in mind that Somerset was in the Tower, I don’t think I’d have been splitting my sides. One assumes everyone then drank themselves stupid.


Well everyone like a party, don’t they? Especially if you can dress up and pretend to be something you’re not. If it’s humiliating at the time, you can enjoy remembering how superior you are when the world rights itself, I suppose.

Or just give thanks that it’s over.

Sophie Weston Author Sophie

9 thoughts on “Twelfth Night

  1. Liz

    I used to be a stickler for taking the decs down on the 6th although always overlooked something festive which I spot dangling weeks later. These days they come down after Christmas, all except the fairy lights. They’ve been a permanent fixture for a while.

  2. sophiewestonauthor

    Oh, I love fairy lights. Firelight, fairy lights and Mozart is just about my perfect winter evening.

  3. lesley2cats

    I take mine down after New Year, too, although children have done it without my presence for the last few years.. And I love all the traditions of Twelfth Night, Plough Monday and Wassailing. When we lived in the REAL country (East Aglian village of 400 souls in the fens), they were traditions kept up – ahem – religiously. Plough Monday is the 1st Monday after Epiphany, when (in our area) the men blacked up, wore their Molly Jackets and danced round the houses, farms and pubs. Nowadays it’s mainy the pubs – those that are left. Straw Bear Saturday at Whittlesey is a parade through the town, mainly of all those who are going to dance on Monday, leading a poor soul dressed up as a Straw Bear, and ending up in a pub. The Molly Men have a Betty, and the same thing is echoed in all traditional dances. The Mummer’s play (before Christmas) was usually performed by the same men, but it was often the whole village who Wassailed round the orchards to bring good luck to the trees. Both my sons still have their Molly Jackets, and the eldest has his father’s as well. Sorry – that was a bit of a lecture, wasn’t it? A lot of these traditions were mentioned in Tudor Monastery Farm Christmas on BBC 2, and they made much of the Lord of Misrule. I’d better shut up now, or I’m danger of going on all day…

  4. Elizabeth Bailey

    When we were children, the decorations stayed up until after 7th January as that was my elder brother’s birthday. Nowadays, I do what I feel like and sometimes keep them up for days after they ought to be down.

    The Diary of a Shopkeeper, circa mid 18th century gives a very good picture of the twelve days when the gentry, and those in genteel trade, partied day after day at each other’s houses. Same people, but everyone was expected to do their bit as they all did the rounds and dined with each other, played cards and so on. I don’t think the shop opened until afterwards, unless somebody needed something urgently.

      1. Sophie Post author

        Oh I can so understand that, Liz. My Christmas tree in particular evokes so many happy memories of family times. I always spend at least one evening with the fairy lights on and possibly a few candles, remembering. Makes me feel a bit gentler and thankful, somehow. Hope it does the same for HM.

    1. Sophie Post author

      Fascinating, Liz. Though it might get a bit wearing after a time – especially if the entertaining was competitive!

  5. Sarah

    I love putting up the decorations for Christmas, but by Twelfth Night I am more than ready to pack them away again. There’s the feeling of clearing up ready for a new beginning! And wasn’t there a tradition of the Lords of Misrule, when someone (perhaps the youngest, as you mention, Jenny) is allowed to lord it over everyone else?

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh yes, Lords of Misrule were big in mediaeval times, Linda. Sound a bit dangerous, some of them.

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