Only — maybe Twelfth Night is 5th January. The Anglican Church think that’s the right date.
SO WHEN is Twelfth Night?
It 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.
That 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?
It’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.
My 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.
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).
Ferrers 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.
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.