Thursday, January 05, 2006

Twelfth Night - January 5th

Giving a nod to my Welsh ancestry, I would like to enlighten those of you who care about the traditions of Twelfth Night:

Twelfth Night (the evening of Jan. 5th)

Twelfth Night was celebrated as the end of Christmastide. The decorations, including holly and mistletoe, were taken down, the burned out Yule Log was removed from the fireplace, and its ashes stored temporarily. These were then buried along with the seeds planted in the ensuing spring to ensure a good harvest. Each of the twelve days after Christmas was considered, in the countryside at least, to represent the corresponding months of the year, and the weather on these days was carefully observed and noted as a guide as to what could be expected for the rest of the year.

Feast of the Epiphany

On January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany was an important celebration in Wales. In Glamorganshire, a huge loaf or cake was prepared, which was then divided up into three parts to represent Christ, the Virgin Mary and the three Wise Men. A large company of neighbors was invited to be present at the dividing of the cake in which rings were concealed. Whoever discovered a ring in his piece of cake (or bread) was elected as King or Queen or Misrule and presided over the day's festivities. January 6th, of course, was the date of the old-calendar Christmas Day, and many of the festivities connected with it lasted well over a century after the new calendar was introduced in 1752.

The Wassail

To wassail means to be "whole, healthy", and both Christmas and New Year were marked by wassailing, which included both drinking and singing. The custom seems to have begun as a way of wishing the farmer successful harvests from his fields and the increase of his livestock during the coming year. The wassail bowl itself, which had twelve handles, was filled with cakes, baked apples and sugar into which was poured warm beer and spices. The bowl was then passed around hand to hand in the circle of friends and neighbors gathered round the blazing fire until the beer was consumed. The remaining food was then shared out and eaten. On Twelfth Night, the wassail bowl was taken to the house of newlyweds or to a family which had recently come to live in the district, songs were sung outside the house door. Those inside the house would recited or sing special verses, to be answered by the revelers outside.

Hunting the Wren

Another Welsh custom associated with Twelfth Night. A group of young men would go out into the countryside to capture a wren (the smallest bird in the British Isles). The bird would then be placed in a small, decorated cage or bier and carried around from house to house and shown in exchange for money or gifts of food and drink (if a wren could not be found then a poor unfortunate sparrow would have to undergo the ritual).


  1. That's awesome.

    Thanks for the little piece of cultural education.

  2. >>>>>
    Thanks for sharing some of that history.

    Its interesting that you brought up the 12 days following Christmas as representing each month of the calendar. I don't know how much you are into ancient history (Roman, Greeks, Egyptians) but there is so much around us in art and architecture that is tied into numbers, etc with each related to the lunar and solar calendars.

    I just completed two quarters of architectural history and was fascinated at what info I han't learned in either high school or college (my first degree).

    Anyway... thanks again for sharing a bit of the Welch culture with us.


  3. Good post! And here I thought my boyfriend and I were the only two people who even consider Twelfth Night, anymore.

  4. Love this post. Scott and I are doing more each year to celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas. In fact, we've discussed holding off putting up decorations this year until after the first Sunday of Advent. We're also considering having small gifts to open each night of Christmas starting on the 25th and going through the 12th Night/Epiphany celebrations.

  5. Great post! Before reading it, I didn't completely understand the whole 12th night thing -- thought it had something to do with the Epiphany, but the numbers didn't add up.

    Coming from a Spanish family, but growing up in New York, I knew the importance of Jan 6 as a time when families in Spain would exchange gifts to reflect the arrival of the Reyes Magos, but I didn't realize it was also the date of Chistmas in the old calendar. Very cool.