Twelfth Night used to be a big deal. Although singing a carol about “The Twelve Days of Christmas” could bring the full length of the season to our attention, I had no idea that people used to celebrate Twelfth Night as a significant holiday. I stumbled upon this fact while reading some history of Regency England, when one of my favorite authors – Jane Austen – lived and wrote.
Photo: Singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” inside due to cold temps, 2018.
Our family decided to revive the practice. Like many Christmas traditions (Christmas trees, for example), our Twelfth Night Celebration mixes a bit of religious reference with a secular tradition that is just plain fun. Our daughters, ages 7 and 3, remember and talk about Twelfth Night because of the costumes and party. But I soon expect to hear one (who likes to teach) instructing the other: “You know, Christmas is not just a day, but 12 days!” And the other will surely want to show her understanding by noting: “And the chalk is about the Wise Ones!” The twelfth day of Christmas hovers around Epiphany (there is some dispute about whether one starts counting on Christmas Day or the next, making Twelfth Night either January 5 or 6), so we folded an Epiphany ritual in too.
When we threw our first Twelfth Night party 2 years ago, we had to explain it to each and every friend we invited. In Regency England, the tradition was a bit like Mardi Gras, with costumes and revelry. Our version would be Rated G, but involve costumes and a mini-chocolate fountain, our favorite messy bit of decadence. Those who asked what they could bring were invited to bring something they would like to dip in chocolate. It was something to look forward to after all the flurry of Christmas, without adding one more thing to the December calendar; besides, no one has plans for the first week of January! Last year, Frozen sisters Elsa and Anna greeted our guests, inviting them to decorate extra masks if they did not come already in costume. The first year we also brought out shadow puppets and let all the kids present make up a show behind a back-lit sheet. The giggles that ensued, even from new neighbor kids we had not met before, created exactly the spirit we were going for. Playing with light at the darkest time of the day and year reminded at least me of John 1:5 “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
I have heard of congregations attempting to do the children’s nativity pageant on Epiphany because that’s when the magi arrive (and less stressful than during Advent), but it is so ingrained as a part of the overpacked pre-Christmas warm-up, that this is a hard sell. So, unless January 6th falls on a Sunday, Epiphany is unlikely to get much attention in worship, usually pre-empted in my denomination by the Baptism of Our Lord. We made an Epiphany house blessing part of our Twelfth Night party. Towards the end of the evening we encouraged everyone to bundle up, had lots of hot cocoa ready, and gathered all the party-goers at the back door of our house. We chalked it with the blessing (http://www.carmelites.net/news/chalking-door-2017-epiphany-house-blessing/) from our Episcopal/Catholic friends. Our kids see it every day of the year, until the chalk fades away and it is about time for the ritual again.
My spouse had lined our pergola with white lights, and after the blessing we all took our cocoa to the picnic table end and sang all 12 verses of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”! Three years in a row makes our Twelfth Night celebration a tradition, and my family’s unique contribution to our friends’ Christmas season.