January the 5th is the 11th Day of Christmas and the Twelfth Night of Christmas: Tradition has it that Christmas celebrations are to end today and decorations should be taken down on this day. However, a sprig of holly should be retained in the house to protect the occupants against lightning.
Twelfth Night celebrations were once very popular and traditionally, this night was one of the merriest in the Christmas season. Twelfth Night parties were held everywhere, ostensibly to celebrate the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem, however, many of the traditions surrounding the Night’s celebrations were pagan in origin.
A Twelfth Night cake was baked and a single bean was hidden in it. The person who found it in his piece became the Bean King for the Night. This tradition hails back to the Roman Saturnalia where a King was chosen by lot. The bean was a sacred seed in ancient times. A pea was sometimes baked in a cake in order to choose a Twelfth Night Queen, also. These cakes have now merged with the tradition of the Christmas Cake and the Christmas Pudding (the latter which may contain the silver sixpence to determine the lucky one amongst its consumers: Compare this with the Vasilopitta the Greek New Year’s cake that contains the lucky coin).
At the Twelfth Night party, it was customary to draw cards, on which were represented certain stock pantomime-like characters, exemplifying humorous national traits, for example, Farmer Mangelwurzel, François Parlez-Vous and Patrick O’Tater. People had to act out the part of their chosen character and also submit to the humorous “commands” of the Bean King. Much laughter, good humour, fine food and drink were expended on these occasions.
Snow-happy hicks of a boy’s world –
O crunch of bull’s eyes in the mouth,
O crunch of frost beneath the foot –
If time would only remain furled
In white, and thaw were not for certain
And snow would but stay put, stay put!
When the pillar-box wore a white bonnet –
O harmony of roof and hedge,
O parity of sight and thought –
And each flake had your number on it
And lives were round for not a number
But equalled nought, equalled nought!
But now the sphinx must change her shape –
O track that reappears through slush,
O broken riddle, burst grenade –
And lives must be pulled out like tape
To measure something not themselves,
Things not given but made, but made.
For now the time of gifts is gone –
O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill –
Here is dull earth to build upon
Undecorated; we have reached
Twelfth Night or what you will... you will.
Louis Macneice (1907-1963)
Illustration is: David Teniers the Younger: “Twelfth Night (The King Drinks)”. c. 1634-1640. Oil on canvas. 58 x 70 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.