Thursday, 7 January 2016


“Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit.” ― William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

January 6 is the Twelfth Day of Christmas. It is also the Epiphany (also called Theophany), which the Eastern Church, the Orthodox Christians, celebrate with particular brilliance as the day Christ was baptised by John the Baptist. On the other hand, the Western Christian Churches celebrate on this day the Arrival of the Magi at Bethlehem, where they presented the Christ Child with their gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.

As Epiphany Eve (that is, the Twelfth Night), especially, was associated with the arrival of the Magi, in many countries children expected to be left gifts in their shoes or stockings. In Italy, an ugly but kind witch, called La Befana, came and distributed sweets and presents to the good children. In Syria, children were brought presents by the smallest of the Magi’s camels. This is because according to tradition, the other two camels lost their determination and strength on the way to Bethlehem and they were about to give up. The smallest camel, however, refused to give up and was rewarded by Jesus with immortality for its belief in Him.

Tradition has it that Christmas celebrations are to end on the Twelfth Night of Christmas 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. Midnight signalled the end of their rule and the world would return to normal. 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.

In medieval and Tudor England, the Twelfth Night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve (Halloween). The Lord of Misrule reigned on this day and symbolises the world turning upside down. This Lord of Misrule tradition dates back to pre-Christian European festivals such as the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Food and drink are the centre of the celebrations in modern times, and all of the most traditional ones go back many centuries. The punch called wassail is consumed especially on Twelfth Night, but throughout Christmas time, especially in the UK. Around the world, special pastries, such as the tortell and king cake are baked on Twelfth Night, and eaten the following day for the Feast of the Epiphany celebrations. To herald the celebration (especially in the countryside), the extraordinary Holly Man (the Winter guise of the Green Man from pagan myths and folklore) decked in fantastic green garb and evergreen foliage may appear in order to ensure that Spring arrives on time and the crops do not fail.

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.


  1. the photo, dear Nicholas - it is such a living motive - and the article reminds of some old german rituals , one could say european rituals, which exist here too!
    Herzlich Pippa

  2. Happy12th Night, Nicholas. We celebrate Ephihany in church but it is nothing secular here. I have heard the people should take down their Christmas trees.

    Hope to see you for Midweek Motif: Wednesday. Theme is "Food" something which YOU should be able to identify with. Smiles.

  3. A pity we have forgotten all those great old customs. It's all commercialised rubbish now.