The Twelve Days of Christmas
Conventionally on the Western Christian calendar, the twelve days begin the day after Christmas, on Boxing Day. When the tradition began, days were counted from sundown to sundown. So Christmas evening is First Night.
This means that last night, January 5th, is what has been known as Twelfth Night since the Middle Ages. The Twelfth Day of Christmas falls on January 6th and is celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany to commemorate the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem.
The wise men, who came to be known as the Three Kings – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar – who brought the Christ child gifts of frankincense, gold and myrhh. These gifts were traditional Epiphany gifts for centuries. Kings and queens became traditional representatives of Twelfth Night. And to this day, in predominantly Catholic cultures, Christmas presents are not given out until January 6th — something that would not have happened in England during the Regency.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Twelfth Night parties, or revels, were popular and featured games, charades, drinking punch or wassail and eating. A special Twelfth Cake, the forerunner of today’s Christmas cake, was the centerpiece of the party, and a slice distributed to all members of the household. By tradition, both a dried bean and a dried pea were baked into the cake.
The man receiving the slice with the bean was named King for the night; the pea’s presence identified the Queen. For the rest of the evening, they ruled supreme. Even if they were normally servants, their temporarily exalted position was recognized by all, including their masters.
By the early 19th century, the cakes had become very elaborate creations with sugar frosting, gilded paper trimmings, and sometimes decorated with delicate plaster of Paris or sugar paste figures, but no longer contained the dried beans and peas.
During the Regency period, the guests at the revels were expected to pick a slip of paper and maintain the role of the character written upon it for the evening. Besides the King and Queen, a variety of characters, often pulled from popular literature and plays, were put into the hat. Enterprising stationers even sold sets of characters for Twelfth Night celebrations.
One superstitious tradition that signaled the end of Christmastide was that by the End of Epiphany, all the decorations would be taken down and the greenery burned lest the household invite bad luck for the coming year.
Here We Come A-Wassailing
Many people went visiting or wassailing on Twelfth Night, a practice with roots in the Middle Ages’ custom of a reciprocal exchange between the feudal lord and their serfs. This was to distinguish this form of recipient initiated charity from begging as emphasized in the song, “Here We Come A-Wassailing”:
“we are not daily beggars that beg from door to door but we are friendly neighbours whom you have seen before.”
The lord would provide food and drink to the serfs for their blessing and goodwill, as communicated by the song. Wassailing is also the context alluded to in the English carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, which dates to sixteenth century England, which mentions the English tradition where wealthy community members hand out Christmas treats, like “figgy puddings” to carolers. The not leaving “until we get some” line refers to the rowdy groups of young men who demanded free food and drink more along the lines of extreme trick-or-treating, where refusal was met with a curse instead of a blessing and frequently included vandalism.
In the Western counties of England (notably in Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire) where cider is produced, wassailing also refers to drinking (and singing) to the health of trees in the hopes of waking the trees and scaring off the evil spirits to ensure a good harvest the next Autumn.
Orchard wassailing ceremonies vary from village to village but share common elements. A wassail King and Queen lead the song and/or a processional tune to be played/sung from one orchard to the next, the wassail Queen is then lifted into the tree where she places toast soaked in Wassail from the Clayen Cup as a gift to the tree spirits (showing the fruits created the previous year). Then an incantation is usually recited such as
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Then the assembled crowd sings, shouts, bangs drums and pots & pans and generally make a terrible racket until the gunmen give a great final volley through the branches to make sure the bad spirits are chased away and then they’re off to the next orchard.
This ancient English tradition is still practiced today. The West Country is the most famous and largest cider producing region of the country and two of the most important wassails are held annually in Carhampton (Somerset) and Whimple (Devon), both on 17 January (old Twelfth Night before the calendar shifted).
According to several diaries from the 1800s revealed that inhabitants of Somerset practised the old Wassailing Ceremony, singing the following lyrics after drinking the cider until they were “merry and gay”:
“Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills,
Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah, Holler biys, holler hurrah.”
Do the winter holidays hold special traditions for you and your family? Have you ever participated in traditions with friends or extended family from another religion or country that you’ve come to incorporate into your own celebrations?
More information regarding a variety of other Regency-themed topics can be found on my Regency Resource page. If you’d like more information on a specific place or topic, please let me know in the comments section below.