You might not realise it but today (or indeed yesterday depending on your calendar) is 12th night. In my street most of the Christmas decorations have been taken down with people and you could be forgiven for thinking Christmas is over if your Christmas revolves around spending money and the back to work depression has set in.
Historically though when it comes to Christmas we are really just getting started, especially in Orthodox countries such as Russia or Greece where traditionally 6th January is Epiphany. It remembers the event of the 3 Kings/Wise Men or as we adults are meant to call them, Maji who arrived a little late (but better late than never) at baby Jesus.
Traditionally Christmastide or Christmastime used to last until 2nd February and Candlemas, at least until our Victorian ancestors decided that we should take life a bit more seriously and solemnly so Christmas was curtailed and wrapped up on 12th night.
Whilst Epiphany is still very important in many countries, in most western ones, it is all but forgotten. That wasn’t the case just 100 years ago and in the Middle-Ages if there was a competition between Christmas Day and Epiphany then it would be the January date that everyone looked forward to.
The Victorians though started the rumour that it would be bad luck if we kept out decorations and Christmas spirit up past the 12th night, maybe they wanted us to get back to work or perhaps concentrate on getting back into church and concentrating on saving our souls rather than thinking back and indeed forward to the nearest excuse for a party.
In England until WW2 at least 12th night was the night for Wassailers who would go round the street from house to house singing as they went rather like carol singers. Mulled Cider would be on the menu and people would greet each other and pass on good tidings in a tradition that goes back to Viking times. In SW England in particular, people would gather in Apple orchard groves to dispel evil spirits and awake the fruit trees so that the next harvest would be a bountiful one.
Old Apple tree, old apple tree;
We’ve come to wassail thee;
To bear and to bow apples enow;
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full;
Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs
Jokes would also be told and there would be general tomfoolery much in the spirit of April Fools Day. Mummers plays would also be held in local communities, often pubs and guest houses were masked men would perform with the word Mummer possibly coming from the Greek word for Mask (Mommo).
In mummers’ plays, the central incident is the killing and restoring to life of one of the characters. The characters may be introduced in a series of short speeches (usually in rhyming couplets) in which each personage has his own introductory announcement, or they may introduce themselves in the course of the play’s action. The principal characters, presented in a wide variety of manner and style, are a Hero, his chief opponent, the Fool, and a quack Doctor; the defining feature of mumming plays is the Doctor, and the main purpose of the fight is to provide him with a patient to cure. The hero sometimes kills and sometimes is killed by his opponent; in either case, the Doctor comes to restore the dead man to life.
In some places it is traditional to keep some of the Christmas Pudding to eat on 12th night whilst in the United States people used to hang wreaths on their front door and come 12th night when they removed them, the residents could eat any edible portions of it which remained in good condition.
I think it is a bit sad that we have forgotten about this special night especially considering how dark and cold it is for most of us and with no holiday to look forward to until Easter or the first spring and summer public holidays.
Happily in some areas of the U.K.people are taking more interest in Wassailing and in Mummers plays and even today the Holly Man still emerges from the River Thames in all his pagan and evergreen glory.
I’m not entirely crazy and won’t keep up all my decorations up until February unlike in some South American countries but I will keep my big chunky candles I bought at the end of November and have them lit throughout January, if they last that long.
There are so many mundane months through the year so why not join me and keep a few symbols of Christmas going until February as our ancestors did in the good-old days and prolong the merriment!