Made famous by the Shakespearean play, Twelfth Night marks the end of the Christmas season.
Twelve Days of Christmas
In Christianity, Twelfth Night is a holiday on January 5 that marks the 12th and final night of the Christmas season. The Twelve Days of Christmas are the twelve days beginning on night of Christmas (December 25) and ending on Epiphany (January 6).
In the Middle Ages, this December period was one of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climaxed on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season. Contrary to popular belief, Christmas is not the “first day of the Christmas.” Instead, it might be better described as the twelve days “after” Christmas.
By ancient reckoning, days and nights were counted separately, and the important night was often the night before, not the night of, the celebration (hence modern traditions of Christmas Eve and All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween). The 12 day count actually begins with the eve of December 25, the “first night.” The day of December 26 is the “first day,” the eve of December 26 the “second night,” and so on. The famous Twelfth Night is the eve of Epiphany, and the twelfth day is Epiphany itself.
Twelfth Night: Traditions and History
During the twelve days of Christmas, traditional roles were often relaxed, masters waited on their servants, men were allowed to dress as women, and women as men. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels. Some of these traditions were adapted from older, pagan customs, including the Roman Saturnalia. Some also have an echo in modern day pantomime where traditionally authority is mocked and the principal male lead is played by a woman, while the leading older female character, or ‘Dame’ is played by a man.
In Tudor England, the Twelfth Night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve, which is now celebrated as Halloween. A King or Lord of Misrule would be appointed to run the Christmas festivities, and the Twelfth Night was the end of his period of rule. The common theme was that the normal order of things was reversed. This Lord of Misrule tradition can be traced back to pre-Christian European festivals such as the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia.
After Twelfth Night the Carnival season starts, which lasts through Mardi Gras. In some places, Twelfth Night celebrations include food traditions such as the king cake or tortell. The Shakespeare play Twelfth Night, or What You Will was originally written to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment.