Twelfth Night and the Twelve Days of Yule

by Mary Hand and Jeannine Mendoza, Ed.D

Did you ever wonder how our Christmas celebrations happened to occur during the shortest days of the year?

Before the birth of Christ, the natural world played a formidable role in the lives of people long ago, and affected all aspects of daily life. The combination of short, chilly days and long, dark, cold nights resulted in  specific holidays that celebrated life and light.  In ancient times, the twelve days of Yuletide began on the winter solstice and ended on January 1. Christianity revised this pagan celebration to the Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Twelvetide, beginning Christmas Day and ending on the 5th of January, with the last day being Twelfth Night (Epiphany Eve). Twelvetide is a time of holy nights dedicated to glorifying God. It also is a time of feasting, resting, revelry, and charity. This collision of cultures, the sacred and the secular, has evolved to how we celebrate winter holidays today. 

Twelfth Night is also the eve of Epiphany.

This was the day the day that baby Jesus is presented at the Temple, and the day the Magi, or Wise Men, came to visit baby Jesus, bringing with them the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Besides influencing gift giving at holiday time forever, Twelfth Night also was a time when the regular rules of societal behavior were suspended and nobility and commoners celebrated as one. As the last night of Twelvetide, a traditional holiday cake with  a pea and a bean inside was cut and enjoyed. The man who found the bean in his cake would be the King of Misrule and would lead the drinking and debauchery. The woman who found the pea would be the Queen of Disrule. Twelvetide was an annual opportunity for people to celebrate life and each other during the darkest days of winter.

Twelvetide, also known as Twelve Nights, played a major role in providing entertainment during the gloomy, winter days with feasting, dancing, music making, and general merrymaking, a tradition that began long ago. Performances relating the story of the Nativity, Christmas songs and carols added to the fun.  Many of today’s customs date back to those same festivities from centuries ago and are evident in the plethora of amusements and activities available during the holiday season. We owe it to ourselves to enjoy this special season of love and light that comes only once a year.  Happy New Year, everyone!