OUT WITH the old, in with the new. After the sombre removal of the Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night, January 6 sees a distinct change of mood with the celebrations marking the feast of the Epiphany.
And anyone feeling a little sad at the lights and tinsel disappearing for another year can always look forward to Candlemas Day on February 2, which since pre-Christian times has been a feast of lights celebrating the increasing strength of the sun as winter gives way to spring.
Epiphany, also known as Three Kings’ Day, originated in the East with Christians celebrating the birth and baptism of Jesus. The Western Church began following it in the 4th century as the day the wise men were led by the star to visit baby Jesus, according to the story of the Nativity.
The traditional English Christmas has its origins in the ninth century, when King Alfred the Great enshrined in law the importance of keeping the church’s feasts. He commanded that there should be a holiday on Christmas Day and the 12 days that followed, for it was believed that the Magi had journeyed for 12 days to see the infant Jesus.
The twelve days of Christmas would have been a most welcome break for the workers on the land, which in Tudor times would have been the majority of the people. All work, except for looking after the animals, would stop, restarting again on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, as Ben Johnson explains.
As with all good traditions, there’s no universal agreement over the exact timing of Twelfth Night, since some regard Christmas Day as being the first day of Christmas, while others believe the 12 days begin on Boxing Day.
But the Victorians began the tradition that it should be the night that Christmas trees and decorations should be taken down, to avoid bad luck after the season of merriment (and to encourage everybody to get back to work).
There’s similar disagreement over the precise details of the story of the Magi: how many wise men actually visited, for example? And when was this? Some theologians argue that Christ would have been around two years old, since the wise men followed the star for two years and King Herod had all children two years and under massacred; by that time the Holy Family would also have moved out of the stables and into more permanent accommodation.
Maybe the precise details don’t matter too much – after all, it was Pope Julius I who had the bright idea of adopting 25th December as the actual date of the Nativity, helpfully blurring religion with existing feast days and celebrations.
By Shakespeare’s day, as well as the carols and church-going, Twelfth Night would have been marked by music, masked balls and feasting – and it was in this context that he wrote his raucous comedy Twelfth Night (or What You Will), as fitting entertainment to close the Christmas season.
The first record of its performance comes from Candlemas of 1602 to bring down the curtain on Tudor festive celebration which used to last throughout the month of January.
In fact, many of our favourite Christmas traditions date back to the Tudor period, it seems, including carol-singing, present-giving, mulled wine and mince pies, as the BBC’s History Extra magazine explains with the help of Alison Weir and Siobhan Clarke – authors of the 2018 book A Tudor Christmas.
So if the sight of those bedraggled Christmas trees got you feeling a little down, don’t despair – the spirit of Epiphany is upon us, and Candlemas is just around the corner!