Mythical Monday: Traditions of Twelfth Night by Mae Clair

For those of you familiar with my blog, you’ve probably heard me mention that twelve is my favorite number. It plays into the name of my latest release, TWELFTH SUN, and also happens to be the name of my favorite Shakespeare play, TWELFTH NIGHT.

Given the winter season, I thought I’d use today’s Mythical Monday as a chance to look back on some of the traditions and folklore related to Twelfth Night. Depending on how you’re counting, it occurs on January 5th or 6th (yep, today!) but the traditions are centuries old. For many Christians, it marks the coming of the epiphany and concludes the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Turn back the clock to Medieval England and it marked the end of a winter festival begun on All Hallows Eve. On Twelfth Night, the King and his court traded places with the peasants. All those in attendance shared in a cake baked at the start of the festival. This confection contained a bean, hidden inside. Whoever found the bean was appointed the Lord of Misrule, who presided over the feast, signaling a world turned upside down. At midnight, his rule would end and the normal order was restored.

Elsewhere, farmers would take to their orchards at night with wassail, a hot mulled cider, used in a ritual to invoke a good harvest.  Often a king and queen would be chosen to lead a procession into the orchard. The group would sing loudly, hoping to awaken the spirit of the apple trees. The men would lift the queen into the branches where she’d place pieces of toast that had been soaked in wassail as a gift to the trees. Sometimes one of the men would mask himself as a bull, a symbol of fertility in hopes that the coming year would bring a good harvest.

bigstock-Hot-Mulled-Wine-Spices-And-Nu-51524908In Colonial America, Christmas wreaths were left on the doors until Twelfth Night. When taken down, any edible bits were removed and consumed as part of a feast. Fruit and nuts were common decorations woven through wreaths, and even used on Christmas trees.

Although I’ve never celebrated Twelfth Night with any type of festivities, I can’t help marking its passing in my mind. Perhaps it’s no more than harkening back to something touched by whimsy and magic. After the joy of Christmas and the glitter of New Years, it’s the last winter celebration of note before the long cold stretch of the remaining season. Perhaps I should brew some wassail for the occasion. 🙂

Here’s hoping your 2014 is off to a great start! Cheers!

22 thoughts on “Mythical Monday: Traditions of Twelfth Night by Mae Clair

  1. Don’t you always wonder who and why someone began a specific tradition…like giving soaked toast to trees, for instance…I mean, someone had to come up with that idea, and not only did they come up with it, everyone else around them had to think it one of the greatest ideas known to man! Still…more than likely the birds appreciated it!

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    • That is PRICELESS! 😀 Maybe the birds were behind it…an avian conspiracy. They probably hung around and waited every Twelfth Night for those bits of soaked toast and had their own celebration, LOLOL! I

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  2. Firs, wassail is one of my favorite winter drinks (well, besides pumpkin spice latte). ,In fact, this holiday season, I actually shared an awesome wassail recipe on my blog! Second, I think I would’ve gotten a kick out of finding the bean and being the Lady of Misrule. 🙂

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    • Apparently, I’m really in the minority having never partaken of wassail. It sounds like I’m missing something special. The Lord or Lady of Misrule….aren’t those cool names? How fun it must have been to be in charge for the night and dream up mischief!

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      • I know! Mae, you HAVE to try Wassail. Shoot, now I’m wishing I lived nearby so that we could have a winter Wassail/Snow in party…well, except for the whole part about me hating snow. 😀

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      • And don’t forget the cold. For our HIGH temperature tomorrow we’ll be lucky if we hit double digits. Sounds like the perfect day for wassail to me!

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  3. I love the idea of 12th Night. I think it is the final gloss on the fun and turns the focus to Spring and hope. I have Wassailed the trees more than once but never been put up in the branches.

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    • Oooh, you wassailed the trees! Was that on twelfth night? I don’t think I’d be overly fond of being hoisted into the branches (I’m afraid of heights) but the stroll around the orchard would be fun.

      I definitely agree that after the passing of twelfth night the focus should be all about spring 😀

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      • Yes, I Wasailed at a local historic house, the Wasail was poured to the roots, the drink soaked bread placed in the nooks and cranies of the the trees. It was great fun and meant to induce new growth and a fruitful crop. Lots of apples and pears.
        The branches were low down on those trees as they were managed trees so they grew at an overall lower level to make the picking easy.

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    • We have a Little Christmas here too, although I’m never sure of the date. I think it might be the 7th. Many people who celebrate it leave their Christmas trees and decorations up until then. Unlike me who takes then down on New Year’s Day 😉

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  4. You’re the first person I’ve met whose favorite number is twelve. I love the traditions of twelfth night. How merry the lord of misrule must have been upon finding the bean. Those people generally worked hard and deserved all the days of revelry they could muster. The activitiy of feeding the trees to ensure a bountiful harvest is also terribly appealing. Back then everything was more intertwined and “one” than we consider the world now, despite global, instant communication capabilities. Why shouldn’t we honor our apple trees that provide us with such delightful sustenance? Thanks for a great post.

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    • Flossie, I love the number twelve. There’s something pure and magical about it. Sometime in the past I even did a post on the mythology of twelve and legends related to it.

      I think in the past, people were far more aware of their surroundings and the hardships that went with them. They lived from the land and had to nurture it. While we still do, most people (including me) are out of touch with that aspect. My husband always tells me if I had to grow my own food, I’d starve. And there you have an idea of what kind of gardener I am, LOL!

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  5. Hi Mae! Today is also “Orthodox Christmas Eve” for those who are of Orthodox Faith (Greek or Russian or Ukranian are all I am familiar with) and don’t use the same calendar we do. In a week its New Year’s just like on our Roman based calendar.

    Different perspectives on the world from different sides of the world!

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    • Hi, Heather. Thank you for that! I couldn’t think of the proper name but have always heard it called “Little Christmas.” A past boss of mine was of Slavic decent and used to celebrate his Christmas on January 7th. It was driving me nuts I couldn’t remember the traditional name. All so interesting!

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  6. Hi Mae, you always find the most interesting stories.
    I have a friend who uses the Twelfth Day of Christmas as an excuse for being late sending out her cards.
    There are a ton of Wassail recipes on the internet. You may even find some Wassail mix still in the stores. Right now I’m drinking an herb tea that reminds me of Wassail. I bought it for my sore throat last week and have been drinking it every day since. It’s Yogi Throat Comfort and contains: wild cherry bark, licorice root, fennel seed, cinnamon bark, orange peel, slippery elm bark, cardamom seed, ginger root, mullein leaf, clove bud and black pepper!
    Have a great week!

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    • Hi, Christy. Sorry to hear about your sore throat. The tea sounds like just the thing to help! I went to a gift store tonight after work to buy a gift for a friend and I found a mulled cider mix in the gourmet section. I almost bought it (thinking of wassail) but the recipe on the back called for drinking it cold. I’ll have to keep looking. As cold as it’s going to be tomorrow I’ll be focused on finding something warm!

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  7. Hi Mae,

    Another great post. I’ve never even heard of Wassail. Twelve is a different number. Bet you’ll find a lot of quarterbacks with the number twelve on their jersey. My favorite number is seven. My high school boyfriend was number seven, so I took on number seven and have worn it for more years than I like to admit. Try and stay warm.

    Mary

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    • My hubby’s number when he played baseball in school was 7 and it’s still one of my favorites. I guess with your sunny weather and warm temps out there you wouldn’t need wassail. LOL. The wind is howling like a banshee as I type this. Ugh. Isn’t winter over yet? 🙂

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