The twelve days of Christmastide, celebrated with extravagant gifts in the Christmas carol, begin with Christmas day and end with the Feast of the Epiphany. The Epiphany was the day on which the Christian church remembered the ‘manifestation’ (which is what the word Epiphany means) of the Christ child to the Gentiles, in the form of the wise men, or Magi. Since at least medieval times, the Feast has been celebrated with gift giving in emulation of the Magi. And other party stuff. Those medieval types knew how to party.
Like all the great traditional Church feasts, the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany begins the night before. AS did the Jews before them, the church counted (and counts) the new day as beginning at sundown, and Twelfth Night Eve is part of Twelfth Day, just as Christmas Eve is part of Christmas Day, and All Hallows Eve (now called Halloween) is part of All Saints Day.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, the English Catholic tradition had long been buried under a mix of Puritan reforms and pagan accretions, but many of the medieval traditions survived. The king still offered gold, myrrh, and frankincense at the Chapel Royal at St James. Mummers paraded, masked balls abounded, wassailers saluted the apple trees and one another with hot spiced cider, and at parties, a king and queen for the day were chosen to rule the festivities, usually by the randomising method of who found a bean (king) or a pea (pea) in their slice of Twelfth Night Cake. In this blog post written for a Christmas blog hop three years ago, I show Avery Hall, Candle’s home, during a Twelfth Night Eve party.
Like most of the West, my household follows the Victorian tradition of presents on Christmas Day rather than spreading them through Christmastide or giving them on the Feast of the Epiphany, but one tradition we stick to is taking down all the Christmas decorations before sunset on 6th January. Not that we believe goblins will invade if we ignore the tradition. But still. That’s my job for tomorrow.