Since my family has been celebrating Twelfth Night since the 16th Century, I find some of the information I have surfaced about it by a search on Google slanted in suggesting it originated with the early Christians. But it had been widely celebrated in Britain and other European nations for centuries before Christian evangelists arrived in those countries. It was so much a part of the winter solstice ceremonies that the missionaries realized they could not get rid of it. So, like a few other well-founded Druidic ceremonies, they simply adopted it. Some historical researchers have actually stated that since the early Roman Church could not decide on a birth date for Jesus they decided to use the starting date for Yule, December 25th, as the start of the Twelve Days of Christmas which finished on Twelfth Night, January 5th.
My ‘ancient’ family celebrated Christmas by getting ready for the Yule celebrations on December 13th, twelve days before what had become Christmas Day. These preparations included cutting down mistletoe and holly branches for decorations, going into the woods and cutting down a suitable old tree for their Yule Log, cooking special foods associated with Yule and creating suitably flamboyant robes for this very special event. Then, starting on the 25th, they celebrated right through until Twelfth Night when, just as the ancient Druids did long before them, they had a final feast to ensure no Yule food or drinks were left over. They also took down all the mistletoe and holly branches. Some records also suggest that, at midnight the druidic people stripped off the robes they had created for the festivities. In 16th century churches they celebrated a midnight mass but rather than the congregations stripping down, they watched priests taking off their Christmas stoles and putting on the Advent versions – but does that relate to the Druids practice?
In certain parts of the United Kingdom they still celebrate 12th Night and invite friends to visit and help them strip the decorations and, in some cases, burn the tree – it was not one of the original Yule symbols as it was introduced into Great Britain by Prince Albert from his German background – but they do encourage visitors to eat up all the special food cooked or bought for the celebration.
The arrival of Santa Claus has discouraged the continuance of many of these ancient activities. Commercial practices allied to his arrival have also encouraged a start for Christmas so far in advance of the original ‘Twelve Days of Yule/Christmas’ that by Boxing Day most people have had enough and just put Christmas back into basement boxes.
I still try to observe the Yuletide ceremony of Twelfth Night, but my grand-children may well consider it one of those things that Grampa does that’s ‘different’.
By David Chesterton
Editor’s Note – Our locally-based Orange-Peel Carollers will be carolling, and mummering, at the Mill Race Folk Society’s annual Twelfth Night in Cambridge in the evening of this coming January 9th.