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Twelfth Night

It seems rather hard luck to be returning to work at Christmas, but the season does not end until tomorrow. Today is the Twelfth Night, or the eve of Epiphany on the liturgical calendar, when the last of the ham and pudding are eaten, and the decorations taken down for another year.

Twelfth Night has always been a day of feasting and rejoicing, a natural conclusion to an extended holiday period. In pre-Christian England it marked a winter midpoint between Samhain (Hallowe’en) and Imbolc, a fire festival that coincides with Candlemas and St Bridget’s day (February 2).  On the Roman calendar, December-January brings Saturnalia, with celebrations and feasting. The medieval church adopted elements of Saturnalia into the church calendar, aligning Twelfth Night with the Feast of Fools, a holiday presided over by a Lord of Misrule.  For a few hours, piety would be outraged, and authority turned on its head. An altar-boy or apprentice would be elected Bishop for a day, dressing in clerical robes and issuing orders to his ‘flock’. Sometimes he might wear a fox’s head above the robes in honour of Lord Reynard, the wiliest animal. Thus the church embraced and contained anti-clericalism and the satirical spirit in a show of ‘carnival’. You can sometimes see such images of misrule in parish churches, as for example this pew-end in St Michael’s church, Brent Knoll.

Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night for performance at the Middle Temple in 1602, using inverted authority and disorder as a plot device. Malvolio the Puritan spoilsport finds that he is the victim of Sir Toby Belch’s Christmas larks. Out in the countryside, however, Twelfth Night retains some features of its origins as an agricultural and seasonal festival.  In the apple-growing districts, revelers celebrated in the orchards, blessing trees and offering them a sacrifice of bread (yeast barm?) – perhaps an echo of the Roman offerings to Pomona, queen of the apple trees.  ‘Wassailing’ is an Old English term for these cider-drinking revels, and although the ceremonies are now pretty much neglected, many British folk songs commemorate this mysterious time of year, and allow us a glimpse into lost ways of life.

Enjoy the last few hours of holiday cheer. Waes hael.

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