Twelfth Night

Not that you’ve probably noticed, but tonight is Twelfth Night – the evening before the Feast of the Epiphany that marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Traditionally this was the day that the Three Kings (aka Three Wise Men) visited the baby Jesus.

Twelfth Night celebrations

Celebrating Twelfth Night in style. January, from the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc du Berry, in Wikipedia

Here in Australia we have two ways of dealing with holidays. There are those that self-evidently must be celebrated on the date itself: Christmas, New Year’s Day, Anzac Day – and those that get shuffled off to extend the nearest weekend with an additional Monday: Labor Day, Queen’s Birthday. Good Friday and Easter meet both criteria, having the good grace (pun intended) to constitute a long weekend anyway.

Australia Day, on 26 January, has recently been upgraded from ‘nearest Monday when we can all veg out at the beach’ to ‘the day itself, and it’s about time you replaced those reindeer antlers on the car with Australian flags.’ But the traditional day for taking down the Christmas decorations was Twelfth Night.

The French have a different strategy with holidays: the festival, whether religious (All Saints) or nationalist (Bastille Day) is always celebrated on the day itself. If the holiday falls on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, workers get that day off, but if it falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, they faire le pont – ‘make a bridge’ – by getting the additional Monday or Friday off to make a 4-day weekend. And this is paid for in turn by those holidays that fall on a Saturday or Sunday, when no extra day is taken off. It all evens out in the long run – though the first thing every French worker does on New Year’s Day is check the calendar for the year’s ponts.

This year, because Christmas fell on a Thursday, here in Australia I feel we’ve been making a bridge ever since Christmas Eve, though with shift work and an increasing number of casuals in the workforce, it’s only some people who get to benefit from the long break.

We seem to be back with the pre-Reformation tradition of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which lasted from Christmas Day until 6 January, the Feast of the Epiphany. This period marked the turn of the seasons, but the New Year itself only started on 25 March, the Feast of the Assumption (I discussed this here). After Christmas itself, the Twelve Days had very little to do with religious observances, rather they were a time when people could devote themselves to the serious business of feasting and general over-consumption. Sound familiar?

In Medieval Europe it made sense. The hard work of preparing for winter – chopping wood, killing animals, preserving food – was over, and there was a pause before the hard work of preparing for spring began. The following Monday, Plough Monday, marked the end of the Christmas season for farmers, when the ploughing began.

Back to work. February, from the Tres Riches Heures

Back to work. February, from the Tres Riches Heures

Here in Australia, it is heat, not cold, that gives us pause at this time of year, but this Monday morning, most people will be back at work. I’m not particularly preoccupied by ploughing right now, but the university library reopens today and I need to get my library books renewed.

I fear the reindeer antlers will be around for a while longer.

Note: the complete set of images from the Très Riches Heures of the Duc du Berry are on Wikipedia here.

4 responses to “Twelfth Night

  1. Happy New Year, Marion. I get the sense that many people don’t really understand the twelve days of Christmas in a traditional way any more. Several people that I talked to before Christmas thought it meant that you were supposed to put up decorations/decorate a tree 12 days before Christmas. None of them had ever heard of Advent, despite the Advent Calendars in the shops. They were all quite startled at the idea that it was traditional to decorate the place on Christmas Eve (back in the dim and distant past, or perhaps long, long ago and far, far away.)
    Retail outlets are, I would guess, almost entirely responsible for the change, putting up decorations earlier and earlier. It used to be a shock to see them as early as November, but this year, I saw Christmas stuff in some shops well before Melbourne Cup Day.
    The reindeer ears will, of course, hang around until the Aussie flags appear, but generally, it seems to me that people are taking Christmas decorations down earlier, rather than later. All the Shopping Centre decorations had gone by Friday, for instance, although there were still some in some of the individual shop windows in Indooroopilly.
    So perhaps that is a bit of balance? decorations up earlier every year, but these days down well before Twelfth Night?

  2. Happy New Year, Sally. I called at an apartment block this morning and actually SAW the manager carefully taking down the decorations and packing them away for the year. So that’s somebody getting it right! But in general, I think the Christmas stuff goes up earlier and earlier, but the commercial outlets are keen to get rid of it as soon as they’ve so,d us all the presents and turkeys they can offload on us.
    Just don’t get me started on the cold blooded murder of Christmas carols on the Muzak system!

  3. Viviane Morrigan

    Thank you for a delightfully entertaining explanation (as always, which helps me to expand on my recent conversations with friends about this topic. I do so enjoy your posts.

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