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.
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.
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.