• Jessica Bartlett

If music be the food of love play on.... Twelfth Night traditions and rituals

Updated: Feb 2



I love traditions and folklore; I feel they set a tone of magic and wonder into our lives. I was taking down my Christmas decorations today because it is twelfth night and I wanted to find out more and clear up the question of when exactly is twelfth night. All I knew is that it is unlucky to have your decorations up passed this point and I’ve always counted that from Christmas…. Landing 12th night on the 5th January. This worked out well this year as my children went back to school today and so tidying and bringing Christmas to an end neatly. Some people count twelve days from boxing day making it the evening of Epiphany, the date in the Christian calendar of when the wise men arrived in Bethlehem. Not an event that is often acknowledged in a primary school nativity!


So, other than removing the Christmas decorations and bringing Christmas to an end what other traditions are there? I wondering if there are any new rituals I can bring into our own household. There is a tradition that a pea (or bean) is hidden in a cake and whomever finds it becomes ‘king’ for the day. This was also an event at a Twelfth Night party or a ‘Festival of Misrule that allowed the finder of the bean to take on the position of ‘Lord of Misrule’ for the party. This is the kind of role reversal, mistaken identities and larking about that occurs in Shakespeare’s play 12th night. I really like this idea and might try to plan something for next year. Make more of a celebration out of the occasion even if it’s donning masks and eating cake.


In my googling around the subject, I came across references to Wassail festivities. This is of particular interest to me as I grew up in Devon and now live in Somerset (well, Bristol technically) and so cider is a regional drink of choice. This is an event that I know to take place on the 17th January which I didn’t know is deemed the Old Twelfth Night (based on an old calendar year). Now there’s a third date that could be linked to it! Wassailing is where we celebrate the apple tree in a bid to ward of evil spirits and get a good harvest. Songs are sung and warm cider is drunk. The apple trees are decorated and cider is poured on to their roots. Bread soaked in cider is hung from branches so that birds can feast and carry off any evil spirits. It’s a good excuse to get together in the darker months of winter for a celebration.


Many of the references I found to twelfth night rituals seem to be about mischief and mayhem…. maybe because of the cider and extended Yuletide festivities!? This sort of playfulness is just the ticket for the long winter nights.


Do you have any traditions or rituals for January? I would love to hear about them. A lot of my work involves celebrating or marking key life events and I find this sort of thing fascinating.

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