WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 5: If you’ve ever sung “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” today is 12—also known as the night before the Epiphany. Not all Christians recognize Twelfth Night, or the eve of the Epiphany, anymore. Still, it’s been customary for centuries to extend Christmas festivities through Twelfth Night. (Get one Orthodox Christian perspective at Antiochian.org.) In some English-speaking countries, conventional wisdom still holds that it’s bad luck to display Christmas decorations past Twelfth Night!
The roots of Twelfth Night are likely in a merry winter festival enjoyed by ancient pagans. As late as the Middle Ages, Twelfth Night modeled the pagan celebration. (This year in Salt Lake City, a Twelfth Night concert will include Renaissance and Baroque musical pieces.) In Medieval courts, Twelfth Night made a servant the Lord of Misrule, and masters would serve servants for the night. Everything that was normal became abnormal on Twelfth Night, and only at midnight the world returned to a normal state. (Wikipedia has details.) Shakespeare’s play of the same name magnifies this bizarre evening of eccentric activities.
Traditionally, a wassail punch is consumed on Twelfth Night, along with a king cake and plenty of other foods for feasting. During the past two centuries, when Christmas decorations were often fashioned from living materials, it was customary to eat any edible portions of Christmas wreaths and Christmas trees—like decorative fruits and nuts—on Twelfth Night, after which the decorations were taken down.