Most Americans probably associate Twelfth Night celebrations with books and movies about England, not to mention Shakespeare’s play of that name. In reality, Twelfth Night traditions have a long history in many western European countries, and in some places is still celebrated. Even in the US, New Orleans, who knows how to throw a party, celebrates the night.
There is some disagreement about whether Twelfth Night is January 5th or 6th. If it is the 5th, it is the eve of Epiphany, the day celebrating the Three Kings’ arrival in Bethlehem. Different places have different traditions, and it all depends on when you start counting. If you start on Christmas Day, then Twelfth Night is January 5th, which seems to be the more common date. If you’re like me, you sang the “Twelve Days of Christmas” for years without knowing just what those twelve days were.
In my story, “The Star Lantern,” in our upcoming anthology, Beneath a Midwinter Moon, we are in the Dutch Republic on January 5th, 1660. At that time festivities started with the boy in the family who found a bean in his morning bread being named king for the day. It doesn’t seem like the king had much authority, but he did wear a crown. This was sometimes purchased from a peddler who sold prints with a simple representation of the Mary and her babe or the three kings. The more elaborate ones were painted with red, blue, and green. For even more sparkle, this could then be glued to gilded pasteboard.
In addition to the crown, the king was also given the honor of carrying the star lantern from house to house as the group serenaded neighbors with seasonal songs. The star would be suspended from a pole to be held up high, and usually had from five to eight points. The songs were about the only religious aspect of the celebration, as they usually portrayed the kings’ journey to see the newborn child. Singing was an integral part of Dutch life, and in this print-rich and literate society, one could easily purchase individual sheets or small booklets of songs..
Another custom consisted of challenging children to jump over three lit candles, which for some reason represented the kings, without knocking them over or blowing them out. In the lower right corner of the painting at the beginning of this post, “A Twelfth Night Feast: the King Drinks” by Jan Steen, a child is about to participate in the ritual. It’s a bit hard to imagine today’s parents encouraging that activity.
Of course, there were special food and drinks, with waffles always part of the menu. While the official religion was a Protestant Calvinist one, this did not deter people from overindulging. In the print below, the middle figure may represent the Glutton, and the figure on the right the Fool, identified by the spoon on the brim of his hat. Both characters were often part of Twelfth Night celebrations. One can understand why the government might have thought things were getting too wild, and for a while they tried to ban the celebrations. Happily that doesn’t seem to have stuck.
Skating on the canals was also part of the celebration, as they were often frozen at this time of year. This was especially true in the seventeenth century, when northern Europe was experiencing the “Little Ice Age.” The engraving below shows the mayhem of the day. It’s difficult to see here, but on the bridge toward the right someone is holding up a star lantern.
I really enjoyed researching for my story, because I decorate a lot for Christmas, and I always give the excuse that I shouldn’t have to put things away until Epiphany. Imagine my delight then, to find that some traditions say that is precisely when you should take them down. The penalty for not doing so is bad luck, which I don’t feel too great about, and some say that if you don’t take them down, you must leave them up all year! I also found something that said you have another chance if you take them down by Candlemas, February 2nd. Don’t tell my husband, though. He would love to have me leave the Christmas decorations up, and has even started to advocate for Valentine’s Day.
Award-winning author Rebecca D’Harlingue writes about seventeenth-century women forging a different path. Her debut novel, The Lines Between Us, won an Independent Press Award and a CIBA Chaucer Award. Her next novel, The Map Colorist, comes out in September, 2023.