The industrialization of Great Britain and the United States ended the extensive celebration of the Christmas holiday which began at All Saints’ Day or Halloween with the largest, most extravagant feast held on January 5th or January 6th, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, depending on if you counted from Christmas Day or from St. Stephen’s or Boxing Day. This time was ruled over by the Lord of Misrule or in some countries, the Boy Bishop. The general order of things was turned on its head–peasants were lords, play was the work of the day, and special foods untasted for most of the year were the basis of feasts. The fields were fallow and little agricultural work had to be done. Masked balls; pantomime plays; caroling with the expectation of food, drink or coin in return; honoring the animals and fields with bonfires and wassailing; giving tokens of appreciation to loved ones and food and clothing to the poor or one’s tenants were all part of this extended time of revelry. Many of the traditions of Twelfth Night were held dearly enough to be shifted to other holidays that still burned brightly as single days of celebration. Begging door to door evolved into contemporary trick-or-treating (which seems to be currently on the wane). The elaborate Twelfth Night cakes and tarts migrated to Christmas with the gold coin baked inside. Masked balls migrated to Halloween and continued into the Carnival season, as well. Pantomime survives in England and Epiphany, Twelfth Night’s more religious moniker, survives as an important holiday especially in Spanish-speaking, largely Catholic countries where cakes are baked and children receive small gifts to celebration the adoration of the Magi at the birth of Jesus. Epiphany also marks the beginning of Carnival.
In the rush of our modern lives when some of us work right through Christmas and New Year’s Day, the thought of a twelve-day holiday seems like a ridiculous endeavor. And, it is true, modern life does not bend well to celebrating from October first to January sixth and then right on to Mardi Gras. Unlike our agriculturally minded forebears, we don’t have a whole season of downtime. But, I do think there is much to be learned from these now bygone observations. These celebrations revolved around spending time with family and friends and engaging with one’s whole community. They centered on a spiritual life that celebrated a rebirth of the sun or the birth of a savior. We may not believe as these same ancient or more recent forebears did, but we can choose to celebrate each other without the trappings of our material-centered modern holiday where the Christmas season begins in July only because that’s when the Christmas decorations show up in stores. We can choose to adopt this time as our own time of rebirth, re-centering, recuperating, reconnecting…reveling.