HomeCultureTwelfth Night: Meaning & History Behind 'Epiphany Eve' Explained

Twelfth Night: Meaning & History Behind ‘Epiphany Eve’ Explained

Who said Christmas is for just one day and that Twelfth Night is all about Shakespeare? Contrary to the popular belief, Christmas Day (December 25) marks the beginning of the twelve days of feasting and celebration, which ends on Ephiphany Eve (Jan. 6). Wondering what is the meaning behind the twelfth night? Read on to learn the history behind this night.

What Is Twelfth Night?

The “Twelfth Night”, aka ‘Epiphany Eve’ refers to the 12th night of Christmas, a day that commemorates the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus. Contrary to popular belief, many traditions suggest that December, 25 is only the beginning of Christmas and ends with Ephiphany eve, marking the twelfth night as the end of almost two weeks of celebrations.

If you aren’t aware, some English-speaking countries believe that it’s a bad omen to leave Christmas decorations hanging after the Twelfth Night. This superstition is also related to festivals like Good Friday, Shrove Tuesday and Candlemas (Feb. 2)

Is Twelfth Night on Jan. 5 Or Jan.6?

Many western ecclesiastical traditions consider Christmas as the first day of almost two weeks of celebration. In this manner, Epiphany Even falls on January 5, making it the twelfth night of Christmas. However, in other customs, Christmas is counted from December 26 i.e. after sundown on the evening of 25 December. In this manner, Epiphany Eve is celebrated by some on Jan. 6.

For instance, the Church of England consider Twelfth Night to be the eve of the Twelfth Day, and thus celebrates Epiphany Eve on Jan. 5. Another confusion is the use of the word “Eve”, which literally means “the day or evening before an event”. But again, in antiquated usage, it can simply refer to “evening”.

Both, the Church of England and Mother Church of the Anglican Communion celebrate Twelfth Night on the 5th and consider this as the night before Epiphany when the wise men visited baby Jesus.

Bruce Forbes, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church once wrote, “In 567 the Council of Tours proclaimed that the entire period between Christmas and Epiphany should be considered part of the celebration, creating what became known as the twelve days of Christmas, or what the English called Christmastide.”

He added, “On the last of the twelve days, called Twelfth Night, various cultures developed a wide range of additional special festivities. The variation extends even to the issue of how to count the days. If Christmas Day is the first of the twelve days, then Twelfth Night would be on January 5, the eve of Epiphany. If December 26, the day after Christmas, is the first day, then Twelfth Night falls on January 6, the evening of Epiphany itself.”

History Behind The Twelfth Night

The relevance of the Twelfth Night goes back to 567 A.D. when the Council of Tours (medieval Roman Catholic Church) “proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast.”

Historians like Christopher Hill and William J. Federer suggested that the council’s decision came as a means to solve the “administrative problem for the Roman Empire as it tried to coordinate the solar Julian calendar with the lunar calendars of its provinces in the east.”

Christopher Hill, as well as William J. Federer, states that this was done to solve the “administrative problem for the Roman Empire as it tried to coordinate the solar Julian calendar with the lunar calendars of its provinces in the east.” Apart from this, in medieval and Tudor England, Candlemas marked the end of the Christmas season, but later, Twelfth Night was considered the end of Christmastide. 

For instance, a famous Twelfth Night tradition was to hide a pea or a bean inside the cake. The one who finds it would be proclaimed Lord or Kind of Misrule/ Lady or Queen of Misrule. Well, this was the only time in the year when commoners were allowed to mix with their masters, and sometimes even switch roles amid this tradition.

On the Twelfth Night, the commoner who found the pea would lead the drinking and debauchery. After the selection of the King/ Queen of Misrule, the Twelfth Night parties would include singing carols and feasting. However, once this eve was over, things would go back to normal with social norms in place and debauchery would again be frowned upon.

In simpler terms, Twelfth Night was all about Misrule and rowdy partying, pranks, shenanigans, role-playing, gender-swapping and whatnot. Well, that’s the case when a “Lord of Misrule” guides your judgments.

So yea, Twelfth night is more than Shakespeare’s play! For a very long time, Twelfth Night was considered an extremely popular European winter feast. However, in the 16th and 17th centuries, Twelfth Night became a rather bawdy affair. If you don’t know this, the eve became more about mockery after the focus shifted to King Herod, who ordered the massacre of infants.

The Dutch completely banned public performances in the late 16th century and for them, the Twelfth Night became a more private affair. People started feasting indoors and played games like candle-jumping, songs, paper crowns etc.

As for the celebrations, a punch called wassail is consumed during the Twelfth Night. Apart from this, people across the world bake pastries like tortell and king cake on the eve. Some people even chalk their doors as a way of blessing their residence. Historically, the tradition was celebrated through the Regency and Victorian eras and made its way to America. But again, even though it’s celebrated in many English countries, it’s not much of a holiday in the United States.

But again, in some countries, Twelfth Night and Epiphany mark the beginning of the Carnival season. For instance, Carnival in New Orleans lasts through Mardi Gras Day. In Ireland, people still follow the tradition of placing the states of the Three Kings in the crib on this night or the following day, Little Christmas (Jan. 6). Well, if you weren’t aware, it’s time to place back your decorations because festivities aren’t over yet!

I am Mallika Singh, a lawyer and writer by profession. Writing gives me a sense of freedom and independence. I am a keen observer and an ardent reader. When not at work, you can find me at the stable. Horse riding is another passion that keeps me going.


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