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On The Twelfth Night of Christmas

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Design drawing for stained glass window showing The Epiphany, by J. & R. Lamb Studios. Prints and Photographs Division.
Design drawing for stained glass window showing The Epiphany, by J. & R. Lamb Studios. Prints and Photographs Division.

Just when you thought the holiday season was over, Carnival Season is excitedly waiting at its heels. I admit, my Christmas Tree and other decorations are still up, not only because I am a tad lazy when it comes to taking them down but also because traditionally they should be taken down on Twelfth Night. Depending on which faith, it’s either January 5 or January 6. The holiday is so called because traditionally, Christmas was a 12- day celebration, beginning on December 25. The confusion lies in whether you start counting on or after Christmas.

Concluding the 12 days of Christmas is Epiphany, or the manifestation of Jesus Christ to the world and the coming of the Magi, which is officially January 6. Many in my original neck of the woods also mark this as King’s Day, not only for religious purposes but for the start of Mardi Gras and king cake season. Shame on you should you eat a slice before you official should. (Guess what, I already have!)

In 1481, Leonardo da Vinci painted an altarpiece celebrating the “Adoration of the Magi.” In one of the preparatory drawings, he drew a perspective grid in order to place the architectural structures, human figures and animals in a realistically proportioned way. This study kept in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, was shown for the first time ever in the United States on Dec. 7-8, 2006, at the Library of Congress.

Act V. Scene I of "Twelfth Night," by William Shakespeare. Prints and Photographs Division.
Act V. Scene I of “Twelfth Night,” by William Shakespeare. Prints and Photographs Division.

Also considered a time of merrymaking, some cultures mark the occasion by exchanging of gifts, and Twelfth Night, as the eve of the Epiphany, takes on a similar significance to Christmas Eve. In Tudor England, the Twelfth Night marked the end of an autumn/winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve, which is now celebrated as Halloween. On this day, the king and his upperechelon would become the peasants, and vise-versa. At the beginning of the Twelfth Night festival, a cake containing a bean was eaten. The person who found the bean became king and would run the feast. Midnight signaled the end of his rule and the world would return to normal.

Harkening back to this tradition is perhaps what influenced the turn of events in William Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night, or What You Will,” which centers on mistaken identity, long-lost siblings and a rather unconventional love triangle. By searching for “twelfth night” or “Shakespeare” in the Library’s online collections, you can find sheet music in “Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1820-1860 and 1870-1885,” historical newspapers in Chronicling America, a variety of photographs and prints and this recording from The National Jukebox.

You can read further on Epiphany and how it’s represented in our folklife collections in this blog post from Folklife Today.


Comments (6)

  1. Glad to hear someone else doesn’t take their tree down until after Epiphany on January 6. In a pathetic attempt to avoid Christmas creep into October, I also don’t put mine up until my mom’s birthday, December 14 — do you follow that rule?

  2. Dear Blogger: Thanks for this beautiful page. I wish you a very happy year 2017.

  3. Some die-hards wait until the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2, also known as Candlemas Day, also known as Ground Hog Day.

  4. Thank you for your informative blog about Epiphany. In Tudor times you wouldn’t be late taking down your tree as decorations were kept up until Candlemass–February 2–forty days after Christmas.

  5. Well, I’m several years late to the party! But I found this when I Googled “Twelfth Night” not Shakespeare.
    I was seeking what it really meant after reading a long caption about a statue on the Faroe Islands in Denmark, of the mythical Kópakonan (The Seal Wife-a selkie) Myth says that once every year on Twelfth Night, they could shed their seal skins, assume human form, and revel in earthly pleasures for a short time.
    So – if you’re near a cold water ocean – watch for them on Sat Jan 6th 2024!!

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