Q. What is the holiday known as “Twelfth Night”?
A. In most of the Western Church, the “Twelve Days of Christmas” are the 12 days beginning with Christmas Day itself and concluding with the vigil of Epiphany on the traditional calendar. (The traditional observance of Epiphany was on January 6, so January 5 would be the last of the 12 days). Epiphany, of course, honors the visit of the Wise Men (also called “Magi” or “Kings”) to worship the baby Jesus (see Matthew 2:1–12).
In some traditions, the “Twelve Days of Christmas” begin instead on the evening of December 25 with the following day, December 26, considered the “First Day” of Christmas. In these traditions, the 12 days thus include Epiphany itself (January 6).
The merrymaking celebration called “Twelfth Night” (that is, the twelfth night of the Twelve Days of Christmas) traditionally took place throughout parts of Western Europe on the evening of January 5, the vigil of Epiphany. It was observed by feasting, plays, and all kinds of tomfoolery. Some of its distinctive customs apparently had their roots in celebrations that pre-dated the coming of the Christian faith to that area of the world.
The customary fare for Twelfth Night feasting in England featured “wassail,” an ale-based drink mixed with honey and spices. It was served in large bowls passed among family members and friends with the greeting “Wassail!” which comes from the old English phrase “Waes hael,” meaning “Be well!”
Also important for Twelfth Night celebrations was the “Kings’ Cake,” in honor of the visit of the “Kings” who came to worship Our Lord. A bean, coin, or little figure of the Christ Child was baked into the cake, and then slices of the cake were distributed. Whoever found the object in his or her piece was chosen to rule as “king” or “queen” over the festivities. Since the Mardi Gras season traditionally begins with Epiphany, this cake became part of those celebrations in French homes, including those in the Gulf Coast region of the United States.
Incidentally, William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, Or What You Will (c. 1601) was written to be performed on this holiday.