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.