Keldby Church, Møn
Some European and Scandinavian cultures had combined the twelfth night of Christmas with pagan festivals celebrating the changing of the year. These were usually associated with driving away evil spirits for the start of the new year. From its earliest days the twelve days of Christmas festival involved masked dancers and play actors, who cavorted through the streets and visited homes unannounced to beg for holiday treats and drink. In Tudor England the Twelfth Night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallow's Eve.
The twelfth night of the twelve days of Christmas is the official end of the winter holiday season and one of the traditional days for taking down the Christmas decorations. In England people used to have parties on Twelfth Night, and it was traditional to play practical jokes. This was also a traditional day for wassailing the apple trees. Wassail the drink of good wishes and holiday cheer has been associated with Twelfth Night since the 1400s. The name comes from an Old English term "Waes hael", meaning "be well". The popular song "Twelve days of Christmas" is usually seen as simply a nonsense song for children. Some have suggested that it was dating from the 16th century wars in England, but there are many theories.
A King or Lord of Misrule would be appointed to rule the Christmas festivities and the Twelfth Night was the end of his period of rule. The common theme was that the normal order of things were reversed. This tradition can be traced back to the pre-Christian Europe like in the Celtic festivals of Samhain and the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. Twelfth Night itself was a traditional day for plays or "mummings", and it is thought that Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night" took its name from the fact that it was first performed at Middle Temple Hall, London, during the Twelfth Night celebrations of 1602.
Twelfth Night elsewhere in Europe
Prague, Old Town Square
In the old Czechoslovakia the Christmas tree was taken down after Twelfth Night, and the wood from the tree would be put into the woodstove - and good coffee should be made on the stove. This custom was said to bring joy and happiness. Costumed kings would visit all the farmsteads, not exactly regally dressed; they wore long furs and hats woven from thick sheaves of straw with berry branched. The kings brought each house good wishes and the farmers showered them with gifts. In exchange for the gifts the farmers received the blessings of enjoyment, love and peace.
In Russia this was a night for divination. Everyone put a ring into a dish and then traditional songs were sung, which predicated events like bereavement or marriages. Then a ring was chosen random from the dish and the fate of the song ascribed to its owner.
In the South European tradition Twelfth Night was celebrated with marches and music in the streets, where men dressed in Oriental costumes gave candy or small gifts to the children.
In Italy it was considered the beginning of Carnival, associated with jokes and tricks. An Italian tradition was also an old "witch"woman , called La befana, who came with gifts in a sack for the children. Naughty children got coal in the sack instead of gifts. La befana rode reverse on a broomstick, and in some places in Italy a figure of La befana was burnt at stake, which might be a trace from ancient rituals celebrating the beginning of a new year.
In Denmark a tradition was to read signs from the period. The weather in the next year's twelve months could be predicted by the weather in the twelve days of Christmas. People had special symbols, "Sun signs", for the weather, which they wrote with chalk upon the beams in the living room. On Twelfth Night the girls had to stand by an open window looking into a mirror, and then they were able to see their future husband. The Christmas tree must not be taken down until the day after Twelfth Night- or else grief would come to the house. A custom still used is to lit the candles on the Christmas tree for the last time on Twelfth Night and to eat small round apple cakes baked in fat and served with blackberry jam. Another traditon was to celebrate Twelfth Night and the end of Christmas with a special candle formed like a fork divided in three. 3 kings and 12 apostles and one "star carrier" with the special candle marched through town. This traditon is still kept alive in a few places in Denmark
photos Møn & Prague: grethe bachmann
Twelfth Night, The King's Cake
The ancient Roman tradition of choosing the master of the Saturnalia revels by baking a good luck bean inside a cake was transferred to Twelfth Night. French and English celebrations included a Kings' cake.
In England the cake was usually a rich and dense fruit cake which contained both a bean and a pea. If you got the bean you were King or Queen of the Bean, and everyone had to do what you told them to do. But there were also other items in the cake. If you got a glove, you were a villain, if you got a twig you were a fool, and if you got a rag you were a tarty girl.
In France the special cake served on Twelfth Night was the Galette des Rois. It was thin and round and cut into pieces in the pantry, always one more piece than there were guests, and carried into the room covered with a white napkin. A small china doll was baked into the cake, and the person receiving this became the Queen or King and got to choose a consort. The extra piece was called "le part a Dieu", and was set aside for the first person to come through the door.