My guess is that most reading this blog post today have already packed up their Christmas decorations and kicked the shriveled tree to the curb for disposal. Am I right? What is Sharon thinking to write a post about Christmas on January 6? Ah! Bear with me my dear friends, and read on……
Unlike modern times when the Christmas season begins before Halloween and is basically over with the December 26 sales (at least according to retailers), in Jane Austen’s century and before, it was quite different. Pre-Christmas activities were minimal, for one. What decorations they did set up – no tree, but greenery perhaps, and a Yule Log, for certain – were done immediately before December 25, usually on Christmas Eve. After Christmas Day, the season continued for twelve days, building toward a crescendo on Twelfth Night and the Day of Epiphany on January 6.
So… Happy Epiphany Day!
In truth, I doubt people went around hollering that because January 6, the Day of Epiphany, was a serious observation.
History of Epiphany Day
The word itself is from the Greek epiphaneia meaning “manifestation or striking appearance” and is related to the Ancient Greek word Theophany (theophaneia) meaning “vision of God”. Traditionally celebrated on January 6 – the earliest documented reference by Ammianus Marcellinus in A.D. 361 – by both the Eastern and Western Churches, the day was in observance of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Biblical events being commemorated varied slightly between the two prominent Christian churches, but included the visit of the Magi, Jesus’ childhood, his baptism in the Jordan by John, and the wedding feast at Cana. The nativity observance had, since the second century, been separated as a singular commemoration on December 25.
That is the religious background. The days in between Christmas and Epiphany number twelve.** Frankly, until I began researching for my writing, I thought the Twelve Days of Christmas was nothing more than a horribly irritating song that made no sense whatsoever. I suspected the original writer had experimented with some sort of medieval hallucinogen, much like the Beatles when they penned Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds!
The truth is, while the song is firmly entrenched as part of our modern holiday songs, originally it was a rhyming ditty played as a “mischief and forfeits” game. Whether it focused on the Christmas season from the outset is open to debate. Whatever the case as far as the song, twelve is a significant number Biblically (12 apostles, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 minor prophets, etc.) and the season was established accordingly.
From ancient times up to the mid-nineteenth century when the tradition began to wane, the days between Christmas Eve (December 24) and Twelfth Night (January 5) leading into the 6th (Twelfth Day, or the Day of Epiphany) were marked with numerous activities. These varied widely, as you can imagine, from place to place and over the centuries. Most tended to be solemn and religious in nature. Others, as we know, incorporated pagan mythos and symbolism. Examples of this are mistletoe and wassailing. Yet it appears certain that whatever the celebrations and observances, Twelfth Night was about serious fun!
In my first novel – Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy – I wrote the Darcys celebrating the Christmas season, the climax being an elaborate Twelfth Night Masquerade Ball and play.
For Jane Austen and her Georgian England contemporaries, Twelfth Night was a major happening. In a letter to Cassandra dated December 27, 1808, Jane wrote the following:
I was happy to hear, chiefly for Anna’s sake, that a ball at Manydown was once more in agitation; it is called a child’s ball, and given by Mrs. Heathcote to Wm. Such was its beginning at least, but it will probably swell into something more. Edward was invited during his stay at Manydown, and it is to take place between this and Twelfth-day.
Fanny Austen, one of Jane’s nieces, wrote in 1806:
On Twelfth Day we were all agreeably surprised with a sort of masquerade, on being dressed into character, and then we were conducted into the library, which was all lighted up and at one end a throne, surrounded by a grove of Orange Trees and other shrubs, and all this was totally unknown to us all! Was it not delightful? .… Edward and I were the Shepherd King and Queen, Mama a Savoyarde with a Hurdy-Gurdy… Uncle John– a Turk; Elizabeth a flowergirl… George– Harlequin; Henry– Clown; and Charley a Cupid! … Besides these great days we had Snapdragon, Bullet Pudding, and Apple in Water, as usual.
Christmas and associated celebrations are mentioned throughout Austen’s novels as well. A notable quote from Sense and Sensibility – by Sir John in describing Willoughby to a raptly listening trio of Dashwoods, “I remember last Christmas, at a little hop at the Park, he danced from eight o’clock till four, without once sitting down.” – perfectly sums up the standard entertainment on Twelfth Night. Frolicking and feasting well past midnight, welcoming the Day of Epiphany as a joyous celebration of life.
After the previous night’s revelry, January 6 was a quiet day in comparison. Priests, both Catholic and Anglican, held services to honor the Magi and Christ’s revelation. Part of the ritual was establishing the date of Easter. Many English citizens attended these services, and then hosted modest dinner parties at home.
January 6 was also when all the decorations were taken down. The Yule Log was finally extinguished with the residual pieces securely saved to be used as kindling the following Christmas. By sundown the holiday season was officially over.
So there you have it. I am curious if any of our readers follow these long ago customs. If yes, share them with us! As for me, this year I did decide to leave the decorations up until after today. The tree looks great – our incredible Kentucky Fraser Fir – so I figured why not?
**NOTE: With the variances in calendars over the centuries, other world upheavals, denominational differences between the churches, and the altered opinions on what a “day” was (midnight to midnight versus sundown to sundown, for example) the precise dating of the “twelve days” of Christmas shifted periodically. Some counted December 24, others did not, and so on.