While Wikipedia articles often contain detailed accurate information about their subjects, some are confusing and their editors insist on using sources that are not credible. The article on “Twelfth Night”, the holiday rather than the Shakespeare play, is one such article. After repeated attempts to correct its serious errors and having those corrections reverted by another editor who is also an administrator, I realize the only venue in which to present an accurate account is here in my own blog. That’s not usually the case on Wikipedia, mind you, but there are a few times when stubbornness wins out over reason.
I have to confess that I had never heard of Twelfth Night, except for the Shakespeare play, until I read Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni Chronicles.
The “Twelve Days of Christmas” came into being after the West adopted the East’s observance of the Epiphany, though in a somewhat different manner. In the West, the celebration centers around the visit of the Wise Men, or the Magi, to Bethlehem. In the East, the celebration focuses on the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. The Church of England, mother church of the Anglican Communion, was at the forefront of making this an official observance of the Church as a whole.
The twelve days begin with 25 December and run through 5 January. Liturgically, this has always been the case. Never at any time in the history of the church has Christmas ever included Epiphany, not before the late 20th century. Let’s count.
25 December = First Day of Christmas
26 December = Second day of Christmas
27 December = Third Day of Christmas
28 December = Fourth Day of Christmas
29 December = Fifth Day of Christmas
30 December = Sixth Day of Christmas
31 December = Seventh Day of Christmas
1 January = Eighth Day of Christmas
2 January = Ninth Day of Christmas
3 January = Tenth Day of Christmas
4 January = Eleventh Day of Christmas
5 January = Twelfth Day of Christmas
Liturgically, Christmas begins at Vespers what to us in modern day society as the evening before Christmas Day, what most think of as Christmas Eve. Vespers represents the Hour of the Daily Office marking sunset, which under older tradition began the next day. That’s why Christmas Mass beginning at four o’clock in the evening still counts as a Christmas Mass. To avoid this confusion, liturgists usually refer to 24 December as the Vigil of Christmas rather than as Christmas Eve (and the same for the days before other festivals).
By the eleventh century, the custom arose of celebrating the end of the twelve days of Christmas with a huge party on the Twelfth Night. Now, liturgically Twelfth Night was and still is what to us is the evening of 4 January. In the eleventh century, in most places popular observance held the same. Gradually, however, midnight or dawn came to be considered the beginning of a day, after which the evening of 5 January came to be Twelfth Night. Because of this shift, officially and popularly, in perception of when a day begins, observing Twelfth Night is considered valid even if not 100% liturgically correct.
Despite some commentators opinions, 6 January has never been part of the Twelve Days of Christmas. At least not in the Church of England or the Anglican Communion whence many Protestant denominations derive their church calendar. That day has always been the Epiphany in the West. The idea that Twelfth Night could be or had been celebrated on 6 January most likely arose in that period when the idea about the beginning of a day was shifting from the evening before to the following dawn or midnight.
In England, Christmas was the main observance and celebration until the advent of the rather unjoyous Puritan Commonwealth. Puritans were very serious about their religion, and their version Christ had no sense of humor or fun whatsoever, and partying for the entire period was banned, often with very serious penalties. Even with the Restoration, people still hesitated to “blemish” the actual holiday and shifted the fun part to Twelfth Night.
Three things in the nineteenth century contributed toward reviving interest in Christmas Day itself as the main focus of celebratory indulgence as well as religious devotion. First was the Catholic Revival of the Oxford Movement within the Anglican Communion. Second was the novels of Charles Dickens. Third was Queen Victoria outlawing Twelfth Night in the 1870’s because to her its celebrations had gotten out of hand. With its cessation in England, the tradition of Twelfth Night rapidly faded elsewhere, contributing even more to ignorance of its origins and correct time.
Endnote: Today, the point is moot in most of the traditions of the Western Church which used to observe Twelfth Night. In the Roman Church, Christmas has extended through to the First Sunday after the Epiphany, which is the Sunday of the Baptism, since the encyclical of Pope Paul VI revising the lectionary in 1969. The same is the case for those Protestant churches who have adopted the Revised Common Lectionary which is based on the Ordo Lectionum Missae of Rome, in America, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, the Philippines, Australia, and Italy.