My piece in The Hindu today: http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/the-tudor-england-celebration-of-the-twelfth-night/article6753827.ece
Christmas has come and gone, and the New Year has already arrived; the holidays are coming to an end, and it is time to hang up your party boots – and that little black dress – until the next season. Or not quite.
According to tradition, the season of Christmas is yet to get over with the final – and the largest – feast remaining to be celebrated on the night of 5th (or 6th) January, a celebration that has been pared to a great extent with the passage of time but is far from being extinct.
The custom of celebrating the Twelfth Night traces its roots to Tudor’s England, when it not only symbolised the end of Christmas but also the end of winter that was supposed to have set in with the All Hallows Eve (now Halloween). The night was marked by a large community feast where everyone – the king and peasant alike – would gather; gifts were exchanged, music was played, and the roles of the society were reversed. The king, and the other nobles, would assume the part of the common man and would serve and wait upon the commoners; the commoners meanwhile played nobles for the night. There were also instances of men and women cross dressing for the revelry.
The evening began with the cutting of the cake especially made for the feast. The cake fortified with dried fruit, nuts and alcohol, was baked with a bean in one half and a pea in the other. It was then decorated with a thin layer of sugar icing and a holly spring. The guests, as they arrived, were served with a piece of the cake each – the men from one half and the women from the other. The man, who got the piece with the bean in it, became the king for the night and the woman who got the pea, his queen. Together they would preside over the evening full of dance, music, food, and wine.
But fun and revelry were not the only elements of the celebration. Like every festival there was an element of religion too – or twelve: the feast was preceded by twelve days of Christmas, each signifying something special. Christmas, the first day, for example, signified the birth of baby Jesus, while the eighth day signified the beginning of a new year. The rest of the days were dedicated to various saints, and the final, or the twelfth day, was dedicated to the three wise men (who had travelled to bless baby Jesus); these twelve days culminated with the most extravagant feast of the season on the night before Epiphany.
With the passage of time however, especially after the reformation period (when the puritans abolished most of the practices of the Church), the feast began to lose its value. Without the religious element it became a playground of mischief and was no longer the happy amalgamation of classes. In the nineteenth century after the Queen officially abolished Twelfth Night festivities, the focus shifted to Christmas as the primary day of celebration, which it remains to date.
In the modern times the festival is subtle and mostly symbolic. It is usually celebrated in small gatherings with wassail, a mulled, spiced cider drink, and tortell, a ring shaped cake stuffed with marzipan. It is also the night when the Christmas decorations are finally taken off.
Although Twelfth Night longer is what it used to be few hundred years ago, but it still seems to be a valid excuse to party one last time, until next holiday season.