Saturday, January 5, 2008

Celebrating Twelfth Night

Posted by Bruce Miller

Today is Jan 5, the day to wish each of you a very joyous Twelfth Night, that most theatrical of holidays.

Or is today the day?

That irresistible—or irresponsible, depending on your point of view—carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” first reared its lyrical head in the early 1780s in England, and most of us today associate Twelfth Night with the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Twelve Days of Christmas is that period on the Christian calendar that separates Christmas from Epiphany. The Twelve Days are also known as Christmastide and Twelve-tide.

Christmas, or Christ’s Mass, marks the birth of Jesus Christ on the Christian calendar, and has been established since the Middle Ages as occurring on the Julian date of Winter Solstice, Dec 25. (See Theatre and the Winter Solstice, posted on this blog on Sat, Dec 22, 2007.) Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Day, Three Kings Day and Theophany, is a Christian feast intended to celebrate the revelation of God to mankind in human form in the person of Jesus Christ.

Some Christians believe that Epiphany marks the day when the Magi visited the child Jesus—hence the alternate Three Kings Day. (According to Biblical historians, Jesus was a toddler of two by that time, so next year you might want to consider removing those wise men from your nativity scene.) Other Christians believe that Epiphany marks the day when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan—hence the alternate Theophany. As early as the Third Century, Epiphany (or Twelfth Day) was established as Jan 6.

Twelfth Night concludes the Twelve Days of Christmas and falls on the evening before Twelfth Day. A word of caution for those of you who are keeping count—you may be pondering, if Dec 25 is the first day of Christmas, then Jan 5 is Twelfth Day and Jan 4 is Twelfth Night, not Jan 5. Ah, but you’re forgetting that in days gone by a calendar day actually began at sundown on the evening before, somewhat like the Jewish Sabbath today.

In other words, Christmas Day began at dusk on Dec 25 and continued until dusk on Dec 26. So even though Christmas Day began on Dec 25, the daylight part of Christmas Day (the First Day of Christmas) actually took place on Dec 26. This would place Twelfth Day on Jan 6 and Twelfth Night on Jan 5.

Have I confused you enough? Let me see if I can confuse you some more.

Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, or What You Will was written as a holiday entertainment in 1601. Its first performance was most likely on Feb 2, 1602, the day of Candlemas, the holiday that marked the end of Twelfth Night celebrations in 17th Century England. But then again, the premiere may have taken place one to five days earlier or later, since Candlemas, in those days and today, could be celebrated either on Feb 2 or on the Sunday that fell between Jan 28 and Feb 3.

In 1602, Twelfth Night was not so much a specific night as it was a four week festival that began on the specific night of Jan 5 and ended on Candlemas. The important point to note is that in Shakespeare’s time, as today, Candlemas was a Principal Feast of the Anglican Communion—make note all ye Episcopalians—and the observance of Principal Feasts was and is obligatory.

What we know for sure is that the world premiere of Shakespeare’s play marked the royal observance of Candlemas in 1602, concluding the festival known as Twelfth Night. The play, one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies, was staged in the magnificent Middle Temple Hall which still stands today (see photo below). And it was staged sometime between Jan 28 and Feb 3.
So, whether you celebrate Twelfth Night today, Jan 5, or, as Shakespeare likely did, four weeks later, all of us at Barksdale hope you have a joyous one.

Once we get to Feb 2, I’ll revisit this subject with another story about the theatrical connections of Candlemas, which was not only the end of the festival of Twelfth Night, but also the beginning of Carnival, the international festival that lasts until the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

Let’s face it, for those who celebrate every religious festival out there, it’s just one party after another.

Joyous Twelfth Night!

--Bruce Miller

1 comment:

hoosier steve said...

Wonderful post Bruce. Shellie and I were debating just this issue of "When is 12th night" just a few days ago. Other than revealing what total nerds my wife and I are, you have answered all of our questions.
A happy twelfth night (belated) to you and yours.