Twelfth night is a festival in most Christian countries. It marks Epiphany, the day on which the Three Kings visited the infant Jesus. 6 January concludes the twelve days of Christmas. However, it is also the day on which to celebrate in other ways. In Ireland on the Twelfth Night the statues of the Three Kings are placed in the crib. In most countries people attend church and carols are sung.
Ephiphany around the world.
In the UK, the custom of celebrating Twelfth Night goes back many centuries. Since 1795 the Theatre Royal in London provides a special cake for its employees. Similarly, in the US since the mid-twentieth century, friends meet for a ‘king cake’ party. The person who finds the ‘king’ (a tiny doll to represent the Christ Child), hosts another party. However, this custom is now dying out. In the Alps, rowdy masked youths rush round the towns with whips and bells to drive out evil spirits. A similar custom in the Netherlands was banned due to the chaos involved.
Further celebrations of Twelfth Night
6 January in Italy is a special day for children. That is to say, it marks the visit of the Three Kings to Baby Jesus. In addition, an old witch riding on a broomstick, known by tradition as La Befana, visits their homes. If they have been good, they receive presents. On the other hand, if they have been naughty, they only receive ‘coal’. This is a kind of sugary sweetmeat coloured black with liquorice juice.
Other country practices
In Spain, for example, children write letters to the Three Kings. In every city the Kings ride in procession on horseback distributing sweets. Likewise, a special cake is made on the first Sunday of January in France. The cake contains a bean which brings good luck to the finder. In the same vein, in Russia, celebrations take place on the night between 6 and 7 January. Presents are distributed by ‘Father Frost’, followed by a large meal on the 7th. Furthermore, in Germany priests and choirboys go from door to door asking for offerings.
Iceland and the Ukraine
Epiphany is considered the thirteenth day in Iceland. A torchlight procession takes place to mark the end of the festivities. In the Ukraine, 19 December, Saint Nicholas, is the day for present giving. Whereas 6 January is their Christmas Eve and 7 January their Christmas Day
Twelfth Night in literature
The subject of Epiphany appears many times in various literature. Indeed, Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth night’ was originally written as a Twelfth Night celebration. ‘A Christmas Carol’, written in 1843 by Charles Dickens, mentions Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas visiting a children’s party.
In conclusion, in modern times a belief has arisen in some English-speaking countries that it’s unlucky to leave decorations on display after the Twelfth. This originates in a tradition attached to the date of 2 February, or Candlemas. The latter celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.