Saturday, 4 January 2014

Twelfth Night

Tomorrow, Sunday, 5th January  is 'Twelfth Night'!

'Twelfth Night' marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas which have been celebrated since medieval times. A period of partying and merrymaking that started on 26th Dec, Boxing Day or St Stephen's Day and ended on 6th January the first day of Epihany - 12 days after Christmas Day, marking when the three wise men visited baby Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem. The last six days of the old year and the first six of the new.

Twelfth Night is traditionally the time, when to avoid bad luck in the year ahead,  greenery from the woods,  holly and ivy and mistletoe, used in Christmas decorations was taken down and placed outside or burnt to release the tree spirits living in them. Releasing the spirits ensured that crops would grow and there would be a good harvest the following year. 

This practice of removing decorations on Twelfth Night is still observed today, but there is often some confusion about when 'Twelfth Night' actually falls - is it on 5th January or 6th January which is 'Twelfth Day'? In current times people often call Twelfth Night 6th January but it is actually 5th January. This is because in medieval times, the next day actually started in the evening at sunset so the night associated with Twelfth Day is 5th January not 6th January ie Twelfth Night is the 'Eve' of Twelfth Day, just as Christmas Eve is the Evening before Christmas Day. If you doubt what I am saying with this see the Oxford English Dictionary definition. So take your decorations down on the 5th not the 6th January.

Shakespeare's farcical, romantic comedy  Twelfth Night (or What You Will) is thought to have been written in 1602 as an entertainment for Twelfth Night celebrations.

Apart from taking down Christmas decorations to avoid bad luck, there are many other traditions in Wales and the UK associated with Twelfth Night and the winter solstice. Here I take a look at some of the main ones.

Twelfth Night Traditions


The word Wassail is derived from the Old English 'Waes Hail' salute meaning ' be of good health'. The tradition of wassailing in mid-winter goes back to early medieval times and falls into two categories. The first one is a 'door to door wassail' where a group of 'wassailers' go from door to door singing. This is the root of the custom of  Christmas Carolling which we are all very familiar with.

The second type of wassailing, traditionally carried out on Twelfth Night is an 'orchard wassail' which involves the wassailers visiting apple or pear orchards to sing or recite 'fertility blessings' and to make a lot of noise by banging drums and pans or firing guns to 'wake up'  the trees from their winter rest and scare away evil spirits from the trees, to ensure healthy trees and a good crop of cider apples or pears for making perry the following year. An old Wassail rhyme: 
“Wassaile the trees, that they may beare / You many a Plum and many a Peare: / For more or lesse fruits they will bring, / As you do give them Wassailing.”

Wassail rituals varied from village to village but they generally all have the same core elements. A wassail King and Queen lead the song and/or a processional tune to be played/sung from one orchard to the next, the wassail Queen will then be lifted up into the boughs of the tree where she will place toast soaked in 'Wassail' (cider) from a special Wassail Cup as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show the fruits created the previous year). Some Wassail is also ceremoniously poured on the ground around the roots of the tree. Then an incantation is recited something along the lines of:
“Here's to thee, old apple tree, That blooms well, bears well. Hats full, caps full, Three bushel bags full, An' all under one tree. Hurrah! Hurrah!”
Wassailers from The Widders, Border
 Morris Group with the Wassail Cup 
in  Chepstow 2013
The custom of orchard  wassailing is still very much alive today with Twelfth Night/ January events being held in the cider making regions of Somerset, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and the Welsh Borders. Thanks to the Widders Border Morris Group who have revived the tradition,  Chepstow has a Wassail Mari Lwyd Festival on 18th January - timed to coincide with the 'Old Twelvey Night' which before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 that we use today, would have fallen on 17th January. Several other smaller, wassail ceremonies, take place at farms and villages across Monmouthshire. Its a very good excuse to make a lot of noise and drink a lot of mulled cider!

Watch a video of a wassail

Mummers Plays

The  origins of pantomime can be traced back to the custom of Christmas "masking", “mumming,” or “disguising” in seasonal folk plays, the origins of which date back to court entertainments put on in the 14th Century. Animal heads and skins were often used as costumes in these performances. In the 18th century, mumming plays  were performed by a small troupe of actors  known as 'mummers',  house to house, in the street  or more often in public houses. Although the 'mumming' tradition is more common in England than Wales it is likely that the border regions had performances by 'mumming' groups.

A feature of 'mummers' plays is that the exaggerated 'stylised' script is delivered in a series of short speeches in rhyming couplets by the main characters. They are always about the combat between, and subsequent triumph of good over evil or 'a cure for all ills' being found. The origins of this aspect can be linked to the sales techniques of  travelling 'quack doctors' who put on 'performances' to sell their wares. Money was collected from the crowd of onlookers attracted by the performance which often involved ringing bells, banging drums and explosions being set off to create noise and dramatic effect.

Image of a mumming group from the EFDSS
 In mummers plays the core subject is always the killing and restoring to life of one of the principal characters. Whatever the story, there is always a character representing a 'Hero', a 'Villain', a 'Fool' and a 'Doctor' in the story being performed. The most common story used in mumming plays in the Southern part of the UK is loosely based on the legend of St George and The Dragon (although the Dragon itself rarely puts in an appearance).  It usually features Saint George (the hero) fighting a Turkish Knight (the villain).The character 'Old Father Christmas' is often in the play with the function of introducer/ narrator.
The tradition of 'mumming' still survives today - watch a video of the Chepstow Mummers Play in 2013.

Hunting the Wren

One of the most unusual and rather horrifying (to us today) rituals associated with Twelfth Night is 'hunting the wren'. In Wales (particularly Pembrokeshire)  men would go out into the hedgerows and catch a wren and put it in a wooden box or bier decorated with ribbons. The poor wren (usually killed) would then be carried door to door and people would pay to look at the tiny wren inside the box. they may have been given a feather from the wren which was meant to bring good luck. If a wren couldn't be caught a sparrow might be used as a substitute. In Ireland this  ritual was carried out on 26th December and St Stephen's Day or Boxing Day is still known as 'Wren Day'. In Wales it was traditional to hunt the wren with a bow and arrow.

The Eagle and the Wren
Image by Emily Iacullo

But why was a wren picked on for this rather macabre winter solstice tradition? The ritual is very ancient dating back to pagan, Celtic mythology and The Druids. Folk legend has it that the birds held a contest to determine which one of them would be King of the birds. The owl decreed that whichever bird flew the highest would be king. The mighty eagle soared high into the sky feeling sure he would win, but when he had flown as high as he could, the little wren emerged from where he had been hiding in the eagle's feathers and flew still higher than the eagle, winning the contest and he was crowned 'King of The Birds' - a case of brain winning over brawn.

Despite its status as 'King' which made it, at all other times, very unlucky to harm or kill a wren, at the time of the winter solstice it became the custom to hunt and kill the wren. It was thought that the wren, due to its habit of creeping into crevices, had magical powers and strong  associations with the underworld and the powers of darkness. Capturing and killing the wren symbolised conquering the 'darkness' and allowing the 'light' to reign and the sun to shine again,  marking the end of the winter solstice. This is similar to the story told in  Mumming plays where light conquers darkness. Links with the wren hunt, have been made to sacrificial practises which involved killing a sacred or beloved animal as an offering to the gods in pagan times, before the coming of Christianity and much more detail on this and the symbolism of the wren in these rituals can be found in the sources listed at the foot of this post. I for one though, am glad that the poor little wren is no longer hunted and killed - this is one ancient tradition I would not like to see revived.

Old folk songs associated with 'Hunting The Wren'
Please To The King - Steeleye Span

The Mari Lwyd

One of the most famous New Year traditions in Wales often happening around the time of Twelfth Night, is that of the 'Mari Lwyd'. There is such a wealth of material associated with this tradition, it merits a post of its own - look out for this later this month, when I will hopefully be reporting back with words and pictures following what has now become the fantastic annual Chepstow Wassail Mari event that is taking place on 18th January.

Further Information

The Customs and Traditions of Wales - Trefor M Owen 1991

Christmas in Ritual and Tradition - Clement A Miles 1912

The Historical Database of Folk Play Scripts

English Folk Dance and Song Society 
Project Britain 

Old Glory and The Cutty Wren 

Hunting The Wren, Transformation of Bird to Symbol - Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence 1997

The Wassail ceremony in the new orchard planted behind  the Three Tuns pub under Chepstow Castle
 in  a snowy Chepstow  Jan 2013 - see the wassail toast hanging in the trees

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