Twelfth Night, The Holly Man And A Jolly Good Wassail!

Twelfth Night

When is twelfth night? This is something we need to know.
I am often confused, because some people say that it is the night of the 5th January and others say that it falls on the night of the sixth. Time to clear this up! 

Twelfth Night if you belong to the Catholic Church is on the 6th as they count the twelve days from Boxing Day. The Church of England count the twelve days from Christmas Day. Therefore, Protestant twelfth night is on the 5th and Catholic twelfth night is on the 6th.

If you see a Christmas tree still up on the 6th January the household is either Catholic or lazy (could be both! No offence) or Protestants, or those who don’t believe in all the bad luck rumours.

So glad I’ve cleared that up! We need to know the right time to take down the Christmas decorations. Some people believe it can attract bad luck taking the Christmas decorations down too early — or conversely, too late! 

Q & A

Q. When is it too early?
A. Before the passing of the twelfth night.  

Q. When is it too late?
A. If they are not down by twelfth night you must leave them up until Candlemas Day on the 2nd of February. Don’t ask me why.

The Holly Man

Twelfth Night is when the Holly Man asserts his role as the mid-winter king. He has defeated his old adversary, the Oak Man, in a winter solstice battle. The Oak Man has limped away into the woods to nurse his wounds for six months. To recover and heal, and later, to re-emerge at the next Midsummer Solstice to attack and usurp the king of the dark days of winter, the Holly Man, once more. 

The Holly Man | iPad drawing Lesley Scoble

Q. How should one celebrate twelfth night?
A. With a good wassailing! That’s how!

Wha’? What is a wassail?

To quote my dictionary, wassailing is—
“Wæs hæil”, which translates ‘be in good health!’. It means ‘Cheers!’ It is a toast to your health. The reply in Old Norse (brought here no doubt by those dastardly Viking invaders) is “Ves hail” (sounds to me like vessel! Drinking vessel, perhaps?). Its translation means ‘drink hail’. A way of saying ‘drink good health.’ I’m all for that! In which case, I wish you all a jolly good Wæs hæil!

Wæs Hæil! (cheers!)

Mead drinking cups | Wassail! | Illustration: Lesley Scoble

Time for a jolly good wassail!

Here We Come A-Wassailing

Here We Come A-Wassailing | Folk Song | arr. Richard Barnard

Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wassailing so fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you
And to you a wassail too,
And God bless you and send you a happy New Year
And God send you a happy New Year!

Traditional Folk Song

How to celebrate 12th Night in London!

In London, at normal pre-Covid times, there is a festival at Thames Bankside where now stands the rebuilt Globe Theatre.

The Globe Theatre, Bankside | Photo: Lesley Scoble

Waiting for a boat to take me upriver, I took this shot of the Sam Wanamaker re-creation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on Bankside. In a normal year, this stretch of Thameside would see Twelfth Night festivities. Now, there will be no wandering group of players outside this wonderful playhouse. Other years have seen the Lions Part actors in a Mummery play (early form of panto) and the Holly Man Procession celebrating twelfth night along this stretch of river. Not to mention the serving of mead with a jolly good wassailing!

Old Songs

King Henry the eighth wrote about the Holly and the ivy in a song titled Green Groweth the Holly. The holly (and ivy) is a centuries old traditional symbol of the winter time of year. Whereas the oak, being a ”greenwood” tree, as Henry VIII refers to it, belongs to the summer.

Green Groweth The Holly

 Green groweth the holly, so doth the ivy.
Though winter blasts blow never so high, green groweth the holly.
As the holly groweth green and never changeth hue,
So I am, ever hath been, unto my lady true.
As the holly groweth green with ivy all alone
When fLowers cannot be seen and greenwood leaves be gone.

King Henry VIII

William Shakespeare mentions the holly in his play As You Like It. I know I should really quote something from his play Twelfth Night considering the title of this blog! But heigh ho! I didn’t!

Heigh ho!

“Heigh ho! sing heigh ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.”

William Shakespeare, As You Like It

It is interesting to note that the play Twelfth Night written by William Shakespeare has nothing really to do with twelfth night other than that it was originally staged in 1602 on the night that was the night to take down decorations. Guess what? Twelfth night in Shakespeare’s day was Candlemas 2nd of February! If you have taken your decorations down 5th/6th January, put them back up! It isn’t twelfth night yet!

How to celebrate 12th Night in Spain!

If you happen by chance to be in Spain on 12th Night, it is altogether a very different affair. I was lucky to witness their ebullient celebrations on my birthday some years ago. The Spanish call Twelfth Night the Feast of the Kings and open their presents on this night (which suited me, being my birthday! Happy Birthday to me! Happy Birthday to me! 🎶 🎂).

Lodged in a mediaeval village in the mountains to the north of the island of Mallorca where the ancient streets are steep stone steps that climb through narrow thoroughfares, weaving around beautiful old stone houses. The Mallorcans proceed through the village by candlelight. They carry aloft a gilded effigy of the Lady Madonna all around the streets. The occasion is full of joy, candlelight and wine!

Thank you from the bottom of my heart | Self portrait, iPad drawing: Lesley Scoble

Thank you!

Thank you for reading my blog! Wishing you health and happiness in 2022!

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