I think tonight is Twelfth Night. I know that Twelfth Night used to be considered the highlight of the Christmas season, but the fact that a history nut like me is not even sure when it falls is an indication that this holiday doesn’t mean much in our society these days.
Twelfth Night is part of the twelve days of Christmas that stretch from Christmas day to Epiphany, the day Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi or wise men who came to pay homage to the baby Jesus. Epiphany is set for January 6, which is just as arbitrary as deciding that Jesus was born on December 25 on a calendar that hadn’t been invented yet. Scholars can’t even decisively determine what year Jesus was born, let alone what month or day. And the wise travelers following the star probably arrived a little more than twelve days after his birth. Historians believe Jesus was a toddler by the time they made it, since Herod ordered the killing of all boys under age two.
The celebration of Epiphany is actually older than the celebration of Christmas, at least in the Eastern churches. January 6 Epiphany celebrations covered everything in the life of Jesus from his birth through the time of his baptism (as an adult, mind you) by John the Baptist. Who said life was slower in the old days?
When Western scholars started trying to calculate the date of Christ’s birth, most of them placed it somewhere in March or April. But the ancient retailers of the Holy Land wanted the celebration to occur in a different season so it wouldn’t take business away from the Passover and Easter sales.
Okay the selection of the December date wasn’t quite that mercenary, but it was close. It was celebrated on December 25 to coincide with two pagan sun festivals, the Roman Natalis Solis Invicti— “birth of the unconquered sun”— and the Iranian celebration of the birth of Mithras,— “Sun of Righteousness.” And of course the Winter Solstice was just before that so the Christian Christmas holiday was positioned to take over the season. And nominally, it has, although I think today it is celebrated more like a Roman holiday than a Christian one.
In any case, Christmas celebrated as a season rather than a day was a tradition for centuries and I think it still make sense today. It took me four weeks to finish putting up the Christmas decorations and I’m in no hurry to take them down. It may be Twelfth Night, which marks the end of the season, but hey, some churches continue to celebrate Epiphany until Candlemas Day (February 2) so I think I may just pick up that tradition. I like my Christmas dishes better than my regular ones anyway.
And now I’m back to trying to figure out whether it really is Twelfth Night yet. Tomorrow, January 6, has been referred to as Twelfth Day. In my mind, that makes tonight “Eleventh Night.” But the holiday was traditionally celebrated with big fancy parties like we hold on New Year’s these days, and we celebrate that the night before. So maybe Twelfth Night is the night before the actual Twelfth Night.
It’s going to take me another whole year to figure this one out. And next year I’ll find out a better way to celebrate than sitting in front of my computer!
My thanks to Polmont Old Parish Church’s Advent Calendar (http://www.polmontold.org.uk/advent08day12.html) for the artwork and to the Christianity Today website (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2000/dec08.html) for much of the information in this article.