Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?
Twelfth Night, 2.
There shall be no more cakes and ale for me, this is not because I am virtuous, but because I think my knees feel fatter. I simply don't have the feasting stamina of my forebears, or the long drawers to cover my fat knees, or the obligation to fast when I'm not feasting...a good fast would whittle down my fat knees, though...pass me the Ryvita!
Anyway, today is Epiphany and Twelfth Day (Twelfth Night was last night, so if you wanted to get drunk and cross dress you've missed your opportunity). Epiphany/Twelfth Night/Twelfth Day was once quite a big deal in this country, as Epiphany is a liturgical feast-day, and in Western churches it celebrates the Manifestation of the Magi. In continental Europe many children receive their Christmas present on Epiphany and in my parents' town (they live in Spain) there's a huge Epiphany procession. In pre-reformation Britain clergy would dress as the Magi and decorate the church with a star hanging from the rafters, there would be a nativity scene too, the clergy processing towards it. I like to imagine the effects this liturgical spectacle had on our medieval counterparts, it must have been wonderful to behold.
Anyway, if the feast of Epiphany was dramatic but solemn, then the secular Twelfth Night was perhaps equally dramatic but not a tiny bit solemn. There would be cake, which would contain a dried pea, a dried bean, and a clove; those who found them in their slice of cake would be designated King, Queen and Knave for the evening. There would be pranks; apparently it was tradition to pin the clothes of unsuspecting people together, or even nail their clothes to the walls and furniture; and, as Sir Toby Belch would tell us in Twelfth Night, there would be drinking. It was also a strange tradition during the Twelve Days of Christmas to be a little subversive, rich may dress as poor, men would dress as women and so forth, there would be plays featuring the "Lord of Misrule" a prankster who would subvert the natural order. Many folklorists believe this is the origin of the typically British pantomime.
Of course, before the calendar change of 1752 January 6th was Christmas Day. Many country people refused to incorporate the Gregorian calender into their everyday lives (who can blame them, they lived by the seasons) so the Christmas period and its festivals became a very long feast with what a person did from one day to the other a little confused and hazy. Apparently though, many rural families were still celebrating Christmas Day on this day right up until the turn of the last century. Here's what Ella M. Leather, a folk-lore collector had to say in 1912.
'My grandfather always kept up Christmas on Old Christmas Day,' said WP of Peterchurch, 'none of your new Christmas for him; it must be the real Christmas too, for the Holly Thorn blossoms, and the cattle go down on their knees at twelve o'clock for remembrance.' I have talked to many people who firmly believe this; though they have not seen it, their parents or grandparents have.
I remember both of my grans telling me that the cattle went down on their knees on Christmas Day.
So it seems to me that the whole of the Christmas period was one long feast, in fact the twelve days were declared such by the early church...no-one was to work, all were to feast and celebrate. I have a copy of the seasonal labours of medieval English peasants as set down by their feudal masters, which seems to support this.
February: Sitting by the fire
April: Garden scene
May: Hunting, fishing
June: The hay harvest
July: Reaping the corn
September: Treading the grape
October: Ploughing and sowing
November: Gathering acorns for pigs
December: Killing pig and baking bread
The year had a wonderful, circular rhythm, and the feast of Christmas was a culmination of a year of hard work. My strong instinct is that we modern folk could learn by this rhythm. What do you think?
NB. It's probably only fair to cite my sources for this post.
Harthman, John "Books of Hours" Thames and Hudson, 1978
Roud, Steve "The English Year" Penguin, 2006
Robson, Carolyn and Rowe, Doc " Midwinter" EFDSS, 1994