12 Days of Christmas in Early Modern England

It’s the 6th of January, and if you’re reading this you probably don’t think there’s any consequence to this day in the calendar. However, if you had lived in London or rural UK during the 1500’s, it would have been known as ‘Twelfth Night’, or the twelfth day of Christmas. What is the significance of Shakespeare’s play with this title, I hear you ask? Well, there is actually an account that survives from an audience member from 1601 who allegedly saw the play on the 6th of Jan, actual Twelfth Night. In his account, this man says that perhaps the season was the reason for the title of the play. If you are familiar with Twelfth Night, you’ll know that it has a subtitle in the First Folio printed in 1623 ‘Twelfth Night or what you will’, presumably so the play could be performed on Twelfth Night or any other suitable day.

The title of Shakespeare’s play in the 1623 Folio.

The title of Shakespeare’s play in the 1623 Folio.

So, what was Twelfth Night in Early Modern England and why did Shakespeare write a play for the occasion? The short answer is that in Shakespeare’s time, Christmas wasn’t just a single day of festivity, but was an extended time of drinking and eating that lasted until the 6th of January. After the fasting of Advent, this was a time to let go and enjoy the season of festivity.

Wassailing and The Lord of Misrule

Twelfth Night was a season in the dead of winter, but it was an important time for looking to the coming harvest in spring and summer. In rural communities, the future harvest was ushered in through a festival called Wassailing, where people would poor cider on apple trees and sing together to chase evil spirits away from the fruit-bearing branches (you can read about my experience wassailing in Jan 2018 here). In wealthy households, wassailing was celebrated simply by passing around a bowl of communal wine in a ‘wassailing bowl’ and singing together. A scene just like this is in fact in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (Act 2, Scene 3) and is a lengthy scene full of drunkenness and singing snatches of popular early modern songs together.

Image credit: The Tudors Wiki

Image credit: The Tudors Wiki

The twelve days of Christmas also involved appointing a public figure to the ‘Lord of Misrule’ to preside over the feast. This is a kind of winter version of Robin Hood, and was famously explored in relation to Shakespeare’s plays by Cesar Lombardi Barber in his book, Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy. The Lord of Misrule also crops up in Twelfth Night. Barber suggests that Feste is acting as the Lord of Misrule int he play. This is a great window into the early moderns. Read Act 2 for a window into this cultural tradition as Shakespeare’s audience knew it. Enjoy!