Let us go a-wassailing! It’s Twelfth Night

Let us go a-wassailing! It’s Twelfth Night
Saturday, January 5, 2008

[HH] Certainly Twelfth Night was religious in character coming as it does 12 days after Christmas on Jan. 5. But it undoubtedly dates back even further to pre-Christian rites although its origin is lost in the mists of time [HH] Twelfth Night was also the night when owners and peasants might change places under the direction of a Lord of Misrule who symbolized the world turned upside down as during the Roman Saturnalia

ISTANBUL – Turkish Daily News

 Ottoman poetry is very interesting in that it has many levels of meaning and can be enjoyed at its superficial best or for its deeper layers of meaning. It always has meter and in some instances rhyme. Most often when it has many levels, the poetry belongs to the mystic, lyric genre. So reading about one's love, birds, trees, rings, etc. can mean just that but as well true love means God, trees refer to attractive young men, etc.

 Then how is one to interpret one of the best known Western Christmas carols – The Twelve Days of Christmas?

 On the first day of Christmas,

 my true love sent to me

 a partridge in a pear tree.

 On the second day of Christmas,

 My true love sent to me

 Two turtle doves,

 And a partridge in a pear tree.

 * * * *

 On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me Twelve drummers drumming, Eleven pipers piping, Ten lords a-leaping, Nine ladies dancing, Eight maids a-milking, Seven swans a-swimming, Six geese a-laying, Five golden rings, Four calling birds, Three French hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree!

 The religious meanings assigned to the numbers are familiar. The one true love is God, the two doves are the Old and New Testament and so forth through the whole of the song. (See box) So from an exciting song of dissipation we go to the religious.

 Certainly Twelfth Night was religious in character coming as it does 12 days after Christmas on Jan. 5. But it undoubtedly dates back even further to pre-Christian rites although its origin is lost in the mists of time. Over the centuries it began to be associated with the Christian Church and in particular, the birth of Jesus Christ and other events around the time of his birth. We actually don't know the exact day Christ was born and even if we did it would be complicated by any number of calendars that existed then to organize time. Although everybody is in agreement that it wasn't Dec. 25, this is the date accepted by almost all Christians with the exception of Armenian Christians who celebrate Christmas 12 days later on Jan. 5 and 6.

 Twelve has a variety of religious or mystical meanings from the Old Testament and the New Testament of the Bible. In Eastern Orthodoxy, there are the 12 great feasts. Shia Islam has 12 imams. In Greek mythology there were 12 principal gods in the Olympian pantheon while the chief Norse god, Odin, had 12 sons. And then there is Twelfth Night (Jan. 5) on the eve of Epiphany.

 Epiphany is considered the day when the three wise men came from the East to offer valuable gifts to the newly born Christ child – gold, frankincense and myrrh. However there are some who believe it was on this day Jan. 6 that Christ was baptized. Actually we never learn whether there were only three wise men and where was East for the people who wrote this down? Did they mean Persia? India? China? We know that the Magi as they were called were followers of Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion of Persia. They are mentioned in the Koran as well.

 The early Christians pulled a confidence trick in piggybacking Christmas on an already well-celebrated festival, and that is the Roman Saturnalia held for a number of days in the second half of December. The Saturnalia seems to have started as an agricultural festival in honor of the god of agriculture, Saturn, in the third century B.C. and continued until the fourth century A.D. when it was absorbed into the Christian celebration of Christmas. The festival also seems to have traveled North where it met with a Scandinavian festival about the same time and West to England. One has to assume that it meshed with festivals already being celebrated there.



So what would happen on Twelfth Night?

 Christmas was a season of merriment and visiting, home life, festivities, decorations, gifts, feasting and drinking. In the Middle Ages people could expect traveling players to stage nativity stories, jugglers and musicians. These used to go from one well-to-do home to another where they would be wined and dined and paid for their performances. Twelfth Night on the other hand was the night that the decorations came down because to leave them up longer would bring bad luck.

 Part of the celebrations for Twelfth Night was embellished with wassailing or serenading the lord and lady of the manor or leading (wealthy) citizens. There were traditional songs, some of which have morphed into Christmas carols such as “let us go a-wassailing.” Large amounts of wassail would be consumed, adding to the merriment. The heads of the households thus approached were expected to provide the wassail and give money as well. Large bowls were made up for the drink and carried into the room where it was to be drunk with great ceremony. There's even a song to go with the occasion.

 The Wassail Song

 Here we come a-wassailingAmong the leaves so green;Here we a-wassailingSo fair to be seen.

 Love and joy come to you,And to you your wassail too,And God bless you and send you,A happy New Year,And God send you,A happy new year.


 Mulled ale (heated, sweetened and flavored ale), curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, nutmeg, ginger and sugar made up one of the original recipes that made up the wassail cup drunk on Twelfth Night. There are several recipes that use wine or beer instead of ale and don't include cream and eggs. Today eggnog seems to have replaced the original because of the time and difficulty of cooking your own.


 Twelfth Night was also the night when owners and peasants might change places under the direction of a Lord of Misrule who symbolized the world turned upside down. A special cake would be prepared that had a bean and a pea in it. Whoever found these two were proclaimed the Lord and Lady of the Bean and all had to do whatever he or she wanted. This apparently is more or less what happened during the Roman Saturnalia during which slaves would be able to do anything a master could such as eating at the same dining table.

  There is Shakespeare's play, Twelfth Night, as well with its story of mistaken identities and twins separated at birth, role reversal and quite good songs and repartee that makes it a favorite among the Bard's romantic comedies.

  Twelfth Night has really remained a British tradition and one hopes that it continues to be celebrated in the future.


Religious symbolism of the Twelve Days of Christmas

 One True Love refers to GodTwo Turtle Doves refers to the Old and New TestamentsThree French Hens refers to Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological VirtuesFour Calling Birds refers to the Four Gospels and/or the Four EvangelistsFive Golden Rings refers to the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch,” which gives the history of man's fall from grace.Six Geese A-laying refers to the six days of creationSeven Swans A-swimming refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacramentsEight Maids A-milking refers to the eight beatitudesNine Ladies Dancing refers to the nine Fruits of the Holy SpiritTen Lords A-leaping refers to the ten commandmentsEleven Pipers Piping refers to the eleven faithful apostlesTwelve Drummers Drumming refers to the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed  




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