Twelfth Night celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings to the birthplace of Christ. It is observed on January 5th and marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, although Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings on a different day.
The Three Kings, also known as the Wise Men or the Magi, were: Caspar, King of Tarsus, the Land of Myrrh; Melchior, King of Arabia, the Land of Gold; and Balthasar, King of Saba, where Frankincense was said to flow from the trees.
The Kings presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child. Gold symbolized kingship, frankincense depicted godliness, and myrhhr represented a painful death. In return, charity and spiritual riches would be offered for the gold, faith for incense, and truth and meekness for the present of myrrh. The Wise Men returned home and, in 7 A.D., Saint Thomas discovered the Kings in India and baptized them. They are said to have become martyrs and their bodies buried within the walls of Jerusalem. It is believed the remains were later moved to Turkey by the Emperor Constaine's mother and, later still, to Milan until they were finally laid to rest in Cologne.
Twelfth Night was a part of the year-end festivities in the British Isles and France. These celebrations originated in the Fifth Century wnen French and English churches created the "Feast of Fools." Temporary Bishops and Archbishops of Fools play-acted, reveled and generally caused mischief. By the Fifteenth Century, such ceremonies were banned from church by the French government due to lewd behavior. A new street festival was created and a temporary "king" for the season known as the Prince des Sots was elected. In England, this king was called the "Lord of Misrule" and, in Scotland, the "Abbot of Unreason." The king's reign began on Halloween and lasted for three months.
The "state duties" of both the French and English kings ended on Twelfth Night. A cake called "King's Cake" or Gallette du Roi was consumed and marked the end of the celebrations. In addition, a large cake with a hole in the center was placed on the horns of bulls for the Twelfth Night Games and wine and ale was imbibed by all. Originally, cake was a symbol of the pre-Christian Goddess. Bulls' horns represented the consort of this Goddess and her spirit was the ale and wine. This custom is the origin of communion.
Celebration of such Twelfth Night festivities was no longer a tradition by the Mid-Nineteenth Century, but were replaced with "Mummer Plays," which are still performed today throughout the British Isles. The troupes of performers are known as Morris Dancers and consist of six men who dance complex steps to the accompaniment of an accordian or fiddle. One of the men is dressed as a woman and is called Maid Marian. Other characters include Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. Another man dressed in a horse-skull mask and a wide-hooped petticoat chases young women and covers them with his skirt. He is known as the hobby horse.
Supernatural events are thought to occur during the Twelve Days of Christmas. The "Wild Hunt" and "Faery Host" are thought to ride through the countryside collecting souls. In Ireland, these beings are referred to as the "Yule Host."
In Whittlesey, the Sunday before the first Monday after Twelfth Night is the procession of the straw bear. A man wrapped in straw from head to toe dances through the streets while other Mummer Plays feature such characters as the "She-Males." These are men who dress up as old hags for the celebrations and represent the Goddess of Winter.
During early times in rural Austria, the Twelve Night between December 25th and Epiphany (January 6th) used to be referred to as "Smoke Nights," due to the fact that incense was burned. Today, this is done on January 6th. The head of the household moves through the farm with incense in order to smoke-out any evil spirits. Holy water is sprinkled on the house, the grounds and the barns. The head of the family then uses to chalk to mark the door with the initials of the Three Wise Men...K(aspar), M(elichor) and B(althasar)...along with the number of the year. This lettering replaced the original pentagram chalkmark of ancient times which prevented evil spirits from entering the home.
Austrian Twelve Nights celebrations also feature parades of costumed characters who blow horns and crack whips intended to drive away spirits. In Styria, a parade of bellringers known as Glocklerlauf takes place on January 5th. Elaborate headresses are made for this occasion. On December 6th, children dress up as the Three Kings and the Star of Bethlehem in order to go caroling. They are rewarded with hot chocolate and gingerbread. In certain areas of the Alps, the traditional Twelve Nights custom is to light bonfires.
In the Netherlands, Mid-Winter horn blowing known as midwinterhoornblazen is an ancient Yuletide tradition which dates from 2500 B.C. The sound is designed to drive away evil spirits and sometimes the horns may be heard up to three miles away. The instruments are specially carved from birch and elder trees, with a competition held on January 6th to decide the most proficient musician. Saint Thomas Ringing, called St. Thomasluiden by the Dutch, is continuous bell-ringing in the bellhouses of Friesland cemeteries. The bells toll for the death of Saint Thomas a Becket, the English Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in his Cathedral on December 29, 1170. January 6th is known as Driekoningendag or "Three Kings' Day". An Epiphany cake is baked and whoever finds the bean inside is king for the day, complete with gold paper crown. After this ceremony, the holiday season comes to and end and families remove their decorations. Many Dutch towns have organized burning of Christmas trees.
In France, the Twelve Nights feature the displaying of a creche or crib. This was invented by Saint Francis of Assisi in Italy on Christmas Eve, 1223 A.D. He turned a nearby cave into a stable, erected a manger and held a service. The French creche or manger scene is put up in the home and gifts are exchanged on January 6th. Young people dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses go to Midnight Mass at church carrying drums and pipes and torches to find their way. The French carol, "Bring a Torch Jeanette-Isabella" is a lyrical illustration of this custom.