Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Never Fear! The Holidays Aren’t Over Yet! Twelfth Night in the Colonies


Twelfth Night. A wildly funny Shakespeare play. The inspiration for the marathon song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Perhaps an early version of Fortnite (okay, not that one but I wanted to appeal to a younger audience). Chances are you’ve heard the term but it’s possible you didn’t know
A recent production of "Twelfth Night"

about the holiday it referred to. Well, when looking at holiday traditions of the Livingston Family, this is an important one because for the early generations in the Colonial Era, it was one of the big celebrations of the year.

In the 6th Century, the Council of Tours began referring to the twelve days separating Christmas and Epiphany as a festive season. Epiphany, in Christianity, refers to the 6th of January, the day the three wise men visited the baby Jesus. Fast forward a few centuries and the English begin to look at the 6th of January as the end of the Christmas season. Shakespeare’s play was written as entertainment for the twelve days following Christmas.  Those days became the traditional time for parties and celebration. A tradition that was carried over to the New World with the colonists.

In Colonial America, December 25th was treated as a day for family and religious reflection. The Livingstons would have gone to church and then had a quiet meal at home to celebrate the Christmas holiday. But the decorations would remain up beyond that date. In that time, decorations were typically wreaths hanging on doors. And those wreaths would stay up until Twelfth Night. The fifth of January, the day before Epiphany would signify the end of Christmas festivities. And the colonists would bid farewell to the holiday season with a bang.

Most of the traditions we associate with Christmas today, like parties, lots of food, and gifts, would be seen in the colonies on Twelfth Night. Presents would be exchanged and feasts would be held. Those wreaths that had adorned the doors since Christmas? They would be taken down and the edible parts – fruits and nuts – would grace the table and feed guests. You would see groups of young men and women going door to door and wassailing. This meant singing carols and hoping to exchange those

songs for some alcohol. It was essentially a wildly festive night of party hopping. An event that a young woman of good standing like Janet Livingston would most likely have greatly enjoyed.

And that song I mentioned before? The one that takes forever to sing and no one can ever remember the order of? Well it doesn’t reference many kinds of birds being given to one’s love in the days leading up to December 25th. Those gifts are actually being bestowed during the days leading up to Twelfth Night. Regardless, it’s a whole lot of new pets to take care of and not nearly enough jewelry.

So, what do we do to honor this tradition? This isn’t really the year for a big Twelfth Night celebration. But it is a helpful argument to use when someone asks why your tree is still up in January. And, hey, I’m going to pretend all the gifts I ordered that have been delayed were meant for January 5th anyway.

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