The Twelve Days of Christmas comprise the twelve days from Christmas until the beginning of Epiphany (January 6th). In modern times, January 6th is the last day to take down your Christmas decorations. That means you’ve got three more days before your neighbors start glaring at you and the neighborhood associations start sending you letters.
Traditionally, however, the holidays celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men or Magi to present gifts to the baby Jesus. In England, plum pudding, and wassail punch were on the menu. The Elizabethans would have had roast goose or, if they were wealthy, peacocks. Peacocks were skinned and roasted then the cooked bird would have its skin, feathers and all, placed back over it. Wild boar (complete with head) was stuffed with Christmas pudding of meat and spices with an oatmeal filling.
Most well-known, however, is the Wassail—a hot spiced wine for drinking healths on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and Twelfth Night celebrations. Story is it originated with the fifth-century legend of the beautiful Saxon Rowena, who toasted the health of the King Vortigern with the words Wæs-hael (your health!). Wassail was always served from a special bowl called the Loving Cup. The special wooden bowl, sometimes rimmed with metal and dressed with festive ribbons, was passed from hand to hand drunk from directly.
Shakespeare writes about Wassail in Twelfth Night
Next crown the bowl full
With gentle Lamb’s Wool
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of Ale. too,
And thus ye must doe
To make the Wassail a swinger.
Ingredients for modern Wassail:
3 quarts ale 12 small apples
3 tbsp honey
¼ tsp freshly-ground nutmeg
¼ tsp powdered cinnamon
2 tsp freshly-grated ginger
Directions: Bake the apples in a hot oven until they begin to split. Divide your ale between two pots. Place about ¾ in one pot and heat this gently until warm. Place the remainder in a second pot (which must be able to hold all the liquid), add the apples, honey and spices to this and bring to the boil. Now pour the warmed ale into this and turn off the heat. Keep pouring the heated ale between the two pots until froth forms on the top (this is the Lamb’s Wool). Pour into a heated bowl and serve.
There are numerous pre-Christian customs associated with the Twelve Days of Christmas. Most relate to the coming of a new year with the Winter Solstice. The Yule Log was brought into the home on Christmas Eve, decorated with ribbons and then lit and kept burning through the 12 days of Christmas. This tradition had its roots in the midwinter rituals of the early Vikings who built huge bonfires for their festival of light. People thought it was lucky to keep some charred remains of the Yule log to light the next year’s Yule log. Mistletoe was used to create decorations and kissing boughs early Druid customs. The Lord of Misrule who oversaw the Feast of Fools dates back to Roman times when the Romans celebrated the coming of the new year during Saturnalia with the Feast of Fools in which masters served the servants.
Next week, a special Moonday guest—Don McNair will blog on Editing Dialogue, a fine start for writers in the New Year. ‘Til Moonday, Rita Bay