What is Twelfth Night?
You know that song about the 12 Days of Christmas? It’s that: the twelfth night of the Christmas festival (which Christians have labeled as Epiphany, or the celebration of the coming of the Magi – but that’s another story and would require a post on syncretism).
But what IS it?
Twelfth Night consisted of a big feast, a masquerade ball, reversed roles and lots of hard cider. Men dressed as women, women dressed as men. Cakes were baked with a bean and a pea inside – the lucky peasants who got the bean and the pea would become the “king and queen of misrule” and rule the feast while the lords would become peasants (hence the “misrule” – at least, until midnight, when everything reverted back to “normal”). After the feast, the group would go outside to shoot guns into the air to scare off evil spirits and awaken the trees (preparing for a good spring growth period), while drinking lots of wassail. Wassailing, apparently, involves loud singing as well as hard drinking (side note: I find that wassailing Christmas carol to be sadly lacking in its text setting…and I am more than a bit disturbed by the idea of shooting while drinking).
Essentially, Twelfth Night is a celebration at the end of the harvest season and a recognition of the winter dormancy that precedes spring growth. It’s an earthy holiday. And this year, I was inspired to celebrate it…with Shakespeare.
Yes. The play “Twelfth Night” is about the debauchery and absurdity of this traditional feast. Put yourself into the mindset of 1601: Men and women cross dressing? Scandalous! Golden stockings with cross-garters? How passé!! Common people wanting a position above their station? How presumptuous!! And the play itself is quite absurd…
…which is why my family divvied up the parts and read it aloud last night. FUN!
Want more details? The British Library has a great article by Michael Dobson on the play and its social implications here (includes bonus photo of Stephen Fry as Molvolio in a 2012 stage production).