While today Christmas is considered one of the primary holidays of the Christian faith, it was not always this way. During the time of the Renaissance, Christmas was a much more solemn affair than it is today. It was a day of prayer and reflection, and was observed primarily with a special mass - the "Cristes Maesee", or the "Mass of Christ."
The biggest celebration of the season during the Renaissance was Twelfth Night, the night before Epiphany. It was held that the Epiphany marked the date, twelve days following Christmas, when the Magi found the newborn Christ child and presented him with gifts. The modern custom of exchanging gifts at Christmas is generally believed to be a continuance of the tradition started by the three Wise Men.
The so-called "Twelve Days of Christmas" begins at sundown on December 24th and lasted until Epiphany, on January 6th. During the Renaissance, Twelfth Night marked the 'official' end of the Christmas (or winter) holiday season and was the traditional day for taking down Christmas decorations.
TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS SONG
During part of the Renaissance period in England and Ireland being Catholic was a crime. In order to help preserve the faith, it is believed that "The Twelve Days of Christmas" song was written to help Catholic children to learn and remember different aspects of Catholicism. The different gifts noted in the song were each supposedly had hidden meanings, as follows:
A Partridge in a pear tree => Jesus Christ, the son of God.
Two turtle doves => The Old and New Testaments
Three french hens => Faith, Hope and Charity, the theological virtues.
Four calling birds => The four Gospels and/or the four Evangelists.
(Interesting Note: Originally this line referred not to "calling birds," but rather to "colly birds," better known as blackbirds! The modern phrasing did not occur until the 1900's.)
Five golden rings => The first five books of the Old Testament (The Pentateuch).
Six geese a-laying => Six days of creation.
Seven swans a swimming => The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Sacraments.
Eight maids a-milking => The eight Beatitudes.
Nine ladies dancing => The nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit (sometimes also listed as the nine classifications of angels).
Ten lords a-leaping => The Ten Commandments.
Eleven pipers piping => The eleven faithful apostles.
Twelve drummers drumming> = The twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.
Many scholars also believe that the "true love" refers to God rather than to a living suitor. The "me" who receives the presents is said to refer to someone who has been baptized in the church.
TWELFTH NIGHT CAKE
The preparation of a special cake for Twelfth Night is another custom that is still followed today in many cultures.
In France, the special cake served on Twelfth Night is the galette des rois. It is thin and round and is cut into pieces in the pantry, always one more piece than there are guests, and then carried into the dining room covered by a cloth. The youngest member of the party gets the honor of handing out the pieces. A small china doll (formerly a bean) is baked into the cake and the person receiving this piece becomes the Queen or King. The extra piece is called le part a Dieu (the part for God), and is set aside for the first person to come through the door. In Portugal, a similar cake called the bolo-Rei is the centerpiece of the evening.
In England, the Twelfth Night cake is usually a rich and dense fruitcake which contains both a bean and pea. The man who finds the bean is the King and the woman who finds the Pea is the Queen. If, perchance, a woman finds the bean she is able to choose the King. Likewise, if a man finds the pea he is able to choose the Queen. After the royalty have been selected, they are then tasked with directing the rest of the party-goers in reveling for the evening.
In Italy, the beans were hidden in focaccia (a type of bread) rather than in a cake. Three white beans are included to stand for the three Magi and one black one bean to signify the King. The King was then given the honor of choosing his Queen and ruling the banquet.
OTHER TWELFTH NIGHT CUSTOMS
Additional Twelfth Night customs were followed in various countries. A few of these include:
- Wassailing Apple Trees (England) - In parts of southern and western England, people would gather in orchards where they sang to the trees, drank to their health, left apple-cider soaked toast in the branches of the trees for birds to feast on, and often gave out great shouts and fired off guns to frighten away any evil spirits.
- Divination (Russia) - In Russia, Twelfth Night often saw groups of people gathering to play divination games. An example of one such game is the "ring game." Everyone attending the celebration put a ring into a dish and then traditional songs were sung which predicated events like bereavement or marriage. Then a ring was chosen at random from the dish and the fate of the song ascribed to its owner.
- In England, treats that were considered "spicy", like ginger snaps, were served on Twelfth Night.
Additionally, in the UK it was traditional to play practical jokes on your friends and neighbors. Such tricks included the hiding of live birds in empty pie case, so that they flew away when your startled guests cut open the crusts. (Think of the nursery rhyme "Sing A Song of Sixpence", where "the pie was opened and the birds began to sing"!)
- Also in England, Twelfth Night was also a traditional evening to put on plays, or "mumming." Many scholars of the Renaissance believe that Shakespeare's play, Twelfth Night, is thus named because it was first performed as part of Twelfth Night celebrations around 1601.