Counting Christmas: Celebrating the Twelfth Night

Eight octave days, culminating in a New Year.

Twelve days before Epiphany.

Forty days until the Presentation.

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This is how we count the days of Christmas. The octave and forty days are biblical, prescribed by the Mosaic Law for Circumcision and the dedication in the Temple of a male who opens his mother’s womb. Through these days, we mark the life of Christ and the mysteries of our salvation. But there is also a mystical element leading to the Epiphany with the miraculous manifestation of Christ’s identity—the breaking forth of a new, divine reality into the world.

The twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany are not biblical, but reflect the ancient connection between the great feasts. Epiphany and Christmas arose together (at least in the East), commemorating the coming of Christ into the world. Epiphany does not just happen to follow on the heels of Christmas, but completes it: Christ enters into the world and is then manifested to it. The shepherds are the first to receive the Good News of the coming of the Messiah at his birth, followed by the wise men.

The wise men symbolize the manifestation of Christ to the nations. The twelve days preceding may represent the fulness of the people of God. The feast celebrates the manifestation of Christ in the worship of the wise men, Christ’s Baptism, and the Wedding of Cana, though we tend to focus only on the first of these three mysteries in the West. I think we focus on the wise men due to the proximity of the feasts, though the feast of the Baptism of Christ follows the next Sunday and the Wedding of Cana on the following (through the Gospel reading).

We tend to count Christmas backwards today, celebrating it in advance. Catholics, on the other hand, used to prepare for feasts by fasting and penance, which remove the obstacles to celebration. We need to die to ourselves to embrace the new life offered to us in the liturgy. We then extend our celebration in time, prolonging it throughout a season. Santa Claus has so overshadowed our celebration that we end Christmas the day after. We’ve lost sight of the tradition of Twelfth Night parties on the evening of January 5, a time of public celebration.

Catholic counting matters. We even date our years from the first Christmas (even if the math gets a little fuzzy on when the counting should have begun). When to fast, when to celebrate, when to stop—these realities matter and we need to learn our Catholic math anew.

A Time for Parties
‘Twas the night before Epiphany and all through the house… a wild holiday party ensued! Although by January 5 these days we’ve mostly forgotten about Christmas, in the old days the celebration culminated on this night. Christmas was marked by Midnight Mass and family meals, but Twelfth Night by more public events and social gatherings.

Twelfth Night celebrations were marked by:

  • A Twelfth Night cake, also called a king’s cake or bean cake (elaborate by Victorian times, but more like a pancake or waffle in earlier times)
  • A crowning of a king (and later a queen as well), who leads the king’s drink or toast, sometimes with a court of fools
  • A feast that includes eating the edible arrangements of the Christmas decorations
  • Theatre, music, dancing, caroling
  • A toast for good health, called the wassail in England

The cake helped determine the king, with a bean or coin inside. The king represented not the wise men, but Herod. This led to the king sometimes referred to as the king of fools (and a previous tradition picked “fools” to be king), with a jester and other in costume accompanying him as his court on parade. This led to dressing up and hiding one’s identity (marking the beginning of Carnival), as well as playing practical jokes.

The king presided over the feast with a ceremonious first drink. The evening as a whole provided an occasion for dancing, plays, and the drinking of the Christmas wassail. “Was hail,” meaning be of good health, became a toast for the Twelfth Night, with a drink made of spiced ale or cider. The occasion led to caroling and an opportunity to exchange gifts, imitating the wise men.

Though Christmas bore the brunt of many Puritan attacks, Protestants continued the Twelfth Night celebrations in Holland, England, and the United States. George Washington was known for hosting elaborate gatherings to mark the day, serving Martha’s Great Cake. Jane Austen’s niece, Fanny, described a Twelfth Night party the family attended in 1806: “On Twelfth Day we were all agreeably surprised with a sort of masquerade, on being dressed into character, and then we were conducted into the library, which was all lighted up and at one end a throne, surrounded by a grove of Orange Trees and other shrubs, and all this was totally unknown to us all! Was it not delightful?” (Letter, Jan. 12, 1806).

Charles Dickens has been called “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” in an exaggerated movie title this year. Dickens may not have invented Christmas, but he did encourage people to celebrate more fully in England again, after Puritanism had tried to snuff the holiday out.

Though Scrooge received his ghosts on Christmas Eve, Dickens speaks of the Twelfth cakes brought by the Ghost of Christmas Present and was known to have presided over major Twelfth Night celebrations himself, as described by his daughter Mamie:

My father was again in his element at the Twelfth Night parties…. He would have something droll to say to every one, and under his attentions the shyest child would brighten and become merry…. Supper was followed by songs and recitations from the various members of the company, my father acting always as master of ceremonies, and calling upon first one child, then another for his or her contribution to the festivity … O, those merry, happy times, never to be forgotten by any of his own children, or by any of their guests. Those merry, happy times!

The great promoter of Christmas joy lived up to his writing.

The Testimony of the Arts
The leisure of the Twelfth Night expressed itself in theatre and music. Mystery plays were performed, especially involving King Herod (the source of the King of Fools). In 1849 Queen Victoria still had a theatre performance and dance to mark the Twelfth Night. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night commemorated the day, drawing upon some key themes of the parties—practical jokes, costumes, and hidden identities. The play may have one of the most memorable openings of the Bard’s repertoire, spoken by the Duke Orlando:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

Flowing from the occasion, music presents a key theme in the play, along with its musical interludes.

Testimony to Twelfth Night celebrations have also come down to us in a series of genre paintings. Many of them are named, “The King Drinks,” to mark the beginning of the feast with a toast from the party’s king. The first painting below, from Peter Brueghel the Younger, following his father’s mastery of peasant festivity, marks many elements of the celebration: the king’s drink, a procession in costume, the frying of cakes, and of course the general feasting and merry making.

Peter Brueghel the Younger, The King Drinks, 1620

Another Dutchman, Jan Steen, was the most prolific of all the painters of the Twelfth Night scene, with at least six takes on the theme. The painting below gives you a sense of the role of music, both in the celebration and also from the carolers outside the door, carrying a paper star to honor the wise men. The scene differs as it is in a home, versus a tavern, and those attending are not peasants, as you see from their dress and the furnishings of the house. You also see a child serving as the king (second best after a “fool”), leading the toast while offered a waffle. A child in the bottom left raises her skirt to jump over three candles marking the three kings. The king also has a fool in his court, replete with costume. Eggshells litter the floor, used to make the waffles.

Jan Steen, A Twelfth Night Feast, 1662.

Both paintings present a study in Catholic festivity.

Finally, we see the crowing of both a king and a queen (from the bean and pea in the cake), in Robert Herrick’s (of Gather Ye Rosebuds fame) “Twelfth Night: Or, King and Queen” (1660). The poem also reflects the making of wassail and toasting for good health.

NOW, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.

Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink
To the base from the brink
A health to the king and queen here.

Next crown a bowl full
With gentle lamb’s wool:
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the king
And queen wassailing:
And though with ale ye be whet here,
Yet part from hence
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.

Reordering Time
We memorialize the twelve days of Christmas in song, but, beyond that one isolated piece, do we mark the twelve days? Epiphany culminates Christmas, without completely ending the celebration. As we count the days of Christmas, we can reorder our Catholic calendar more broadly:

First of all, we should imitate our ancestors and celebrate more heartily on the days following Christmas. Like them, let’s leave Advent for prayer and penance so that we can prepare to celebrate when the time comes.

Second, Santa has a day of his own and it’s not Christmas. Let’s give him the spotlight when he deserves it on December 5, the feast of St. Nick. It’s the feast day of children (when boys used to dress up as bishops) and a great day to receive a present in a shoe.

Third, if we follow point two, then Jesus can have our undivided attention on December 25. The crèche constitutes our focal point, guiding us to adore the newborn Christ with the shepherds. Our celebration takes on a domestic and familial character around the family table. On the last day of the octave, the calendar itself embraces the new king’s birth. Let’s pray for the peace he brings that day.

Fourth, then let’s party heartily on January 5, rediscovering the Twelfth Night. It’s the time of the wise men, more communal celebrating with friends, gifts, drink, and song. How about some wassail? Some Catholic countries still give gifts mainly on the Epiphany. In the Middle Ages it was a day to give presents beyond the family circle. If Santa returns to his own day, we could emphasize presents more when Jesus received them. It is also a good day to give a gift to Jesus along with the wise men.

Fifth, we should continue celebrating the broader Christmas and Epiphany “season,” which doesn’t end until the Presentation on February 2. In particular, we should keep Christmas songs going as they’re ditched by the radio stations and even our parishes.

Finally, my main suggestion: move Christmas parties from Advent to the Twelfth Night! Since we usually don’t see our friends and coworkers on Christmas day we tend to celebrate with them a week or two before the holyday. As Catholics we should set a new (old) trend of hosting parties on the Twelfth Night. I think it could really catch on and help us to count the days of Christmas again.

Editor’s note: The lead graphic is “Twelfth Night or The King Drinks” painted by David Teniers the Younger in 1634-40.


  • R. Jared Staudt

    R. Jared Staudt, PhD serves as Director of Content for Exodus 90. He is author, most recently, of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN, 2023) and editor of Renewing Catholic Schools (Catholic Education Press, 2020).

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