Celebrating Twelfth Night…
We’ve all heard of the twelve Days of Christmas. But did you know that they are actually rooted in the pagan celebration of the winter solstice, which is known as Yule? The word Yule is an anglicized form of the Norse word Jul (or Jōl), the name for the midwinter festival oriented around the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. This article focuses on celebrating Twelfth Night, the ending of the Yule season.
The Origins of Twelfth Night
The origins of Twelfth Night lie somewhere between Nordic Jul and Roman Saturnalia, or even earlier. The winter festivals were never about one day, but a season, which eventually had to come to a close so that the hard work of winter could carry on. Twelfth Night, as celebrated in pagan traditions, has its roots in the ancient festival of Yule, a midwinter celebration that marks the Winter Solstice.
In pagan beliefs, this period is seen as a time of rebirth and renewal, as the solstice signifies the gradual return of the sun after the longest night of the year. Traditionally, Yule is celebrated over twelve days, beginning at the solstice, and Twelfth Night marks the conclusion of these festivities. During this time, pagans engage in rituals and celebrations honoring nature, the cycle of seasons, and the rebirth of the sun. Activities often include feasting, lighting bonfires, and decorating homes with symbols of life and growth, such as evergreens. Twelfth Night, in the pagan context, is a time of joy and festivity, celebrating the end of the darkest part of the year and the promise of the returning light and warmth.
The Twelfth Night is believed by many to have come from a Christian feast celebrating the eve of the Epiphany, typically celebrated January 6th. The Epiphany is significant in the Christian faith as it commemorates the visit of the Magi, or the Three Wise Men, to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. The tradition of Twelfth Night, therefore, is closely tied to the Christian story of the birth of Jesus and the subsequent acknowledgment of his divinity by the Wise Men. While the timing of Twelfth Night coincides with the end of the pagan Yule festival, it is distinct in its Christian origins and significance. For Christians, Twelfth Night thus serves as a conclusion to the Christmas season and a prelude to the Epiphany in the Christian liturgical calendar.
Celebrating Twelfth Night
Historically, celebrating Twelfth Night included lots of light, music, and magic. Most importantly, it signals the end of the Solstice season, when we welcome the return of the light and the greening of our trees.
For many people, celebrating Twelfth Night syncs up with celebrating New Year’s Eve, a time to ring in the new year and bid farewell to the darkness of winter. Of all the nights of Yule, this night seems to be the one most closely associated with the custom of wassailing, which embodies in part the customs around caroling as well.
Celebrating Twelfth Night gives us an opportunity to celebrate the magic of ancient traditions, honor our ancestors, and celebrate our passion for life and love in the midst of winter. And while there is not a lot of information known about how the middle days of Yule were historically celebrated, we know that some references talk about it being a time of feasting where little or no work was done.
Below are some easy ways to Celebrate the Twelfth Night!
Wassailing refers to a yuletide tradition of wishing good health and drinking wassail, a specific type of beverage, during the holiday season. The Christmas carol “Here We Come A-wassailing Among the Eaves of Green” comes from this tradition.
The wassailing tradition falls into two distinct categories: the house-visiting wassail and the orchard-visiting wassail. The house-visiting wassail is the practice of going door-to-door and offering a drink from a special bowl in exchange for gifts; this tradition still exists, but has largely been displaced by caroling. The orchard-visiting wassail refers to the ancient custom of visiting apple orchards, reciting incantations, and singing to promote a good harvest for the coming year.
Try this easy wassail recipe and share it with friends while celebrating Twelfth Night. An Easy Wassail Recipe For Yuletide
2) Spend Time in Reflection
The Twelve Days of Yule was a time of reflection, with some traditions assigning individual days to focus on one of the Nine Noble Virtues from Norse religion. These virtues formed a spiritual law and moral code by which one should live life. Spend some time on the Twelfth Night thinking about the virtues you’d like to possess, and reflect on how you can be a better person in the year to come.
3) Light A Symbolic Yule Candle
Many of the original traditions surrounding Yule involved candlelight—to provide light when darkness was at its peak, but also to celebrate the return of the sun in the coming months. Using a tabletop (or your altar!), cover it in unlit candles, either in a circle or a varied pattern depending on your preference. Then place one large candle that symbolizes the sun (ideally in yellow or gold) in the center above all of these candles. Light this large candle first, then light all of your other candles. As you do so, recite an incantation or prayer to celebrate this important holiday.
Take a moment to think about what the return of the sun means to you. The return of the light meant many things to different cultures. How does it affect you, and your loved ones?
4) Have a Feast
Twelfth Night was a final frenzy of feasting, drinking ale and often-raucous merry making before the community returned to its daily working grind for the rest of the winter. Honor this ancient custom by hosting a feast of your own. Serve comfort food like hearty soups and homemade bread along with a bowl of wassail for good measure.
5) Sing Carols
Singing carols during the 12 Days of Yule goes hand in hand with wassailing and was something widely done. So, for Twelfth Night, consider starting a holiday sing-along. Not your thing? How about creating a playlist of wassailing songs to play in the background. Here are a few of my favorites.
- Gloucestershire Wassail (Loreena McKennitt version)
- Carol of the Bells
- Jolly Wassel bowl, lyrics
- Do You Hear What I Hear (Bing Crosby Version)
- Here We Come A Wassailing
- Ring Out Solstice Bells (Jethro Tull)
- I believe in Father Christmas (Greg Lake) (also known as “I believe in pie at Yuletide”)
- In Dulci Jubilo (Mike Oldfield)
- Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)
6) Honor Your Ancestors
In the earliest times, it is likely that Yule was a feast for the dead. An occasion to honor your ancestors, who were thought to be vital for luck as well as the well-being of the livestock and family.
The easiest way to honor your ancestors is to set up a simple altar.
- Set up the area in a way that pleases you. It can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish to make it. Consider your ancestral lineages, cultural traditions and indigenous systems of thought while setting up your altar. How do you align yourself with the elements? How do they influence your spirituality?
- Create a “spirit altar” to honor the deceased members of your family or others who have passed on. Place photos, heirlooms and other mementos on the altar, along with several votive candles. Light the candles in memory of the people you honor, saying their names aloud and expressing well-wishes. Sit quietly for a while and focus on what you experience. This spirit altar can be created just for Yule or kept year round.
7) Give Gifts
The Yule season, also known as the Winter Solstice, is a time of celebration and gift giving. Though the Yule celebrations are based on ancient traditions, there are many ways to incorporate creativity into your gift-giving this year. On Twelfth Night, start a new tradition of exchanging gifts created with your own hands or inspired by the natural world.
There’s something so special about receiving a handcrafted gift from someone you love. The process of making something by hand teaches us patience and perseverance—qualities that we can use throughout our lives. Plus, when we give a handmade gift, it shows how much we care about our friends and family members!
If you’re looking for inspiration for celebrating Twelfth Night with gift giving, try some of these ideas:
- Making Herbal Bath Melts: A Magical Bath Additive for Winter Days.
- Easy Bath Melt Recipe With Soothing Chamomile and Oat
- Cedarwood and Sage Winter Bath Soak Recipe
- DIY Fire Starters: Perfect for Gift Giving Plus FREE Printable Gift Tags
- Dried Orange Slices for Natural Homemade Ornaments
- How to Make Salt Dough Ornaments or Gift Tags
- Recipe for Cinnamon Ornaments: The Perfect Addition to an Old-Fashioned Holidaycel
8) Light a Fire
The burning of the yule log was a Nordic tradition, where a whole tree was brought into the home to burn during the 12 days of Yule. In modern times, bring this tradition into your own home with a mini log for your hearth. If you don’t have a fireplace, queue up Netflix’s “Fireplace For Your Home” video instead to recreate the experience–or bake your yule log as a cake instead!
As in the traditional custom, If you do have an actual fire, consider extinguishing it at the end of the evening and saving a small piece of the wood to start next year’s fire.
At this time of year, it is important to reflect on what this holiday season really means, and what traditions we celebrate. We no longer depend on the cycles of nature for survival in the way our ancestors did, but we are still part of the natural world, and we are constantly reminded that we are powerless over the forces of nature. In our reflections at the end of this year, we might draw from the ancient Nordic tradition of accepting the cycles of nature and life, celebrating the promise of a new year, and focusing on virtues such as courage, self-reliance, and overall good moral character.
Tonight, raise your glass to those who came before you. Everything you do comes from somewhere, and was touched by many cultures, intermingling and borrowing from one another. Ring in the New Year with one hand reaching back toward your ancestors, and one hand reaching forward into the future, as we carry on with the wild responsibility of being human.