In January public halls and domestic dwellings were traditionally decorated with boughs of Rowan (Witchwood) to avert the powers of evil, although the ash was also used symbolising the Axis Mundi or root base of the World Tree, Ygdrassil. The rustic flora was replaced on February 13th with boughs of Box (Buxus sempevirens) or Yew (Taxus baccata), the latter remained until late March. The slow-growing yet finely grained Box-tree was introduced into the British Isles from Europe largely to furnish the printing trade with superlative engraver’s blocks, while the timber of yew was used traditionally for longbows. Early Romans believed that the beginning of each day, month and year were sacred to the two-headed god Janus. They thought he opened the gates of heaven at dawn to let out the morning light, and that he closed them again at dusk. This eventually led to his worship as the god of all doors, gates, and entrances. Traditional calendar dates for January were as follows:
2nd Candlemas (Pagan date)
6th Twelfth Night
20th St Agnes’ Eve
28th Up Helly Ha!
However, soon after the dead of winter, it was also a time for harvesting late crops, in particular many varieties of brassicas such as brussel sprouts, turnips and cabbage. On the coastal regions the wild pink-footed geese, some of whom also found their way onto the Xmas dinner table are scouring the beet-fields, having found their way there during their long migratory flights from the northern regions of the Hebrides and Iceland. After the crop has been removed, the geese can safely be left to feed on the roots, rich in potassium, while the farmer himself benefits amply from the goose dung enriching his fields.
The ancient Pagan “Wassail” festivity that took place on the 6th January equates with the Christian Epiphany (Purification of the Virgin Mary) and traditionally is considered a festive occasion when babies are named or baptised. However, it could occur anytime during the “12 days of Xmas” but more usually on the eve of Twelfth Night (the title of one of Shakespeare’s plays).
Some researchers say the play was written soon after “As You Like It” and “Hamlet” only to have been performed a year earlier on the 6th January at the Middle Temple for Queen Elizabeth Ist, although there is no real evidence for this supposition. This date in the orthodox calendar is known to Christians as Epiphany, celebrating the baptism of the new-born “god of light” or Mithras in the Roman calendar, but was formerly celebrated by the Celts and Anglo-Saxons as “Wassail”, the latter being more concerned with the fertility of crops and occurred on the 2nd of February (Candlemass). This was a Spring Scandinavian or Celtic Festival also celebrating the return of the light when candles or torches were lit from the Yule Log and then carried in procession through the town or village. So if the Twelfth Night took place on this date then the Saturnalia really began on the 21st January. This suggests an alignment of this festival with the zodiacal signs rather than the months of the new Christian calendar. It also explains why the elements of this festival are now confused with Christmas since in earlier times the celebrations continued from the 6th January to the 2nd of February. The latter date in the Celtic calendar celebrates the Goddess Brigit or Bride with festivities similar to those of the Greek Dionysian and Eleusinian Mysteries. It was the time when Demeter went in search for her lost daughter and a bed was made of hay and corn, with candles around it and effigies placed inside to represent the bridal chamber. The Romans knew this festival in honour of the Goddesses Juno and Februa, the mother of Mars and more akin to the Lupercalia.
In Merrie England from the 4th century right up until the 18th century Twelfth Night was the climax of a festive occasion set aside for 12 days of singing carols, feasting and drinking; that is until it was appropriated by the puritanical clergy as a sombre religious occasion. It was also a time for theatrical plays or processions, lampooning and satirical antics such as those performed by “The Knave”, “Lord of the Bean” and the “Queen of the Pea”. An ingenious and amusing method is employed to determine the people chosen to perform this ritual. A large cake is baked with a bean, a pea and a clove for the assembled community and whoever finds these in their slice will be chosen as the principal actors. The custom of having a flaming pudding at Christmas derives from this old custom. This pagan ritual is employed to determine who will play the main characters in the pageant. Whoever found the clove would play the Knave, the bean signified the Lord or King and whoever found the pea would play the Queen. In some parts of Ireland from the 15th century it is known as “Little Christmas” or “Women’s Christmas” as those involved in the kitchen were rewarded for all their hard work over the festive week with cakes, tea and some of the leftovers.
Fraser (The Golden Bough) suggests that in much earlier pagan times the King of the Bean was a ritual scapegoat chosen by lot and then later sacrificed to the gods to purify the community and ensure the fertility of the land. Much later of course a goose or boar became the main sacrificial animal. In ancient Babylon the festival occurred during the 12 intercalary days in which the conflict between chaos and the cosmos took place. The Israelites knew it as the Feast of Tabernacles while the Shetland Islanders named it “Up Hally Ha!” celebrating the triumph of the Sun over darkness with bonfires, blazing tar barrels and the ritual burning of a Viking ship at sea. In the Greek calendar it became associated with the abduction of Persephone and some aspects of tree worship (Lavateria) with rites dedicated to Dionysus, Cybele and Atargatis. Because of changes to the Julian calendar many pagan festivals lost their synchronicity with the new dates anywhere between 5 and eleven days. Clearly, from the time of the Winter solstice (21st Dec) to the end of the year 12 days have elapsed. Strictly speaking the pagan “New Year” occurred when the Sun moved into Capricorn and this was followed by celebrations that lasted until the 6th of January. Paradoxically, the 1st of January was not celebrated to the extent that it is today when it is known as Hogmanay.
With its alternative title, and the chaos and complexity in the acting roles, “Twelfth Night” has some bizarre similarities to Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” and clearly illustrates the duplicity, perplexity and paradoxical nature of earthly love and the capricious yet mutual attraction of the sexes. In the majority of characters it explores the conceited fantasy and confusion of self-love, its subsequent vanities and follies and how in matters of love, that simply relying on appearances and making false assumptions are in themselves tragically deceptive. It also reflects or reiterates the classical pagan theme of the Twelfth Night of Christmas, when the familiar world of relationships is turned literally upside down and back to front. The play opens with a carousel of musicians celebrating love;
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
Mine appetite may sicken, and so die..
The twelve carnival days of misrule (Saturnalia) led by the Fool or clown was traditionally a time when anything was permissible and long-held taboos and hierarchies were usually abandoned or overturned and general chaos ensued. Furthermore, although considered by archivists as a tragicomedy and not a romance, the general theme seems to contradict Shakespeare’s oft quoted assertion from his first folio of Sonnets (#116):
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,
Love is not love which alters when it, alteration finds…”.
Throughout this play a lot of theatrical smoke and mirrors, some ambiguity as well as cross-dressing occurs between the principal actors and “actresses”. It should be borne in mind that women were not employed in the theatre during Shakespeare’s time and that all women’s parts were usually played by adolescent young boys. The puritanical elite considered the Elizabethan theatre as a hotbed of vice and corruption, totally unsuitable for a lady. However, the play was not officially published until 1623 in the first Shakespearean folio of 36 Plays and it may have been derived from the same source as Matteo Bandello’s La Prima Parte de le Novelle. His work was translated into French by Francois de Belleforest (Histoires Tragiques – 1559-82) and was probably inspired by an earlier Italian play Gli’ Ingannati (“The Deceived”). The actual story of Apollionus & Silla was recounted by Barnaby Rich in his Farewelle to Militarie Profession (1581) and this probably contains the basis of the final plot in Shakespeare’s own version of Twelfth Night. Other more relevant sources are probably the Roman comedy by Plautus (Menaechmi – “The Twins”) which as already mentioned also influenced the plot of “A Comedy of Errors” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona” in its complex and finely crafted parallel structures. Unfortunately, or rather as luck would have it, towards the end of the play nearly everyone is in love with the wrong partner and various playful allusions are made with regard to homosexuality, lesbianism and transvestite inclinations.
Traditionally, Wassail was a time when groups of people went from house to house in a jovial or drunken frame of mind, singing and drinking more on the way. The response from the neighbours would be to open their doors to them, offering unequalled hospitality and even more to drink. In cider-making regions the orchards were literally “wassailed” around springtime to encourage good growth for the forthcoming year. People would gather together, fires were lit, fireworks were let off, drums, clappers, flutes and cymbals played, while the trees were ritually whipped. John Herrick reveals in his poem the exact nature of this old custom;
I sing of brooks and blossoms, birds and bowers:
Of April, May, of June, and July flowers.
I sing of maypoles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bride-grooms, brides and bridal cakes.
I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these, to sing of cleanly wantonness.
I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece
Of balm, of oil, of spice and ambergris.
I sing of times trans-shifting; and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white.
I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the Faery King.
I write of Hell: I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it afterall.
Quite often bands of scantily-clad, buxom young girls would call upon the houses with “Lamb’s Wool” a spicy concoction of cider or wine, spiced with clove, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon topped with the creamy-soft, white flesh of baked apples. All this merry and ribald commotion ensued presumably to awaken the powers of fertility and to ward off any lingering evil spirits from the previous year. As one might imagine a great deal of cider was drunk and then in more serious manner ritually poured onto the roots of trees as a libation to the gods and in the hope of a good harvest. It has been said that in some areas sexual couplings were also practised in the fields and orchards at this time. Hence its association much later with a bawdy drinking bout, session, carol singing and a salutation or toast to a plentiful harvest or the hope of good times in the future. The practice of carols or carol-singing was brought into “Christ’s Maesse” or Yuletide season during the Victorian era. Its former origins seem to stem from the practice of groups of carollers or priestesses simply blessing the apple tree, as can be seen in the bowl or basin depicted in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s mysterious print. It consists of a dunking bowl of strong ale or punch with fruit in it being observed by six ladies in diaphanous gowns in a landscape of orchards and rose briars.
Although this was largely an old fertility ritual that later became a localised custom it refers specifically in the Celtic tradition to some mythic tale about the Magic Apple & the Silver Bough. It also had some mundane or practical purposes aside from the baptism of babes. According to another pagan custom Twelfth Night was also employed for Love Divination whereby any old spinsters or single women in the community were usually gathered together at this time and offered the opportunity to be randomly paired with any men volunteering from a neighbouring family, clan or tribe. According to this tradition the women would each secretly place a personal token, such as say a ring within an apple and then they would each drop their apples into the punch bowl. The men were blindfolded, their hands tied behind their back so each man’s task was then to retrieve an apple from the Wassail bowl just with his mouth and biting it open reveal who was to be his future hand-fasted wife for the coming year. So now it remains the vestige of a festive tribute that we have inadvertently adopted from the Celts and Scots and that we now celebrate in a similar fashion on New Year’s Eve and at other times with the party game of dunking apples without understanding its true origins or significance.
Despite its rich Celtic associations the word itself has Anglo-Saxon origins, (Veis-Heil or Wass-Hail) meaning to be in good health, hence the phrase “hale and hearty” and of course a serving vessel (vass). The salutation “Wassail!”, or “Good Health!” according to a reference in the Grail legends, should be “Wass-drinc!” which literally translates as “I’ll drink to that!”. There is a reference to an ancient pagan god called Heilith, Heil or Helis in the “Mythology of the British Isles” by Geoffrey Ashe. He is thought to be depicted as the giant landscape feature at Cerne Abbey (aka Long Man of Wilmington), etched out in white limestone, completely naked with a staff in each hand and his exposed penis clearly defined. There is a reference to the Abbey’s Augustinian monks having drawn the giant in the form of the god Priapus simply to appease their pagan parishioners who were suffering from diseased cattle in 1268. Some experts have said that the fertility figure is Roman and that there may have been more complex figures or items in the original drawing than there are now since the original was largely reconstructed in 1874. Twelfth Night falls on the same day as the Christian Epiphany which according to their calendrical doctrine symbolises the manifestation of a superhuman being, attended by the Magi acting as representatives and witnesses of the phenomenal birth of the infant Saviour Jesus. However, in pagan Greco-Roman and Persian times this may have reference to the infant Zeus (Roman Mithras, Persian Abraxas) who is born of the Queen of Heaven on the winter solstice and baptised around the same time as what is now Epiphany. Zeus was then given over to be nursed by the she-goat Amalthea indicating a strong connection with the constellation Capella and the zodiac sign of Capricorn. Moreover, in the Christian calendar it is a festival which is held on the 6th of January to commemorate the exchanges between the infant Jesus and his advisors the Magi (Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar), regarding his baptism and is considered a very holy date in the Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Syrian Churches. As nearly everyone knows the gifts of the Gnostic Magi were offerings of Gold, Myrrh, & Frankincense that symbolised the birth and triumph of the Light after the winter solstice. With the advent of Christianity the vessel or sacred chalice was thought to represent the Holy Grail or the spirit of the Infant Saviour Jesus Christ being baptised in the Spirit. However, on the festive front it is akin to “first-footing”, again usually held on the 6th January, when presents were exchanged on the 1st of January, not on the 25th December as is currently practised. Again a custom of a dark complexioned man with a piece of coal would visit neighbouring houses and request entry, usually on the much earlier New Year’s Eve. It seems there has been a shift in dates due largely to Christian acculturation, misapprehensions and local customs. The festival; is also known as “Twelfth Night” of course to celebrate the arrival of the Triple Goddess and the Lord of the Dance as, after the darkness of the Winter solstice, when the New Sun rises out of the abyss, the days gradually begin to get lighter. Much later in the Medieval Christian period it came to refer to the practice of carol-singing, and was often accompanied by Mummer’s Plays when the poor earned a little extra cash by visiting the rich folks and acting or singing for their supper.