Faeries, Elves, and Other Kin

Twelfth Night and the Fae


Kathryn Cranston

It has long been acknowledged that the Christian church, not knowing the date of the birth of Jesus, chose December 25th in order to combat “infernal” pagan celebrations by subsuming those celebrations into their own.  Thus, “Yuletide” and “Saturnalia” turned into “Christmas” wherever Christianity held dominion.  Although the converted people retained many of their ancient customs, these customs often survived only by being renamed or disguised.

Along with Christmas came a whole plethora of activities, including the Twelve Days of Christmas.  During the Middle Ages, people were free to make merry and feast throughout these twelve days, with the Twelfth Night marking the end of the Christmas season and the coming of the Epiphany (which concluded on the 2nd of February with Candlemas, known to some as Imbolc). It was customary to choose a “Lord of Misrule” from amongst the peasantry to preside over the “Feast of Fools” and lead the revels.  Some sources believe the practice of ritual sacrifice was part of the very ancient “Lord of Misrule” tradition, with the “Lord” giving up his life in exchange for the preceding days of glory “in the character of the good god [Saturn] who gave his life for the world.”

While no one practices the more dramatic aspects of the Lord of Misrule today, many other Twelve Day traditions survive.  Modern day performances mock authority and a woman plays the principal male lead while a man plays the leading older female character, or “Dame,” thus setting things “topsy-turvy” in the tradition of the Lord of Misrule.  Most of us are familiar with “Twelfth Night” through William Shakespeare’s play of the same name, which often makes an appearance during the Yuletide season.  In some places, special pastries, such as the tortell and king cake, are made on Twelfth Night and eaten the next day for the Feast of the Epiphany celebrations.  In England and France, it is customary to bake a Twelfth Night cake containing a bean and a pea.  The people whose slices contain the veggies are then designated king and queen of the night’s festivities.

Between sunset on Twelfth Night and Epiphany morning on Twelfth Day was and remains the traditional time to take down the Christmas tree and decorations.  It was unlucky to leave Christmas decorations hanging after Twelfth Night, a belief originally attached to the festival of Candlemas.  But why?  And how are the fae involved?

First, let’s back up to pre-Christian times, when pagan homes were dressed with mistletoe, ivy, holly, bay, rosemary, and various types of fir trees during Yuletide.  As I shared in last month’s column, The Faeries of Winter, fae elementals came into the home along with the holiday evergreen trees and greenery in order to share in the warmth and the season’s festivities.  These adornments (and their inhabitants) remained in the home until Candlemas.  Queen Victoria (1837-1901) gets the credit for changing this custom to Twelfth Night.

Ever on their toes, Candlemas had been created by the Christian church as an alternative to Roman paganism because “the Gentiles dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods, and as at the beginning of it Pluto stole Proserpine, and her mother Ceres sought her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of the month, walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers could not extirpate the custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before in the honor of Ceres is now done in honor of the Blessed Virgin.”  So said Pope Innocent XII.

Thus, Candlemas coincides with the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin (when Mary emerges from 40 days of ritual confinement and is purified of uncleanliness after giving birth to a man-child), attempts to eradicate memories of the Goddess Persephone/Proserpina, and replaces the Roman feast of Lupercalia, three rituals centered on feminine reproductive capability.  As a sabbat of fire and purification, it makes sense that this was an ideal time to remove the Yuletide foliage from the home.  Exactly why Queen Victoria moved this custom to Twelfth Night I do not know, but it may have something to do with the following.

Removing the Yuletide foliage from the home not only cleaned the house, it also released the fae elementals wintering in the foliage back into the wilderness.  If this was not done, the forest, and by extension the crops, could not begin to grow again and Spring would fail to return.  This, of course, would be an agricultural disaster of monumental proportions.  In addition, if trapped in the house by Yuletide greenery after Twelfth Night, the fae spirits would wreak havoc until returned to their rightful place.  It seems the sooner the fae were set free, the better Queen Victoria felt!

So, when is Twelfth Night?

If you wish to honor Twelfth Night in the pagan tradition in 2010 (in subsequent years, you must determine the date of the Winter Solstice which varies), you must calculate from Yule on the 21st of December, where the first of the twelve days of Yule begins on the 22nd and the twelfth day is on the 2nd of January.  That makes sunset on the 1st of January the beginning of Twelfth Night in 2010.


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If you wish to honor Twelfth Night in the Christian tradition in 2010 (or any other year), you must calculate from Christmas on the 25th of December, where the first of the twelve days of Christmas begins on the 26th and the twelfth days is on the 6th of January.  That makes nightfall (or midnight, if you want to be thoroughly modern) on the 5th of January the beginning of Twelfth Night.


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Whether you decorate your home with fresh boughs or fake, Twelfth Night affords us one more opportunity to reflect on the Mother Goddess’ gifts of abundance in nature and renewed life, and the mysterious and wonderful roles played by ancient fae forces, elementals and spirits seen and unseen in the turning of the wheel.  Hinder ye not but aid them in their work and play.

    Bibliography and Works Cited/Recommended Reading:
  • Frazer, James, “The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion: A New Abridgement from the Second and Third Editions,” Oxford University (1998)
  • Smith, William, “A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities,” BiblioBazaar (2009)
  • Presentation of Jesus at the Temple on Wikipedia, Website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candlemas