Old Twelfth Night, Wassailing and the ‘Christmas place’

It’s Old Twelfth Night, ‘Twelvey’, 17th January, the date of Twelfth Night in the old Julian calendar before they played catch-up in 1752 to reclaim those accumulated days that we’d lost through miscalculation, or was it just carelessness? This is the traditional day, down ‘ere in the West Coun’ry anyway, when we do our Wassailing – treating the orchard trees to a hullabaloo of singing and saucepan bashing to drive away the evil spirits, while the largest tree is offered (with the help of a Green Man and a maiden) a piece of cider-soaked toast laid in a forking branch, to ensure a good harvest. We had our Wassail event in our lovely Community Orchard on Saturday, more convenient for families, and much noise was made and all should be well, so, it’s the proper end of Christmas now and my last opportunity to put away the Twelfth Night Tales with some final thoughts.

Christmas vanished on Twelfth NIght for us (although weeks ago for some people), not by magic but through several hours of carefully wrapping and storing all the delicate tree ornaments, taking down the cards, restoring shelves to (a less glamorous) normality, and dismantling the woodland glade in our living room. Usually the only evidence that it ever happened is a few pine needles that artfully evade the hoover.

But this year, through these tales that I’ve been generating for my self-imposed task, and to celebrate, I realise that I’ve also, unintentionally, created an archive that might spark some interest and enjoyment for future people – family, social historians, Christmas-obsessives…

The three snips in the pastry on these (home-made to the ancestor’s recipe!) mince pies, represent the three kings – that’s what my Mum told me anyway.

And, as I’ve been writing these posts and photographing the objects it’s gradually dawned on me what it is we are doing each year; I can only speak for myself and our family but observing other people’s festively decorated homes, it seems likely they’re doing the same thing; we’re making a place, a temporary place called Christmas. We create a space to which people might travel some distance to come together, in more or less harmony, and where, if they’re lucky, they’ll eat special food and exchange gifts. All during the darkest time of the year.

These comings and goings occur within a kind of scenic framework we work hard to create, we construct a kind of ‘Theatre of the Living Room’ that is full of brilliance and light – “Deck the hall with boughs of Holly”. Not everyone enjoys it – conversations I’ve overheard on buses, or plaintive social media posts suggest that some people find this seasonal decorating stressful with everything else going on, or a drudge, or it’s too full of expectations or bad memories, and understandably they don’t do much; others resent something that this procedure represents – either personally or even ideologically.

Another approach to this decorating business that I personally found hard to fathom was undertaken by a woman I once worked with who bought all her ‘trimmings’ new for Christmas every year with a different ‘designer theme’ each time; memories were not for her. But many people (including me) are lucky enough to find that it’s a rich pleasure to go mining for the treasures in the loft at the beginning of December! And it feels important; so we set our personal scenes in this Christmas place, and some invisible stories unfold as the familiar baubles, knick-knacks and figures are unwrapped and take up their places on the tree and along shelves and then glow in the flickering candle flames and fairy-lights.

I secretly fantasise that mysterious performances are enacted by the figures on our mantelpiece when we’ve gone to bed! They start at the Polish Church – as a nod to the inescapable Christian element of Christmas – past a small Nutcracker soldier then move back through the ages and a glass tree into the forest, to a more ancient location of spirits and genius loci!

The atmosphere created by combining this essential illumination, the ornaments, and the greenery can transform living spaces into a genteel Victorian parlour, a fairy grotto, a dazzling would-be-ballroom, or a quiet woodland glade – all scenes that might be familiar from any number of pantomimes. Were these gaudy and glorious Christmas plays influenced by the Victorians’ new enthusiasm for Christmas in the home, or was it the other way round? These mid-winter performances have such ancient roots – the Christian Mediaeval Mystery plays, Mummers, and much older pagan themes –  they’re sets of stories just waiting in the wings each year until their performance places are reinvigorated, in our homes, churches, playhouses and orchards.

So we mark the end of one year and the start of the new – the ‘still point in the turning world’ – with brilliance and memories, our own or borrowed, by making this magical Christmas place for a few days, then taking it down again; daft, but very special.

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