What exactly is Twelfth Night - and when should I take my decorations down?

Christmas decorations should come down on the 12th night.

Christmas decorations should come down on the 12th night.

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Tonight is Twelfth Night, which falls on January 5, as it is traditionally the night before the Twelfth Day of Christmas. It marks the coming of the Epiphany when the Three Wise Men were said to arrive at the stable where Jesus was born.

Since Victorian times, the tradition has been to take decorations down on Twelfth Night - so that would mean these must techinically come down tonight. There’s some confusion though, with many people thinking of January 6 as being the Twelfth Night - if you count the days from the First Day of Christmas, which is Boxing Day.

When do you take your Christmas decorations down?

When do you take your Christmas decorations down?

So why, historically, is it deemed to fall on January 5, rather than the following day? The reason is that, in centuries past, the end of the day was when the sun came down - so the night was actually the beginning of the day. That has caused the confusion over whether it should be on January 5 or January 6.

For our ancestors, Christmas Day started at sunset on Christmas Eve and would continue until nightfall on the 25th, which began the Feast of Stephen - Boxing Day, as we now call it, which was the actual First Day of Christmas. If you follow that, the Twelfth Night of Christmas was the night before January 6.

For those who are superstitious and worrying about bad luck from leaving decorations up too long, it is worth remembering that in years gone by decorations were left up until Candlemas on February 2.

In times past, Twelfth Night was a big celebration, and a time to play practical jokes on your friends, family and neighbours - including hiding live birds in pies, as in the rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence.

Food and drink were also specially eaten and drank.

In Britain, Twelfth Cakes were a rich, heavy fruitcake, which traditionally contained a bean. If you got it, you were King or Queen of the Bean and everybody had to obey your orders, often to do ridiculous things.

It was also a time to eat spicy, gingery foods.

Wassail is a kind of hot mulled cider, traditionally drunk. Wassailing refers to singing and drinking the health of trees on Twelfth Night, to awaken apple trees and scare away evil spirits, ensuring a good harvest in autumn.

Inside homes, yule logs were traditionally lit at the beginning of Christmas, and burned until the Twelfth Night, when its remains were kept to kindle next year’s fire - and for good luck.

There have also been traditional Christmas plays, usually featuring the story of George and the Dragon. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is believed to have been written around 1601/02 as entertainment for close to the Christmas season, and its plot of disguises and confusions seems to fit the spirit of the occasion.