Twelfth Night Old and New

Today we find ourselves enter the last day of Christmastide, traditionally marked by Twelfth Night celebrations that have in recent years dwindled to near extinction. Whereas it once served as a highlight of the festive celebratory calendar, a night of feasting and revelry, it is now little more than a footnote, with only the tradition of wassailing keeping its name alive in some parts of the country. Even so, although the wassail itself has undergone something of a modest revival in recent decades, it remains strongest in its West Country heartland where it frequently takes place on Old Twelfth Night, which falls on 17 January. If you should happen to be wondering why there is such a marked divergence in dates, this is all down to the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in Britain which took place in September 1752, which caused an instant ‘leap forward’ in time from Wednesday 2 September to Thursday 14 September, bringing the calendar back into line with the Earth’s annual progress around the Sun. Somehow, this seemed neither right nor proper to a number of rustic celebrants, so they continued to mark Old Twelfth Night long after the reform. 

The wassail ostensibly takes place with a view to propitiating the spirit of the orchard by singing and drinking to the health of the trees, but as this bare outline of this practice illustrates, it is rather more likely that it is the participants who derive any enjoyment and benefit from its conduct (providing that they don’t overdo it on the cider of course). Perhaps it is because of this focus upon the future and the fruit of the year to come that Twelfth Night, unlike the immediate lead-up to Christmas, is not traditionally associated with ghost stories in Britain; it is focused not upon death, but rebirth. Moreover, the days are now beginning to perceptibly lengthen, and the inward focus of Christmas itself, which generally centres upon the family and stirs memories of those no longer with us with whom we celebrated Christmases past, is gone, as we turn once again to the wider world of work and society.  

Such a focus would, therefore, seem to be uncongenial to the ghost story, although I do know of one that specifically focuses upon Twelfth Night. It opens with a disorientating scene amidst a Somerset apple orchard on Old Twelfth Night shortly after the local menfolk have returned from the trenches, and despite the ritual’s traditional future focus, its reinstitution has been undertaken with a view to restoring a past order that has been permanently ruptured by the Great War. This is but one aspect of the collision between encroaching modernity and tradition dealt with in the story, in which the former unleashes darker and older forces. There is, however, also a marked humorous streak to this tale.  

Returning to the present, the picture of the tree seen at the beginning of this post was taken recently in Cotehele’s Old Orchard in Cornwall, which can be found next to its ‘Mother Orchard’ planted in 2007 to preserve and propagate traditional varieties of West Country apple. A noble undertaking, so let us raise a cup to the endeavours of Mary Martin and James Evans, the apple specialists who conceived this noble undertaking. Wassail!