A Happy Twelfth Night! As we pass through the ephemeral time between Solstice and Old Christmas, we find ourselves here, on January 5th or 6th, or Twelfth Night to some. Many who have been subject to Christmas music certainly know the Twelve Days of Christmas carol, and the time it refers to marks the death of the Old Year and the Start of the New. The darkness relents to light and awaits it's return at the Summer Solstice. Today is known as Epiphany to many Christians, or Old Christmas, and has been since the Council of Tours in 567 C.E. It marks the day when the Magi visited the baby Jesus in the stable, yet many of its rites and customs harken back to the Saturnalia celebrations of Ancient Rome.
We recently entered Mercury in Retrograde again. Hurray. And its timing is all too fitting. The ancient festivals associated with this 'tween time revolved around anarchy, social upheaval and societal role reversals and disorder. It often feels like things have been turned upside down at these astrological junctions, and I endeavor to embrace the anarchic influence of this season and this astrological configuration and enjoy the wild ride while I can.
The celebration of Saturnalia, a carnivale-esque December festival in ancient Rome, set the stage for the Twelve Days of Christmas that we know today, and influenced many of the folk practices that were bourne in various European countries, eventually reaching the New World. Many of their revels and customs revolved around role reversals: the slave owner serving the slave, and pauper made King and the King in rags. There was often appointed a Master of Revels, or a Lord of Misrule to organize and preside over the seasons activities. King Henry the VIII even appointed such a person in his court to oversee the Christmasing. These celebrations included Morris dancing, hobby horses, and sometimes animal masked "guisers". These practices were found to be deeply troublesome to the early Church as we can see in this passage translated by Clement A. Miles, in his work, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition from 1913:
"It is from a sermon often ascribed to St. Augustine of Hippo, but probably composed in the sixth century, very likely by Caesarius of Arles in southern Gaul:— “On those days,” says the preacher, speaking of the Kalends of January, “the heathen, reversing the order of all things, dress themselves up in indecent deformities.... These miserable men, and what is worse, some who have been baptized, put on counterfeit forms and monstrous faces, at which one should rather be ashamed and sad. For what reasonable man would believe that any men in their senses would by making a stag (cervulum) turn themselves into the appearance of animals? Some are clothed in the hides of cattle; others put on the heads of beasts, rejoicing and exulting that they have so transformed themselves into the shapes of animals that they no longer appear to be men.... How vile, further, it is that those who have been born men are clothed in women's dresses, and by the vilest change effeminate their manly strength by taking on the forms of girls, blushing not to clothe their warlike arms in women's garments; they have bearded faces, and yet they wish to appear women.... There are some who on the Kalends of January practise auguries, and do not allow fire out of their houses or any other favour to anyone who asks. Also they both receive and give diabolical presents (strenas). Some country people, moreover, lay tables with plenty of things necessary for eating ... thinking that thus the Kalends of January will be a warranty that all through the year their feasting will be in like measure abundant. Now as for them who on those days observe any heathen customs, it is to be feared that the name of Christian will avail them nought. And therefore our holy fathers of old, considering that the majority of men on those days became slaves to gluttony and riotous living and raved in drunkenness and impious dancing, determined for the whole world that throughout the Churches a public fast should be proclaimed.... Let us therefore fast, beloved brethren, on those days.... For he who on the Kalends shows any civility to foolish men who are wantonly sporting, is undoubtedly a partaker of their sin.”
We can see in Italy and Germany as well that the Harlequin figure was not a simple clown or jester, but was identified with the Wild Hunt and images of a frightening figure imbued with magical powers. On Twelfth Night, this is realized as a "Rough Band", as it is called in England, where people parade about with pots and pans banging and raising hell through the streets. Some also played tricks and destroyed property as they went, furthering the time as governed by a spirit of anarchy and misrule.
This day was, as I mentioned before, also Old Christmas to many, or the day Christmas was observed before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in parts of Europe in 1752. It was the day in which the Yule Log's ashes were spread as a fertility charm on the fields for the coming year's crops. Work was often put aside, and Plough Monday, the Monday following Twelfth Night, as the time when normal work was resumed. Ploughs were even dressed up in ribbons and greenery to be dragged about by "Plough Boys" who begged money house to house and were known to throw stones or dig up the yards of those who were tight fisted.
In Appalachia, masking and 'guising customs persisted in different ways, but the Belsnickle is one the best examples of a persistence of these European customs. The Belsnickle can best be described as a kind of Krampus/ St. Nicolas figure survival from Germany. Brought with the German settlers to the Appalachians, Gerald Milnes writes on the figures in his work, Signs, Cures, & Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore:
"To the People of the Potomac Highlands, belsnickling is the action of going from house to house in masquerade, with residents guessing belnickler's identities." p. 186.
He draws comparisons to the Wild Hunt as well in his research, as the masked people can be seen to represent the wild spirits who act out in ridiculous and oftentimes, rambunctious ways. The name Belsnickle, appears to come from the Germanic Midwinter elf of the same title, which anglicized the word Pelz Nicholas, or "Nicholas in fur" to Belsnickle. He can be seen as a darker cousin to St. Nicholas who carries a switch to beat naughty children much like the Austrio-Bavarian Krampus figure that is so popular in the media today.
In Germany, the Belsnickle was likely to be a solitary figure, while here in Appalachia, it was a term to describe a group of revelers. This may be due to the influence of the mummer's plays surviving in Pennsylvania, and the long tradition of house to house masking that many European settlers brought with them in folk memory. This is just a glance at the incredible history of midwinter 'guising and mumming in the Old World and the New, and I hope it has tickled your fancy to look into it further.
As we come out of Solstice time and head towards the warmth of spring, I find myself, and I'm sure many others, burnt at both ends from various feastings and dealing with large groups of unruly family members. But I hope as we ride out this next wave of Mercury in Retrograde, we can enjoy some of the chaos and ride with the Wild Hunt until balance can be achieved again and the New Year can be looked upon with excitement and a feeling of wonder. Take off your masks, let your identity be known, and you are made welcome. Come in.
"Old Christmas is past, twelfth night is the last and we bid you adieu, great joy to the new."
-The King, as preformed by Steel Eye Span
Howard, Michael. Liber Nox: A Traditional Witch's Gramarye. United Kingdom: Skylight, 2014. Print.
Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition: Christian and Pagan. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1913. Print.
Milnes, Gerald. Signs, Cures, & Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore. Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 2007. Print.
Montgomery, Michael. From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English. Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2006. Print.
Witching and Bitching in Western NC.
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