Twelfth Night is on January 5, the eve of Epiphany, which occurs in the Christian calendar on January 6. Epiphany signifies the event of the Magi, or Wise Men, visiting the baby Jesus and is known in some Latin cultures as Three Kings Day.
Or, as my friend Tim LeCroy likes to say,
“Epiphany is the…
In the Eastern (Orthodox and Oriental) churches, it is known as the Feast of Theophany (God Manifest), commemorating Jesus’ baptism with the attendant appearance of the Holy Spirit as a dove and the voice of God the Father. This story is recounted in all four Gospels of the New Testament. This date is also tied to Jesus’ miracle of changing the water to wine at the Wedding at Cana in the Gospel of John, Chapter 2.
Christmas vs. Advent
So, the 12 Days of Christmas don’t end at Christmas; Advent does. Instead, the 12 days start with Christmas and end with Epiphany. These 12 days are sometimes called Christmastide.
Epiphany In the East
“Epiphany” is a Greek word that means manifestation, appearance, revelation, or showing forth. Historically, Epiphany began in the Eastern Church as the celebration of the nativity of Jesus Christ during the 1st century. In the 2nd century, St. Clement of Alexandria discussed this celebration and the night vigil before the Feast. Additionally, 2nd-century St. Hippolytus of Rome and 3rd-century St. Gregory the Miracle-Worker discussed this observance.
As the celebration of Christmas spread eastward, Epiphany changed to its present meaning. It is sometimes called the Feast of Lights. It is ironic that in years when Chanukah overlaps Christmastide, that Epiphany is so close to Chanukah, the Jewish “Feast of Lights.” We recall that the villain in the Chanukah narrative was Antiochus Epiphanes IV, or “Antiochus, God made manifest.”
Epiphany In the West
In the Western churches (Protestants, Catholics, and Anglicans), Epiphany commemorates the “adoration” of the Christ Child by the Magi as they presented their gifts. In this way, they were “revealing” Jesus to the world as Lord and King.
The preceding evening is sometimes called the “Twelfth Night,” being the 12th Day of Christmas. William Shakespeare‘s play by the same name, sometimes called Twelfth Night or What You Will, includes mistaken identities, unrequited love, music, and merriment appropriate to the occasion of Twelfth Night celebrations.
It is likely the play was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I for performance at the end of the embassy of the Italian diplomat, Duke of Orsino (the name of the play’s character who is Duke of Illyria) on January 6, 1601, at her Whitehall Palace.
When Is Twelfth Night?
There remains some confusion on which date Twelfth Night occurs. The older tradition, based on the custom during the Middle Ages, was that the beginning of a day started the evening before. This places Twelfth Night on the eve of January 5 or the “Eve of the Feast of Epiphany.” Later traditions, where the day begins at midnight, have Twelfth Night on January 6 with a party and the exchange of gifts.
The Russian church’s Christmas, or Feast of the Nativity, is celebrated on January 7. Many Eastern Orthodox churches follow the older Julian Calendar rather than the more widely accepted Gregorian Calendar. In the Julian Calendar, December 25 corresponds to approximately January 7 in the Gregorian Calendar.
January 5 is Paramony, also known as the Forefeast of Theophany, the “Eve of the Feast of Epiphany,” paralleling the December 24 Feast of Christmas Eve.
By the way, you may now take down your Christmas decorations.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian