When is Twelfth Night?

Twelfth Night falls on January 5. It is so called because traditionally Christmas was a 12 day celebration, beginning on December 25.

Twelfth Night traditions

Twelfth Night is when we’re meant to put away our Christmas decorations or there’ll be bad luck in the year ahead.

Long ago, people believed that tree-spirits lived in the greenery (holy, ivy etc) they decorated their houses with. The greenery was brought into the house to provide a safe haven for the tree-spirits during the harsh midwinter days. Once this period was over it was necessary to return the greenery back outside to release the tree-spirits into the countryside once again. Failure to do this would mean that vegetation would not be able to start growing again (spring would not return), leading to an agricultural disaster.

It was also thought that, if you left the greenery in the house, the tree-spirits would cause mischief in the house until they were released.

Today people still feel uneasy about leaving the Christmas decorations up after Twelfth Night. Despite decorations now being made of foil or paper, and even though the tree-spirits are long forgotten, the superstition still survives. christmas-storage-tips-main

A day sooner or later is considered unlucky, and if decorations are not removed on Twelfth Night then according to tradition they should stay up until Candlemas on 2 February.

The Yule Log

The Yule Log, lit on Christmas day, remains burning until Twelfth Night in order to bring good fortune to the house for the coming year.  It’s charred remains are kept to kindle the next year’s Yule Log and to protect the house from fire and lightening.

The origins of the Yule Log

The custom of burning the Yule Log goes back to medieval times. It was originally a Nordic tradition. Yule is the name of the old Winter Solstice festivals in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe and a log was burned to cleanse the air of the previous year’s events and to usher in the spring. Once burned, the log’s ashes were valuable treasures said to have medicinal benefits and to guard against evil.

In Cornwall the log is called ‘The Mock’. The log is dried out and then the bark is taken off it before it comes into the house to be burnt.

Glowing embers of the Yule Log
Glowing embers of the Yule Log

Twelfth Night King Cake

The Twelfth Night cake is a rich fruitcake which traditionally contained a bean. If you got the bean then you were King or Queen of the Bean and everyone had to do what you told them to do.

Click here for a Daily Mail exclusive recipe for Twelfth Night King Cake in case you fancy making your own.

King cake
King cake


As recently as the 1950s, Twelfth Night in Britain was a night for wassailing, a tradition that’s enjoying something of a revival. Wassailers, like carol singers, go from house to house singing and wishing their neighbours good health.

One of the most popular Wassailing Carols went like this:

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wassailing,
So fair to be seen:

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too,
And God bless you and send you,
A happy New Year,
And God send you,
A happy new year.

The wassail bowl used to get filled with mulled ale or cider and each house would be asked to add to the bowl. Lots of the wassailing songs finish with a request for a penny, a cup of cider, and a piece of cake.

Wassail punch
Wassail punch

Many people in the UK still carry out the tradition of Wassailing

Wassailing is an old English tradition
Wassailing is an old English tradition

The Holly Man

Each year Twelfth Night is celebrated at Bankside in London. To announce the celebration the Holly Man, the winter guise of the Green Man, (a character from pagan myths and folklore), decked in fantastic green garb and evergreen foliage, appears from the River Thames. Afterwards the traditional St. George play is performed, King Cakes are given out and those who find the concealed bean and pea in their cakes are crowned King and Queen for the day.

The traditions of Twelfth Night
The Holly man appears from the River Thames at Bankside on Twelfth Night 2018. Photograph courtesy of contarylife.com

Sources: projectbritain.com/contrarylife.com