It’s obvious that we’re in the darkest time of the year – those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, that is – but not why there are Twelve Days. And why, oh why, doesn't the sun rise earlier each morning, now that we’ve passed the winter solstice? Well, the two things are related. Because of the angle of the earth’s axis, and the elliptical shape of its orbit, there’s a strange anomaly: after we pass the shortest day of the year, around Dec 23rd, the sun will still rise later and later each morning until Jan 6th heralds in the shift to an earlier sunrise. So it feels as though the darkness is deepening, not dispersing.
In many cultures, these twelve days (actually a few more, but it’s genuinely twelve between Christmas and Twelfth Night or Epiphany on Jan 6th) are considered as time out. The Romans placed them outside the calendar itself, and the ancient gods of the Rigveda were said to rest for twelve days. In Germany all spinning must cease, so as not to offend the winter goddess Frau Perchta, and in England as in various other European countries, social order was overturned with the Feast of Fools and the reign of the Lord of Misrule. Finding a bean or a silver sixpence in your slice of pudding could elevate you to being King or Queen for a day! More poetically, the Irish said that ‘on the twelve days of Christmas the gates of heaven are open.’ But they also added an ominous twist: ‘On Twelfth Night, ‘the souls of the dead are thicker than the sand on the sea shore.’
The Twelve Days are a magical time, with many traditions of fortune-telling. The veil between our world and the invisible world of spirits is said to be thin. There is the opportunity to seek out knowledge, and discern what is to come in the year ahead. One method is to take each day of the twelve as representing a month of the year, and for instance, by studying the weather on that day, predict how the corresponding month will turn out. (I have tried this, with not very encouraging results…) Other divination rituals use candles, nuts and even the family Bible, to determine by word or action what will happen. More macabre practices involve watching out for the spirits of those who will die in the year to come, perhaps seeing them pass into the churchyard. Serious or a bit of fun, these rituals have embedded themselves in our Christmas traditions, whether it’s pulling crackers or playing board games, to see what fortune has in store for us.
The rich overlap of traditions, from indigenous folk traditions to the great rites of the Christian religion, all play a part in our appreciation of Christmas. The birth of the sun god, Russian Yarilo, or of Mithras, of Christ, is solemnised in worship, luck-bringing present ceremonies, and games and feasting that kindle a spark in the dark days of winter.
I love this period, and hope for fresh inspiration from it.