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A painting of Old Father Christmas by William Ewart Lockhart, showing an old man with a long white beard, a white smock, a holly crown on his head, and a glass of wine in his hand. He is smiling and gesturing towards a feast on the table in front of him.
William Ewart Lockhart's Old Father Christmas. Credit: Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Twelfth Night, Old Christmas and St Stephen’s Day… revisited

As Halwyn Folk release a new video exploring Old Christmas, we take a look at some of the commonly asked questions around Twelfth Night.

The merry time of Christmas is drawing on a-pace, and with it arrives something that we hope will become a tradition in its own right. Halwyn Folk – a duo comprised of Will and Anissia Halwyn – have released the second of their Old Christmas videos, exploring the pre-medieval, English incarnation of yuletide and Twelfth Night celebrations.

The latest video follows the tale of Old Christmas (a central character in last year’s video, too) as he arrives at a manor house in the company of mummers and Morris dancers, only to find that they are not welcome. Once they’ve gained entry, a jolly wassail ensues.

The video follows a poem by William Halwyn (who is also the animator), read by Anissia Halwyn, and accompanied by the duo playing ‘Time to Remember the Poor’, ‘Sportsman’s Hornpipe’ and ‘Good King Wenceslas’.

The video continues the adventures of Old Christmas, as (re)introduced in last year’s offering. Depicted in Quentin Blake-esque animation, we follow the character as he brings warmth and Christmas spirit to the less priviledged. As Halwyn Folk explains, “Many families have the tradition of reading The Night Before Christmas on Christmas eve. The poem was instrumental in bringing the American Santa Claus across the Atlantic, where he would merge with, and eventually displace, the traditional British Father Christmas.

“The two figures ultimately come from distinct roots. Santa Claus was originally the Christian Saint Nicholas, warped by centuries of tradition and reinvention into a jolly little elf. Father Christmas, on the other hand, was an anthropomorphic representation of the season, more associated with revelry, feasting, and the Saturnalia-like celebrations that were frowned upon by the church, but would nevertheless keep rearing their head.

“The poem is intended to be a British answer to A Night Before Christmas. It draws from mummers plays to try to give an authentic feel to the historic concept of Father Christmas, a figure more related to Odin, or Old Father Time, than to the church or the toy shop.”

Note: If you find that the narration is slightly overwhelmed by the musical arrangement, we recommend watching with Youtube’s automated subtitles turned on. Merry Christmas!

For more information on Halwyn Folk, head to facebook.com/HalwynFolk.

Twelfth Night and Old Christmas – your questions answered

When are the 12 days of Christmas?

Contrary to popular belief, the 12 days of Christmas do not lead up to Christmas. They follow Christmas, leading up to Twelfth Night. The Advent period was a time of lean pickings during medieval times. “From Advent Sunday (the fourth before the Nativity),” explains Ronald Hutton in The Stations of the Sun, people, “had been enjoined to limit their diet. For the wealthy, this apparently meant having soups, stews and fish, instead of roasts or pies. The poorer, however, could find the reduction a misery.” Christmas Night, therefore, marked the beginning of feasting and festivities that lasted until the Epiphany – January 6th, or Twelfth Night.

What happened during the 12 days of Christmas?

As the famous Christmas carol, The 12 Days of Christmas, suggests, the period following Christmas Day was given over to feasting and frivolities. Dancing was common (“12 lords a-leaping”) and entertainers were often brought into the big houses. During Christmas 1406, Richard Mitford, bishop of Salisbury, indulged in “interludes, games and disguisings”. Six years later, out in Suffolk, Alice de Bryene entertained over 300 guests, including the tenants on her lands, hiring a single harper to play for a week.

How did the working people celebrate?

Records show that mummers (also known as ‘guisers‘) were common during this period, until they were outlawed in cities (London, Chester and Bristol particularly) during the early part of the 1400s as the masks were thought to offer criminals the perfect guise. During the reign of Henry VIII, the “wearing of visors” was banned across England for similar reasons, and a man was hanged for stealing “under the guise of mumming” in Scotland in 1508. Elsewhere, Hognells (or Hogglers, Hogans, Hogners or Hoggells) were active in Gloucestershire, Somerset, Devon, Surrey, Sussex and Kent, although no records appear to show what hognelling involved. Wassailing, of course, was very common, too.

When is Twelfth Night?

Twelfth Night, in most Western countries, falls on the Epiphany, or January 6th. As the name suggests, this is the 12th night following December 25th.

What is Twelfth Night?

Twelfth Night was largely a religious event that marked the end of the merriment and the arrival of the Three Kings at Christ’s stable. The Star of Bethlehem was often fashioned, gilded in brass, and suspended from the rood loft. In some churches, a theatrical performance followed featuring the Three Kings. For a period towards the end of the 15th century, the country’s monarchs would make actual offerings to the church. According to Ronald Hutton, Henry VII sent packets of gold, frankincense and myrrh, while James IV sent three gold crowns.

When is St Stephen’s Day?

St Stephen’s Day falls on December 26th. St Stephen is thought to have been an early Deacon in the Christian church, and his stoning to death circa 35AD made him one of the first Christian martyrs. Subsequently, he was celebrated on the day following the birth of Christ himself.

Why is Boxing Day called Boxing Day?

The Feast of Stephen, in Britain at least, is known as Boxing Day – a name that is believed to have evolved around the giving of boxes at Christmas time. ‘Christmas Boxes’ were essential tips – gifts or payments that, according to Steve Roud, “were not transactions between social equals but between master or client and servant.”

How old is Father Christmas?

If we take Father Christmas as the anthropomorphism of Christmas or the Christmas spirit, one of the earliest records of his existence in the folk consciousness dates to the mid-15th century, when ‘Sir Christèmas’ appeared in a carol of the same name. Lyrics attributed to Richard Smart (Rector of Plymtree, Devon, 1435-1477) has the character arriving in full voice, singing “Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell”, at which point he is welcomed in. This would make Father Christmas at least 600 years old, in the English tradition. He also turns up in Ben Jonson’s Christmas His Masque (1616), “in a round hose, long stockings, a close doublet, a high-crowned hat with a brooch, a long thin beard, a truncheon, little ruffs, white shoes, his scarfs and garters ties cross.” Importantly, this version of Father Christmas – or Old Christmas as he is known in mummers’ plays – was not concerned with the bringing of presents. He personified merriment. Feasting and games were his domain – “a burlesque figure of fun” (Ronald Hutton). He is perhaps most commonly recognised in Charles Dickens’ depiction of the Ghost of Christmas Present, and there would appear to be aesthetic links between these characters and the Green Man. His association with Santa Claus is a more international story, and one that we’ll tell another time.

The information in our Customs Uncovered series comes from several books, most commonly The English Year (Steve Roud, 2006), and The Stations of the Sun (Ronald Hutton, 1996).