TODAY is widely known as the Twelfth Day after Christmas, but in some areas it is known as Twelfth Night or even Old Christmas Day, the latter dating to a time preceding Pope Gregory’s calendar changes of 1582.
In some areas, yesterday evening (December 5) was known as Twelfth Night whilst in other areas, it is the night of January 6 that is known by that name. So does Twelfth Night come before or after Twelfth Day?
Perhaps the most important thing to do on the Twelfth Day of Christmas is to bring an end to the Christmas festivities by taking down the decorations, removing the Christmas tree and wondering what to do with all those out-of-date Christmas greetings cards.
However there was a time, centuries ago, when January 6 was regarded as the day of Christ’s birth. Other traditions celebrate this date as the Feast of the Epiphany which is twelve days after the birth of Christ and the time that the Christ Child was introduced to public through the visit of Three Wise Kings. The word “epiphany” means manifestation or apparition and here indicates the revealing of the Holy Child to the gentiles. Some regard it as the day the baby Jesus was baptised.
Although we refer to the occasion as the Feast of the Epiphany, it was not celebrated as a feast by the Church until AD 230 and it was not introduced as a completely separate feast until AD 813. There is a vast file of information on this topic, far too large and complicated to repeat here but I found a distillation of it in my 1947 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Here in Yorkshire, England, perhaps we took a different view of things. January 6 was Apple Wassailing Day not only in the north of England but much further afield, particularly in the apple-growing areas such as Kent, Somerset and Devonshire. There were many variations on the method of wassailing apple trees – in some areas men went into the orchards and discharged their shot guns into the trees whilst in other areas cider was either poured over the trunks or roots or mugs of cider were placed in safe parts of the trees. Another method was to soak a cake or toast in cider and place it in a fork near the trunk.
There is no doubt this was a jolly occasion with all the atmosphere and happiness of a great party but its main intention was to encourage the trees to produce a wonderful apple harvest later in the year. The high-point of the occasion was for the wassailers to sing a traditional song that was directed at the trees, almost as if they were people, not plants. There were many local variations of those songs but I have a copy of what is widely regarded as the oldest such song. It goes:
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow,
Whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full, caps full,
Three score bushels full!
And my pockets full too!
Huzza, huzza, huzza!
My sources to not tell me whether this influenced the trees in any way but the people had a good time with music, singing and dancing, not to mention a few drinks of last year’s cider. Whilst we may not have had many commercial apple orchards in the north in bygone times, the celebrations of the Epiphany were widely regarded as the most festive of all the others enjoyed in the north during the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Nonetheless, in some parts of Yorkshire, apple trees were wassailed on New Year’s Day, January 1. It involved a great deal of singing, dancing, feasting and drinking with ale being dashed upon the trees to ensure a good crop in the autumn.
A wassail bowl, sometimes called a vessel bowl, was filled with hot ale with an apple floating in it and it was passed around the merrymakers for them to take a sip, with any residue being splashed upon the apple trees. It seems these celebration were not restricted to a particular time of year but mainly occurred in the autumn. However, some happened around Christmas or the Epiphany and it seems some were marked with large bonfires.
Just across our borders near Brough, the celebrations of today were marked by a burning holly bush being carried through the town. As the tree blazed, youths would try to remove a blazing twig and carry it into one of the town’s inns. The successful ones were rewarded with free beer but the purpose and origin of this curious custom have been lost.
Oddly enough, it was sometimes believed here in the north that an east wind on January 6 heralded full fruit baskets next autumn.
IT'S A WHILE since I was in Coverdale but I was reminded of its mystery and charm by an oft-told tale about The Woman in Black. I cannot say whether there is any truth in this yarn but it involves a point near Coverham Church via Tupgill and Fern Gill and on to Middleham Low Moor.
For many years, local people would avoid that walk, especially during the hours of darkness because local legend said it was the haunt of the Woman in Black. She was said to make her appearances at a point known as Courting Wall Corner which had long been a meeting place for courting couples. The accounts of her appearances do have remarkable similarities.
The stories said she was a young woman who always wore a long black cloak whilst walking with her head bowed, as if in mourning or some other form of deep anguish.
One account of a sighting came from a young couple who were on holiday in the area. One evening they hired a pony and trap for a drive along that route and found themselves at Courting Wall Corner just after darkness had fallen. Unaware of the stories of The Woman in Black, they noticed the figure of a young woman waiting near the gate and called to her, asking her to open the gate to allow the pony and trap to drive through.
But when they spoke, the young woman vanished and all they could say afterwards was that she had been wearing a long black cloak. It was later when they discovered the sad story of The Woman in Black. She had been courting two young men at the same time, obviously in secret but when one asked her to marry him, it placed her in a dilemma. Which one should she marry? She made her decision and agreed to meet the rival suitor at Courting Wall Corner to reject his offer of marriage, but upon learning of her decision, he killed her and buried her body at Courting Wall Corner. Her remains were not found for centuries and the tale was never proven until some years ago, the remains of a young woman dressed in black were found just below the surface. She was never identified but was wearing remnants of black cloth. end