How to Celebrate Twelfth Night

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Brilliant color and over-the-top decorations link Mardi Gras costumes and Twelfth Night "mumming."
Brilliant color and over-the-top decorations link Mardi Gras costumes and Twelfth Night "mumming." (Image: miflippo/iStock/Getty Images)

Not to be confused with "The Twelve Days of Christmas," an English Christmas song from the 16th century about gifts given before Christmas, Twelfth Night on January 5 -- according to the Church of England -- marks the last day of the Christmas season for Christians. Epiphany, also called Three Kings Day, begins the next day and commemorates the arrival of the Magi bringing gifts to the baby Jesus in the manger.

Food and Drink

To replicate English wassail for a Twelfth Night dinner, serve cinnamon or ginger-flavored beer, hard apple cider or sparkling apple cider. Choose any British entree, such as roast beef, or opt for a Southern specialty such as gumbo in honor of Mardi Gras season, which officially begins on Twelfth Night and ends 47 days before Easter Sunday. For dessert, follow the Mardi Gras and Twelfth Night traditions of serving King's Cake, with a bean or plastic baby baked inside and frosted with purple, green and gold icing.

Gift Giving

If you're finished with traditional Christmas gift-giving and receiving, set some new parameters for this part of a Twelfth Night celebration; set monetary limits, conduct a "white elephant" gift exchange, ask everyone to give a gift to charity or ask for only homemade gifts. Or keep up traditions instituted in the 1870s by the Mardi Gras "krewe" called the Twelfth Night Revelers and give small gifts such as gold-foil medallions, beaded necklaces and homemade decorations or toys.

Fun and Games

Follow long-established customs and remove the decorations from your Christmas tree on Twelfth Night. Use the tree for a bonfire or create a replica of the traditional "Holly Man," representing a pagan folklore creature, by tying the Christmas tree branches onto a scarecrow-like effigy for your yard. To celebrate the apples used to make wassail, make candied apples or wreaths from dried apple slices. In the evening, burn a yule log.

Literary Events and Games

In honor of traditional Twelfth Night "mumming," a kind of pantomime play based on the story of St. George and a dragon, read the story aloud or create a Twelfth Night table centerpiece based on the festive hats worn by the play's characters. As an alternative literary activity, read from William Shakespeare's play "Twelfth Night," which first was performed on Jan 5,1601, and play charades, acting out Shakespearean play titles.

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