As the day the Christmas decorations have to come down, Twelfth Night has become rather a sad day. I tend to think it’s a bit of a swiz, particularly since there is no limit on how early you can start festively decorating. We are treated to Christmas lights and lametta from November (or even earlier), but superstitiously told that it’s bad luck to leave the wreath on the door or the tinsel round the bannisters up past January 6. My feeling is, no one needs sparkle in December, what with all the feasting to look forward to, but in the dark, damp, short days of January, when you remember afresh that winter does indeed last till March, you’d think that leaving the decorations up would be the only sane course of action
It was not always this way. Traditionally Twelfth Night was a night of revelry and misrule, a final fling for the festive period. A night where everything was turned topsy-turvy, fools were lords and lords fools and everyone took part in wassailing to their heart’s content (that is, drinking some hot spiced cider and having a good old sing song). And the decorations didn’t have to come down till Candlemas – February 2.
The title of Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, or What you Will refers to these riotous parties – and as audiences would have expected, the plot is full of tricks and jokes and people dressing up as each other with comic mistaken identity consequences. This scene, painted by Irish painter Daniel Maclise, shows the pompous steward Malvolio who has been convinced by an anonymous letter (from his colleagues) that the Countess Olivia is in love with him – mainly for his ridiculous yellow cross-gartered stockings. Parading in his laughable get-up, his behaviour is so out of character that he is imprisoned, assumed to have gone mad.
Twelfth Night was performed both on Candlemas and on Twelfth Night in the early 1600s. Which I think gives us licence to leave the Christmas tree up and have a party.