“Twelfth Night” is a play of William Shakespeare supposedly written to provide entertainment for the last night of the Christmas season. Its first recorded performance was in 1602.
During the reign of the Tudors in England, the twelve days of Christmas were days of continuous celebration and merry-making. The twelfth night was the climax of these celebrations, where confusion was not only permitted but encouraged as a form of entertainment.
Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” was particularly suited to this, as it is a comedy where confusion reigns. The confusion arises from mistaken identity and a reversal of gender roles. The leading character, Viola, is shipwrecked and loses contact with her twin brother Sebastian, whom she wrongly believes was drowned. She disguises herself as her brother, and gets a job as a page in the service of the local Duke. This gives rise to a series of hilarious situations which ends happily only when Sebastian finally appears, and Viola returns to her proper role as his twin sister.
The twelve days of Christmas are also remembered in a medieval English Christmas carol which recalls the different gift “my true love sent to me” on each of the twelve days. The song is so arranged that each verse begins with the new gift, but then adds the gifts of the previous days. The final verse lists the gifts sent on “the twelfth day of Christmas” as, “12 drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping, 10 lords a-leaping, 9 ladies dancing, 8 maids a-milking, 7 swans a-swimming, 6 geese a-laying, 5 gold rings, 4 colly birds, 3 French hens, 2 turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.”.
The Twelve Days of Christmas end on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. The Epiphany celebrates the Three Wise Men who followed the star, and came to present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Child born to Mary in Bethlehem.