David Bouchier: Twelfth Night

Jan 6, 2020

Twelfth Night marks the end of the Christmas festivities. By midnight on that date the decorations should have been taken down, the greeting cards put away, and the final traces of the long party removed. Failure to do this is traditionally supposed to bring bad luck.

Our neighbors don’t seem to know this. For days and even weeks after Twelfth Night, we’re still surrounded by houses draped in colored lights and surrounded by reindeer and inflatable Santa Clauses, the owners oblivious to the fact that they are tempting providence. Some homes still have rotting pumpkins outside, suggesting a lamentable failure to turn over the pages of the calendar at all. 

Historically Twelfth Night was the last big splurge of the season, known as the Feast of Fools, on the night before Epiphany. It was a time of feasting and merrymaking presided over by the Bean King. Traditional twelfth night cakes were handed out, in one of which a bean was concealed. Whoever found the bean was declared Bean King for the evening, and presided over the revels. I wondered whether this method might be worth considering as an alternative, cheaper, and probably more effective way of choosing presidents. But no doubt the election committees would instantly start spending billions of dollars on electronically traceable beans.

The point is that Twelfth Night drew a line under the winter Saturnalia. After that it was back to reality, back to work. Boundaries are good, beginnings and endings are good, even limits are good. They give life some sort of structure. But boundaries and limits are not popular these days. 

Oscar Wilde quipped that "Anything becomes a pleasure if one does it once too often." It was intended as irony, but the real irony is that Wilde's quip has become the ruling philosophy of the modern world. Only too much is enough. Indeed, in New England, I have been amazed to see establishments called Christmas Shops that really do trade in tinsel and plush Santa Clauses and plastic trees all year long.

Perhaps we need to recover that simple word "enough" for everyday use. That's enough on my plate; that's enough space for a family to live in; that music is loud enough; that's enough time to spend on Christmas. 

Shakespeare's play “Twelfth Night” was written to be performed on that date in the year 1601. It opens with these lines, spoken by Orsino, the Duke of Illyria.

“If music be the food of love, play on. Give me excess of it, so surfeiting the appetite may sicken, and so die."

Four centuries later, we can understand exactly how Orsino felt, on the twelfth day of Christmas. At the end of the play the clown reminds the audience that the holiday, by its nature, is brief, that the future is uncertain, that youth will not endure, and (just by way of a punchline) that the rain it raineth every day.

Today is the Festival of Epiphany. Last night was Twelfth Night. The party's over.

Copyright: David Bouchier