Happy Epiphany. And if today is Epiphany, then last night, the evening of January 5th was Twelfth Night. Or was it? “Twelfth Night” has the distinction of being an occasion for celebration about which there is not agreement even about the date on which to observe it. Confusion reigns supreme. The confusion is in full evidence in conflicting and heated comments on Wikipedia.
My own take on it – which I think is that of the Anglican Communion generally – is that it is the evening of January 5. So how is that the “twelfth night?” Let’s begin with the basic idea of the twelve days of Christmas. December 25 is day 1, and counting up you get to day 12 on January 5th. So the evening of January 5 is the evening of the twelfth day of Christmas. The next day – January 6 – today as it happens – is the Feast of the Epiphany, one of the seven principal feast days of the Church, and the beginning of a new Season, Epiphany. As a principal feast, Epiphany is celebrated with a First Vespers and, of course, with Second Vespers as well. That means that Evening Prayer (Vespers) on the evening before a Principal feast has Propers (readings, psalms, antiphons, collect, hymns) for the feast day. Strictly speaking all the Principal Feasts are observed beginning on the evening before. This is derived from the practice of ancient Judaism of considering a new day to begin with sunset. So “Twelfth Night” is also the Eve of Epiphany.
The other contender for Twelfth Night is the evening of January 6, which seems to be derived from a counting of the 12 days of Christmas beginning with the 26th instead of the 25; that is, of thinking of the 12 days of Christmas as the 12 days after Christmas Day. But some who consider January 6 as the 12th day still consider the evening of the 5th to be Twelfth Night while others consider Twelfth Night to be the evening of the 6th.
Consider these differing dictionary entries.
Oxford Dictionary: “Twelfth Night: Strictly, the evening of January 5, the eve of the Epiphany and formerly the twelfth and last day of Christmas festivities.”
But, New World Dictionary: “Twelfth Day: the twelfth day (Jan 6) after Christmas; Epiphany; the evening before, or sometimes the evening of, this day is called Twelfth Night.”
I even found a contender for the evening of January 4th, derived from counting to 12 beginning with December 24. This does have a certain logic to it, but hasn’t much of a following. It basically depends on a failure to apprehend that the evening of December 24 is really part of December 25, following the Jewish way of reckoning the beginning of a day as noted above.
Contemporary Anglican use is clear though: January 5 is the 12th day of Christmas and the evening of the 5th, the Eve of Epiphany, is Twelfth Night.
I close with the Proper Preface of Epiphany, in context: “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, Because in the mystery of the Word made flesh, you have caused a new light to shine in our hearts, to give the knowledge of your glory in the face of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”
May the new light shine in your heart.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 6-January-2015.