Today is Twelfth Night—an occasion that may remind you of a Shakespeare play and, of course, a really annoying Christmas carol. It happens to flash on our radar here because it was on Twelfth Night, in 1585, that Queen Elizabeth knighted Walter Raleigh. Shorty thereafter he assumed the title Lord and Governor of Virginia.
Setting aside Virginia for a second, though—and yes, we can do that once in awhile!—what does Twelfth Night even mean? Where does it come from?
The quick answer is that it is the twelfth day after Christmas and marks the date when the three wise men famously showed up with their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There is a more interesting answer, though, and it gets at another question you may have wondered about: why is December 25 the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus? After all, that date is not mentioned in the Bible. Not even the time of year is indicated. In Luke, shepherds are said to be tending their sheep, which suggests spring and not winter. So why December? Again, the quick answer is that it dovetails nicely with pagan festivals at that time of year, and incorporating such things into Christian practice is how early believers helped spread their religion.
But that, it turns out, doesn’t actually explain December 25 and, therefore, Twelfth Night. I will direct you to Andrew McGowan‘s excellent article, “How December 25 Became Christmas,” for the long version of an intriguing academic theory. Here is the short version:
The first mentions of a winter birth for Jesus predate those times when Christians would have been incorporating pagan festivals into their religious calendar. In fact, for the first couple hundred years after Jesus’s death, Christians did not seem interested in his birth at all, which is why the writings of Paul and Mark make zero reference to it. In fact, it was not until the mid-fourth century that anyone offered December 25 as a possible birthday, and because there were always dissidents in those days, some group disputed that date and argued for January 6 instead.
Why those dates, though? Ironically, it may actually have had to do with Jesus’s death. The Bible is very clear about when Jesus died, and apparently an idea popular in the fourth century—Augustine writes about it—was to assume that certain important figures died on the same day of the year that they had been conceived. In other words, if Jesus were conceived during Passover in March (immaculately, of course [UPDATE: see a clarification in the comment below]), then he would have been born nine months later, in December.
One more twist:
In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar—April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6—the eastern date for Christmas. In the East, too, we have evidence that April was associated with Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis writes that on April 6, “The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world.” Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.
Twelfth Night, in other words, actually represents an alternative birth date for Jesus, one that only later disappeared, becoming instead the day of the wise men.
All of which is to say, today, too, is Christmas. Sort of. Which makes me wonder whether I can get the rest of the day off.
IMAGE: The Magi by Henry Siddons Mobray (1915)