Celebrating Twelfth Night

If you’re familiar with the classic Christmas carol “The 12 Days of Christmas,” you likely see it as either a really fun countdown song (see: John Denver & The Muppets’ rendition) or a cute carol featuring a lot of birds that goes on a bit too long.

What you might not know is that “The 12 Days of Christmas” isn’t actually a countdown song leading up to Christmas, but instead is a song celebrating a period of time after Christmas. The 12 days of Christmas, which begins on Christmas Day, is a seasonal celebration leading up to the Epiphany, or the day on which – according to the New Testament – the three Magi (or Wise Men) visited the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem and recognized him as the son of God.

During the Middle Ages, the Advent season leading up to Christmas consisted of fasting, restraint, and quiet anticipation. Christmas Day, then, kicked off a 12-day season of parties, feasts, balls, and other celebrations that continued until the Epiphany (or Three Kings Day) on January 6th.

The night before Epiphany is called Twelfth Night, and it’s generally known in much of Europe as a night of preparation for the end of Christmastide celebrations. In many countries, so-called “king cakes” – dense, rich fruitcakes – are baked on Twelfth Night. In early 19th century England, a bean or a pea was baked into Twelfth Night cakes. When the cake was eaten the next day, whoever discovered the bean was named king or queen for the day.

Twelfth Night is also the night when families finish removing Christmas trees, ornaments, and decorations in their homes. It’s a night of putting away the holidays, which is always a little wistful. But it’s also a joyous, celebratory night that includes the singing of carols, magnificent feasting, and the performance of plays. William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, first performed in 1601, plays into the holiday’s historical association with lighthearted confusion and practical jokes.

In historic England, Twelfth Night and Epiphany feasts leaned heavily into foods and drinks that tasted of ginger, cinnamon, and other rich spices associated with the holiday. And one drink in particular was the star: Wassail. Derived from an Old Norse word, wassail (pronounced WAH-sel) is a drink made with mulled cider, apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and other spices. It’s a warm, delicious drink that exudes all the fragrant sweetness of the holidays. Wassail was mixed in large communal bowl and served during Epiphany feasts, and it was taken from home to home as neighbors wished each other good cheer. This is where the Christmas carol “The Wassail Song” (“Here we come a-wassailing”) comes from!

The holidays are winding down now and many of us have already started to put away our decorations, but there’s still a lot of joy to be shared and experienced. On this Twelfth Night (Epiphany Eve), we’d like to wish you good fortune in the coming year. We’d also like to offer you a wassail recipe that you can enjoy and share with your family tonight or tomorrow. Here in Kansas City, some of us will be mixing up a batch and toasting to good health and happiness in the New Year. Wherever you are tonight, we hope you’ll raise a warm cup of something special and do the same. Cheers, and happy Twelfth Night!

HOMEMADE WASSAIL

Ingredients:

  • 3-6 Small Apples
  • 2-3 tbs Brown Sugar
  • 1½ qts Sweet Apple Cider
  • 1 Orange, peeled and juiced
  • Cinnamon Sticks
  • Fresh Grated Nutmeg (for topping)

Instructions:

  • Preheat oven to 375F. Core the apples and stuff with brown sugar. Place on a baking sheet with a little water to help steam them. Roast approximately 45 minutes or until tender.
  • While the apples are roasting, add cider, orange juice, orange peel and 2 cinnamon sticks to a pot and heat over low to medium low heat. (For more adventurous flavor or boozy undertones, you could also add cloves, allspice, bitters, and rum.) Once the drink is warm and fragrant, remove the cinnamon sticks and orange peel and skim spices.
  • Once the apples are done roasting, carefully peel them and mash them up. Add mashed apples to cider and blend with an immersion blender until smooth. The apples will add some body to the drink and give it extra apple flavor. Alternately, you could carefully add the whole roasted apples to the drink or even slice them in wedges or rings and let them float.
  • Pour into mugs, place a cinnamon stick in each mug, sprinkle fresh grated nutmeg on top, and serve.

Enjoy!

Winter Solstice 2020: A Bright Light on the Longest Night

Today is the Winter Solstice – the first day of winter and the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Traditionally, this day of longest darkness and shortest light is a time to pause and reflect. It’s a time to think about what has passed and what is yet to come.

The darkest days of the year are behind us now. After today, the days will gradually grow longer again. The sun will linger a bit longer in the sky, eventually bringing renewal and regeneration as winter wanes and spring returns. This year in particular – a year when so many of us have experienced myriad types of darkness and loss – this reflective pause is especially poignant.

This year’s Winter Solstice also brings with it a rather uncommon occurrence. The planets Jupiter and Saturn align from our perspective every 20 years, but it’s been almost 800 years since they’ve been as close together as they’ll be tonight. When you look up into the sky this evening, you’ll see what appears to be a double-planet star sometimes known as the “Christmas Star,” or the “Star of Bethlehem.” The light of Jupiter and Saturn will create a brilliantly bright effect that might recall the star from the nativity story in the Gospel of Matthew – the star of wonder that guided the three Wise Men to the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem.

The star that appeared on the night of the nativity story might have been the same star we’ll see tonight, or it might have been a rarer triple planetary conjunction of Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter. Either way, tonight’s planetary alignment – or “Solstice Star” – will be something special to behold. For those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, the best time to see this phenomenon will be about 45 minutes after sunset tonight. When that time comes, walk outside and gaze into the southwestern sky. For best results, carry a warm cup of mulled wine or hot cocoa outside with you and stand in silence and just take in the quiet, peaceful wonder of the season.

Percy Bysshe Shelley closed his 1820 poem “Ode to the West Wind” by asking “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” The Winter Solstice is a day of endings and beginnings and transitions. But most of all, it’s a day of hope. And that’s something we should all appreciate and celebrate as Christmas approaches and 2020 draws to a close.

Christmas Traditions in the Victorian Age

Christmastime is here! And when the most wonderful time of the year arrives, the most meaningful traditions aren’t far behind. Decorating Christmas trees and homes, giving gifts, exchanging Christmas cards…we eagerly anticipate these things every year. But traditions weren’t always traditions. All traditions have a beginning, and many of these beginnings happened during the Victorian Age.

Christmas at the beginning of the 19th century bore little resemblance to the Christmas we know today. Low literacy rates, huge economic disparities, and the lack of industrial advancement all combined to create very basic, unadorned celebrations. But as the century progressed – especially during reign of Queen Victoria – Great Britain began to experience technological, societal, and infrastructure advancements that changed the way Christmas was celebrated. By the end of the century, many of the traditions we know and love today had begun to take shape.

A few weeks ago, we explored the Victorian origins of Christmas greeting cards. Today, as we head into the heart of the Christmas season, we’re pausing to take a look at some of the other traditions that make this time of year so merry and memorable.

Gift-Giving:

During the 19th century, England began to see industrial advancements that allowed a new middle class to develop and thrive. As a result, more people had disposable income to buy things that they might not have been able to afford before. Whereas Christmas gifts had once been largely hand-made and prohibitively expensive, new mechanization and mass-production techniques (including huge strides in printing and literacy) began to make toys, books, and other gifts more affordable and accessible to more of the population.

Giving fun gifts to children became more feasible, and exchanging gifts with friends and family became more practical and commonplace. A gift-giving tradition that had once been reserved for wealthy families at the New Year was shifted to Christmastime for a lot more people, and that certainly opened up the season to more widespread, collective celebration.

Christmas Trees:

Holly, ivy, fir trees, and other evergreens have been used to decorate during winter months going back millennia. Romans, Egyptians, Scandinavians, and other ancient cultures used evergreen décor to symbolize the eventual return of spring, while Christians saw evergreens as symbols of eternal life in Heaven. Trees and wreaths are the most familiar greenery of the winter, and this was nothing new for the Victorians.

But the idea of setting up a tree inside the home and decorating it as part of a holiday celebration was new. Fir trees (also known as Weinachtsbaums or Tannenbaums) decorated with gingerbread and fruit, glass ornaments, and candles had become common in Germany. The familiar carol “O Tannenbaum” – later “O Christmas Tree” – was written in Leipzig, Germany in 1824. While not technically a Christmas carol, “O Tannenbaum” was about constancy and faithfulness, and it has become a traditional holiday song.

Germany was the native country of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who seems to have brought the Christmas tree tradition to England with him. During Christmastime in 1848, the Illustrated London News published an illustration of Victoria, Albert, and their family celebrating Christmas around an elaborately decorated tree. This led Christmas trees to become widely popular in both England and America in the following years, and the tradition only continued to grow. To this day, it’s hard to think of a pop culture Christmas story that doesn’t feature a Christmas tree in some memorable way.

Christmas Crackers:

In 1840, an industrious London baker named Tom Smith traveled to Paris and discovered the “bon bon” – a French treat featuring a sugared almond wrapped in tissue paper with a twist on either end. Smith began to make his own bon bons when he returned to London, but in 1847 decided to add a dramatic twist to the treat.

Inspired by the crackling sound of logs in a fireplace, Smith decided to recreate the sound by layering two strips of paper together with silver fulminate on one side and an abrasive surface on the other. The paper was wrapped around a tube and twisted on either end. When the sides of the wrapper were pulled, the friction created a surprising popping or “cracking” sound. Smith placed a variety of jokes and assorted treats inside the cracker tubes, and the novelty was an immediate hit. Smith’s fun Christmas tradition has continued to delight millions for over 150 years.

St. Nickolas / Santa Claus / Father Christmas

This one is a bit tricky because in modern times, these folk figures seem to blur together. But it all started with St. Nicholas – a Bishop born in Asia Minor (now Turkey) in the 3rd century AD. During his life, Nicholas earned a reputation for being incredibly kind and generous – especially to the poor and less fortunate. The traditions of giving secret gifts and placing gifts in stockings are attributed to him. Nicholas was exiled during a Christian purge by Emperor Diocletian and died in the year 343 on December 6th (now known as St. Nicholas Day), but he was later canonized as a saint by the Catholic church, and his charitable legend was preserved for centuries.

After the European Reformation of the 14th century, the veneration of saints (St. Nicholas among them) fell out of favor. To fill the void of a kindly figure who spread cheer during midwinter festivals, a folk character with colorful robes and a long beard was created. The name “Father Christmas” first emerged in 17th century England, and the character became the most familiar embodiment of Christmas revelry through the Victorian Age.

As Christmas grew in prominence during the 19th century, writers and artists began discovering and re-telling the stories of various holiday folk characters. As a result, St. Nicholas and Father Christmas experienced a renaissance of sorts. In 1823, the Troy, New York Sentinel published an anonymous poem (later attributed to American writer named Clement Clarke Moore) called “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Better known today as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the poem had an immediate and dramatic impact on how the St. Nicholas character was perceived. St. Nicholas was now modernized, and Moore created many of the physical characteristics we now associate with the character.

The traditional Dutch name for St. Nicholas, “Sinterklaas,” soon morphed into “Santa Claus,” and the Father Christmas and Santa Claus figures of British and American cultures began to merge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whatever he’s called and however he’s depicted, one thing that has never changed is that Santa/St. Nicholas/Father Christmas has always represented the very best of the holiday season: Cheer, joy, generosity, and good will.

Boxing Day

Non-British people who are unfamiliar with the tradition sometimes think Boxing Day is a day for boxing up discarded gift wrap or boxing up gifts to return, but Boxing Day actually began as a much more charitable occasion. Dating back to the Middle Ages, St. Steven’s Day was the day when church alms boxes – which were used to collect money for those in need – were opened and their contents distributed to the poor. In the 1830s, the British designated this day “Boxing Day” and determined that it would occur the day after Christmas, or December 26th. Boxing Day was also traditionally a day when wealthier British families gave their servants boxes of monetary gifts and leftovers from the previous day’s Christmas feast (and the day off!).

Today, Boxing Day is primarily associated with shopping and sports in the UK and other former British territories (including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand). It’s still a designated holiday, but much of its original meaning has been lost. Still, songs such as the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” carry reminders of the day’s origins. Written in 1853, the carol is set on St. Stephen’s Day and celebrates a wealthy king who was renowned for his generosity toward the poor. The song ties Boxing Day into the Victorian focus on charity for those less fortunate during the holiday.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this look back at some of the most prominent Christmas customs and traditions of the Victorian Age. That unforgettable period has left a lasting impression on how most of us experience the holiday season. From pulling ancient customs into 19th century “modernity” to placing a greater emphasis on family, charity, and the importance of Christmas Day as the center of the holidays, the Victorians left a rich legacy to which we’re all indebted. And that’s definitely worth remembering and celebrating, even as we enjoy celebrating new traditions of our own!

Season’s Greetings: The Victorian Origins of the Greeting Card

Sending Christmas cards to friends and family has become as much a part of the holiday season as decorating trees, wrapping gifts, and putting up holiday lights. We all love these traditions, but we don’t really think often about why we do them. They’re just something we do.

But the tradition of sending Christmas cards is one that stretches back to the early Victorian age (over 150 years ago), and its history is actually pretty fascinating. The first Christmas card wasn’t sent out of obligation or sentiment, but because its sender was rather panicked and stressed out during the holidays. (And honestly, who can’t relate?)

Henry Cole, a well-heeled educator and supporter of the arts in Victorian England, knew a lot of people, and a lot of people knew him. Because advancements in the British postal system had made sending letters very easy and affordable, Cole had started getting inundated with correspondence from many of his friends and colleagues. By the time the holidays arrived in 1843 (coincidentally, the same year Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was first published), Cole was worried that he wouldn’t have time to respond to everyone in his social circle and that people would find his lack of correspondence rude.

But Cole had an idea. He commissioned an artist friend by the name of J.C. Horsley to design and illustrate a scene that Cole described to him: A family gathered round a table, festively sipping wine as scenes of seasonal charity and acts of goodwill flanked each side. The postcard carried a simple, sendable message in the center, and a line in the bottom right allowed Cole to quickly personalize it with his signature.

And so the first holiday (post)card was born. Cole had 1,000 of these cards printed and mailed out, and only 21 have survived. But Cole’s creation sparked a tradition that has grown and evolved ever since.

Despite the success of Cole’s postcard idea, the card-sending tradition took several decades to really take off. For one thing, literacy rates were still catching up with printing advancements. But printing methods were also still relatively expensive, so few people or businesses could afford to commission and print cards to send out. This changed in the 1850s, when a British artist named George Baxter invented a printing method that allowed cheaper mass production of color prints.

Even after Baxter’s creation, though, there wasn’t really a clear roadmap for successful Christmas cards. Because there were neither traditional greetings nor familiar Christmas iconography in British or American culture, holiday postcards were kind of all over the place and reflected a wide range of themes and images. Victorian tastes in art and humor ran the full gamut, and some of those early postcards were just plain weird. Below is a sampling of some of the most eclectic.

Victorians were particularly interested in unique fantasy creatures and animals, and greeting cards of the era reflected these tastes and trends. After all, greeting cards and postcards were used more to delight and entertain than they were to fulfill an expected social obligation. The more visually interesting and unexpected, the better. This was especially evident in the two kinds of animal postcards that emerged at the time. Some were cute and relatively safe:

But some were more whimsical and outright peculiar:

Animals were far from the only cards embraced by the Victorians, though. By the late 1800s, the more familiar iconography of Christmas started taking shape. As a result, a number of distinct and consistent themes began to emerge. From the silly to the serious to the sacred, Victorian holiday greeting cards and postcards are a visual feast. Below are examples of some of the major categories these cards started falling into.

Santa:

Landscapes:

Kids and the Anticipation of Christmas:

Snowmen:

Angels and Spirituality:

Socialites and Aristocracy:

Winter Activities:

Victorian Ladies:

And, of course, a healthy mix of the weird and wonderful:

So as you choose, fill out, and mail your Christmas cards this year, remember that there’s no real right way to do it. The original card was created because its sender ran out of time, and the next few decades were a free-for-all of people sending a wide variety of strange, sweet, and silly greetings to the people closest to them. The important thing is to make your cards reflect yourself, the people to whom you’re sending them, or (ideally) both! Especially this year, just embrace what you love and share it with the people who mean the most to you.

[Note: Many of the designs in this post have been recreated and turned into Christmas cards by Victorian Trading Co. in recent years. To browse our vintage greeting card collection, please feel free to visit us here. And thank you for reading!]

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