The evening of this day is Twelfthnight, the end of the Christmas season and the prelude to the season of Epiphany or “manifestation,” which celebrates the moments when we become newly aware of God at work in our world, meeting us even in the midst of our everyday lives.
Twelthnight was formerly kept as a time of merry-making and is associated with many old customs such as taking down the Christmas decorations. In Herefordshire there was a tradition of lighting 12 bonfires, representing the Twelve Apostles, to secure a blessing on the fruits of the earth, and similar practices prevailed elsewhere. The ‘Twelfth Cake’ was an ornamented cake made for the occasion, containing a bean or coin, the finder of which became the ‘King’ or ‘Queen’ of the festivities.
Twelfthnight is traditionally the time to clear out the evergreens brought indoors to decorate for Christmas. The speaker of this poem, working through this chore and momentarily blinded by the low winter sun, rediscovers the grace of Incarnation — God’s daring to become one of us in the Baby of Bethlehem—and the hope of Epiphany.
A SILENT PROMISE
JAY EMERSON JOHNSON
Light comes back
as it always does
just before Christmas Day
like finding a treasured keepsake
forgotten in attic recesses
and I start to think about Hoovering up
brittle evergreen needles,
fingering the stubborn ones
out from a wooly carpet’s fibers.
Light comes back slowly
tracing an ancient arc
across the winter sky
and I kneel on hardwood
straining to scoop up
a stray ornament
from a dusty corner
just out of reach
dappling my vision.
Light comes back
with a promise
silent as the stars—
this simple, tender flesh
covering our hands
wrinkling our knees
layering our faces
shall be seen
revealed as a divine gift
for this world
indeed, an epiphany.
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
Raised in a conservative Evangelical context, Jay Johnson became an Episcopalian while in college and is a priest in the Episcopal Church. He has served parishes in Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also a scholar in the field of theology and the author of Dancing with God: Anglican Christianity and the Practice of Hope. He has the custom of writing an Advent/Christmas greeting to his friends in the poetic genre, one of which appears in this collection.
Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, or What You Will was written to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment. The earliest known performance took place at Middle Temple Hall, one of the Inns of Court, on Candlemas night, 2 February 1602. The play has many elements that are reversed, in the tradition of Twelfth Night, such as a woman Viola dressing as a man, and a servant Malvolio imagining that he can become a nobleman.
Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness was performed on 6 January 1605 at the Banqueting House in Whitehall. It was originally entitled The Twelvth Nights Revells. The accompanying Masque, The Masque of Beauty was performed in the same court the Sunday night after the Twelfth Night in 1608.
Robert Herrick’s poem Twelfe-Night, or King and Queene, published in 1648, describes the election of king and queen by bean and pea in a plum cake, and the homage done to them by the draining of wassail bowls of “lamb’s-wool”, a drink of sugar, nutmeg, ginger and ale.
Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol briefly mentions Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present visiting a children’s Twelfth Night party.
Twelfth Night—an allusion to the night of festivity preceding the Christian celebration of the Epiphany—combines love, confusion, mistaken identities, and joyful discovery.
After the twins Sebastian and Viola survive a shipwreck, neither knows that the other is alive. Viola goes into service with Count Orsino of Illyria, disguised as a young man, “Cesario.” Orsino sends Cesario to woo the Lady Olivia on his behalf, but Olivia falls in love with Cesario. Viola, in the meantime, has fallen in love with Orsino.
At the estate of Lady Olivia, Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s kinsman, has brought in Sir Andrew Aguecheek to be her suitor. A confrontation between Olivia’s steward, Malvolio, and the partying Toby and his cohort leads to a revenge plot against Malvolio. Malvolio is tricked into making a fool of himself, and he is locked in a dungeon as a lunatic.
In the meantime, Sebastian has been rescued by a sea captain, Antonio. When Viola, as Cesario, is challenged to a duel, Antonio mistakes her for Sebastian, comes to her aid, and is arrested. Olivia, meanwhile, mistakes Sebastian for Cesario and declares her love. When, finally, Sebastian and Viola appear together, the puzzles around the mistaken identities are solved: Cesario is revealed as Viola, Orsino asks for Viola’s hand, Sebastian will wed Olivia, and Viola will marry Count Orsino. Malvolio, blaming Olivia and others for his humiliation, vows revenge.
A Little More
In Chapter 6 of Harrison Ainsworth’s 1858 novel Mervyn Clitheroe, the eponymous hero is elected King of festivities at the Twelfth Night celebrations held in Tom Shakeshaft’s barn, by receiving the slice of plum cake containing the bean; his companion Cissy obtains the pea and becomes queen, and they are seated together in a high corner to view the proceedings. The distribution has been rigged to prevent another person gaining the role. The festivities include country dances, and the introduction of a “Fool Plough”, a plough decked with ribands brought into the barn by a dozen mummers together with a grotesque “Old Bessie” (played by a man) and a Fool dressed in animal skins with a fool’s hat. The mummers carry wooden swords and perform revelries. The scene in the novel is illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne (“Phiz”). In the course of the evening, the fool’s antics cause a fight to break out, but Mervyn restores order. Three bowls of gin punch are disposed of, and at eleven o’clock the young men make the necessary arrangements to see the young ladies safely home across the fields.
Sources & Resources
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)
L. William Countryman, Run, Shepherds, Run: Poems for Advent and Christmas (New York; Harrisburg, PA; Denver: Morehouse Publishing, 2005)
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night Or, What You Will, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (Folger Shakespeare Library, n.d.)