Wassailing into the sunset

Twelfth Night - 6 January - used to be a festival both of riotous fun and religious importance. But Britons are fast forgetting such traditions, writes Sophie Goodchild
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THE DAYS of guise dancing and supping from wassail bowls are over. Twelfth Night, once so popular that Shakespeare wrote a play about it, has all but lost its place in British tradition.

Dozens of local customs which were enacted for centuries to celebrate Twelfth Night and the Epiphany, on 5 and 6 January, have vanished over the past decade.

The festival has dwindled from one of the most important events in the calendar to merely an occasion for people to take down Christmas decorations to ward off bad luck. Others ignore even the tradition and dump the tree on 1 January.

The fact that Twelfth Night marks the visit of the Three Wise Men to the infant Jesus has almost been forgotten and is now celebrated only with a handful of customs and church services.

The spurning of Twelfth Night has been blamed on the commercial emphasis on Christmas and the fact that 6 January is no longer a public holiday.

But some heritage groups want to revive Twelfth Night and its traditions, which included villagers trooping out at midnight to see whether thorn trees had suddenly blossomed, or if bees came buzzing from their hives or cows went down on their knees - all in memory of Christ's birth and the visit of the Three Wise Men.

Parties were once the highlight of Twelfth Night, and a potent brew called Lamb's Wool, made from ale and nutmeg, was always served. Also on offer would be Twelfth Cake, and the man and woman who were served the slices with a hidden pea and bean would be made king and queen of the revels. Mumming plays, morris dancing and guise dancing - where men and women cross-dressed - were among the evening's entertainments and holly and ivy decorations were burned to prevent bad luck.

Twelfth Night was a particularly popular celebration in apple-growing areas, where orchards would fill with inebriated workers pouring cider on tree roots - to encourage growth - singing and even igniting gunpowder. This ceremony of wassailing was an attempt to ensure an abundant crop and to ward off evil spirits.

The village of Duncton, in Sussex, is typical of communities where the custom has been stifled by apathy. Peter Jerome, a local historian, says the decline of rural communities and the intervention of the First World War were both partly responsible for killing off the tradition. "There were no young men around to carry it on," he said. "In the 1920s people were also looking towards a brave new world and wanted to dispense with old superstitions. Of course, now people have become disillusioned with that world."

Common Ground, an arts and environment charity, is attempting to revive traditions of Twelfth Night including wassailing. "Traditions need constant reinvention because we have become distanced from them," said Sue Clifford, Common Ground's director. "Christmas has just become a time for spending money and the build-up has become so intense that Twelfth Night has been eclipsed. Wassailing is a way of getting people to realise the importance of their surroundings and not to take them for granted."

The secular revelry of Twelfth Night may have faded but the more sober religious traditions of the Feast of The Epiphany are still upheld. For Christians, the Epiphany or Old Christmas Day is just as significant as Christmas Day.

A service of Holy Communion is held on 6 January each year in the Chapel Royal, St James's Palace, when an offering of gold, frankincense and myrrh is made on behalf of the Queen. The demand is so great from members of the public who want to attend that entrance is by ticket only.

Churches across the country still hold services where figures of the three wise men and their gifts are moved from window sills to the comfort of the crib by the altar.

However, at Brent Cross shopping centre, in north London, the mention of Twelfth Night and the Three Wise Men elicited bemused looks from most families scouting for sale bargains. "I know it's for getting the decorations down because if you don't there will be bad luck," said Mary Bell, who was shopping with her husband, Walter. "I'm afraid it doesn't mean anything at all to me apart from that. I was religious as a child but I don't remember celebrating Twelfth Night at all."

Elizabeth Dennis, a committed Christian, says she plans to attend an Epiphany service but agreed that the significance of the occasion was lost on most people. "It's a religious time for me because of the significance of the three wise men," she said. "I always attend a special service but like all religious activities it seems to have lost its popularity. People just seem to focus on the commercial aspect of Christmas these days, which is a shame."