Thursday, 5 January 2017

On Following Starlight and Listening to a Deeper Song ~ Twelfth Night and Epiphany

'Singing Round the Star on Twelfth Night', Cornelius Troost, J.Paul Getty Museum, Wiki Commons

How easily we let go of the sacred. Tonight is Twelfth Night, and the Eve of Epiphany, which for many of our ancestors, Christian and pre-Christian, was an important night of celebration, of feasting, of starlight, and often of challenging the social order, something that perhaps we have also let go of too easily.

In our commercial Capitalist culture Christmas seems to start as early as September, and is in full swing by the end of October when the plastic Halloween remains have been swept away from the supermarket shelves. Once, Halloween was Samhain, the ancient festival of the Old Ways. Then it was the Christian three day festival of Hallowmas. Both honouring the ancestors and the beloved dead. Now, all thought of the sacred and of honouring is forgotten in the rush to tell ghost stories and paint ourselves with gore. We so often retain the echo but lose the song. And so it is with Christmas, which in Medieval Tudor England continued until Candlemas, a time of purification and blessing of the candles on February 2nd., and again recalling the ancient sacred time of Imbolc with its celebration of the stirrings of new spring life and honouring Brigid, goddess of sunfire and the sacred flame. How deeply and beautifully these resonant threads vibrate through time and shared belief, no matter what that belief might be called. For the Tudors, it was later decided that Christmastide should end on Twelfth Night, and yet even then sacred time continued with Epiphanytide until February. Now it seems that anything with meaning ends with the Boxing Day sales and the beauty of Imbolc has melted away with the spring snows.

Sacred time doesn't care for clocks and no sacred day allows itself to be caged by the limits of twenty four short hours; instead these times are a tide, rising in the land and her people and ebbing and flowing with the rising of the sun and the shining of the moon. And so it is with our winter festivals; of Solstice, of Yule, of Jul, of Christmas, and so many others. In 567CE the Council of Tours declared that the entire period from Christmas until epiphany should be part of the same celebration, Christmastide or Twelvetide. In Medieval England Twelfth Night marked the end of a winter festival that began at Halloween, the time when the Lord of Misrule presided and the world was 'turned upside down', putting away social norms and reminding everyone that the structure of society only continued with the consent of all, from the richest to the poorest. Lots would be drawn by the discovery of a hidden pea or bean in a piece of 'Twelfth Cake'. The winner, whether a peasant or a lord, would rule over the festivities, which often included wild partying and drunkenness, often through the drinking of punch used to 'Wassail' the apple trees, another ancient tradition of this night. The custom was abolished by Henry VIII in 1541 and restored and again abolished by subsequent monarchs. In the 1870s, Queen Victoria outlawed the celebration of Twelfth Night as it was feared that the revelries were becoming uncontrollable. It is so often so with the folk traditions of the common people.

'12th Night Revelers Carnival', Nola, 1884, Wiki Commons

All of this is in some contrast with the observance of the Eve of Epiphany, which falls on Twelfth Night. In Eastern Orthodoxy this is a night of strict fasting, when the devout will not eat until the first star is seen at night. That this night is so woven in with starlight is because in the Christian faith it is the time when the Wise Men, the Three Kings, or the Magi found the Christ child by following the Star of Bethlehem (subversive perhaps that the shepherds saw him first!). But of course Christianity is a faith of the desert and of heat. In our own land, these cold nights are times to kindle the fires and feast in celebration and faith that we have enough to see us through until the spring. It is not a time of denial. And yet, as always, there are resonances between these two ways which join and weave so deeply in our own earth.

For those of us who follow the older ways of hedge and hallow our homes are decorated in evergreens and sparkling lights. It was once believed that tree spirits, of holly, of mistletoe, and ivy, lived in this greenery and enjoyed the shelter of our hearth over the festive season. However, it was important that these spirits were released by burning the green on Twelfth Night to ensure healthy growth in the coming year. This tradition still takes place throughout our land, one much loved event taking place each year at the Geffrye Museum in London, where the holly and ivy used to decorate their period living rooms over Christmas is burned and celebrated with the drinking of mulled wine and the singing of carols. Returning from the fires to starlight, we find the belief that decorations, including the fairylights which represent the Star, should not be taken down before the Eve of Epiphany as the Wise Men might then not be able to find their way. Some may feel this to be an appropriation of an older belief and yet there are so many divisions in our world that I prefer reconciliation; to see that we are all following the same thread of winter light in our own ways. For Christians this may mean following the light of the Star across the desert, for others perhaps it might be in honouring the Star from which we all first had our being and the reindeer tracks followed by our far off ancestors. In The Greenwood Tarot, which vibrates with the magic of the pre-Celtic lands, The Star is one of the primary guides, just as it is in Christianity, and it is the catalyst of the creation myths of the planet, and so the first earth that was ever formed...

From the essence of stars in the universe, the earth was created, and was blessed. The first tree on earth was the silver birch; the World Tree. From the tree emerged its guardian, the first reindeer, the Primal Creatress, who waits until the first light, the dawn of human consciousness, aware of the guidance and blessing of her origins The Star. With an archaic singing, She drums the manifest world into being. First the four elements, the Breath of life, the Spark of life, the Waters of life, and the first land-the Foundation. Then She calls the primal forest, the birds and animals, the first people. She then marks out the first pathway with her own totem, the reindeer. And she will walk forever with all generations, so that they may remember their origins in the stars, and learn wisdom from those who have preceded them.’
(Chesca Potter, 'The Greenwood Tarot')

No, I am no longer interested in the things that divide us, or in claiming what is ours or theirs, only in reconciliation and mending. And it seems that, when we look beneath, there is so little that really needs to be mended, perhaps only a few thinly stretched and fraying strands that need some loving care. All I know is that for so many of us something precious, vulnerable, and new, in ourselves and in the world, has been born in these days. Whether it is the sun or the son, the awesome life-giving power of our solar Mother or the all-too-human fragility of the tiny child, matters so very little. We are all following our own little stars to come into the warmth of its presence as the seasons turn. We all need a thread to follow in the dark and we find it where we may.

''The Pole Star' from The Greenwood Tarot (Artist: Chesca Potter)

And what of the primal Reindeer Mother and her ancient trackways? Perhaps something of her is still to be found in the Mari Lwyd and the wassailing traditions and the Mummers' plays which take place in the orchards and inns of our land on Twelfth Night and in the weeks to come? As the 'Grey Mare' her hoofbeats still echo in the star-filled night. In parts of South Wales, the Mari Lwyd, in the form of a decorated horse's skull, is carried from house to house between Christmas and Twelfth Night bearing the legend that the Grey Mare, the old goddess, was cast out of the Bethlehem Stable on the night that Christ was born to make room for Mary and that must now gain entry to safely give birth to her foal through riddles and trickery.

The Mare-headed Queen, the Mari-Lwyd,
I was mother of all the herds.
Ten thousand years my shining foals,
Bridled with starlight,
Saddled with gold,
Leapt the divide between living and dead,
Quickened the year with each toss of the head,
Galloped the deep of beauty
And never grew old.
Let me in!

But Mother of God, the Mary Mild,
The pregnant Maiden came,
Bursting with Jehovah seed
She entered my stable
And cried out her need.
With ropes I was dragged from the birthing straw,
Aching with foal I was heaved to the door,
Swapping warmth for bitter weather
And birth of a rival creed.
Let me in!”
(From 'Mari Lwyd', lyrics by Hugh Lupton)

'Mari Lwyd', Wiki Commons

I like to think that Mary, who knew so deeply what it was to be outcast and homeless, would not have allowed such a thing but we know too well how the ways of patriarchy try to cast woman against woman. And always those at the bloated centre seek to turn the wild edge-dwellers one against the other. I reject stories such as these and honour all who give birth to the Light in these dark days of winter. And the Goddess is far older than the Virgin.

And so, for those of us who remember the sacred and acknowledge our place as people of the Northern winter lands and its age-old traditions, the Twelfth Night revelries continue; in the Wassail and the HaxeyHood, in the burning of the green and the dance of the Holly Man, in the hoofbeat of the Mari Lwyd. We have nothing to fear from those who follow the desert star, as well as or instead of our own winter-light, and the old ways are not so easily subdued, even on this night when the Three Kings are abroad.

'Holly Man on the South Bank', Wiki Commons
And so to Epiphany on January 6th, the day of the visit of the Kings to the Christ child after this night of bright stars. In Spain it is the main festive holiday, known as El Dia de los Reyes, and Three Kings Parades, or Cabalgatas, take place throughout the country with food being left out by children for the kings and their camels on Epiphany Eve. On the day itself a 'Three Kings Cake', baked in a ring and decorated with candied fruit, is eaten. Hidden inside is a small figure of Jesus and a bean. The person who finds Jesus will be the king or queen of that year's celebrations and the one who finds the bean will buy next year's cake. In England the 'Twelfth Cake' upheld a similar tradition but, uniquely, other items were often included, with whoever found the clove being “the villain, the twig, the fool, and the rag, the tart”. “Anything spicy or hot, like ginger snaps and spiced ale, was considered proper Twelfth Night fare, recalling the costly spices brought by the Wise Men. Another English Epiphany dessert was the jam tart, but made into a six-point star for the occasion to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and thus called Epiphany tart. The discerning English cook sometimes tried to use thirteen different coloured jams on the tart on this day for luck, creating a dessert with the appearance of stained glass.” (The Old FoodieHow intimately food is bound up with the sacred. Which brings me beautifully to another aspect of Epiphany.
In Ireland, January 6th is known as 'Little Christmas', and 'Nollaig na mBan' or 'Women's Christmas'. This was the day on which women were able to lay down the hard work of the household which they had undertaken throughout the rest of the festive season, and no doubt all year, and go out to celebrate with their friends, sisters, mothers, and aunts. Children would buy presents for their mothers and grandmothers and women would light candles for every room in the house. There is some wonderful information about Nollaig na mBan in the Irish Times here and The Sanctuary of Women provide a beautiful free online retreat for Women's Christmas here. I think that next year I will make a point of gathering with my women friends for Little Christmas Day.
There is such richness to be found in our traditions, so many threads that join us rather than divide, and yes, we do let go of the sacred and of sacred time far too easily. Tonight I will honour the Star of the East and the desert child and the Star of the North and the reindeer track and, tomorrow, I trust that the light of both will lead me on.

Nights of Reindeer and Starlight (Artist: Wood Hill)



  1. Beautiful. I didn't know a lot of this -- thank you!

    1. Thank you so much, Kate. I learned quite a few things myself!

  2. So beautiful and full of such loving wisdom. Thank you <3

    1. Thank you so much, Sarah. It was a deep journey with this one. I am all excited now! x

  3. I love how you say that these sacred times are a tide, ebbing and flowing in the land, not confined to clock time or the 24-hour day. Such times are organic, untamed. A lovely piece for starlit nights. Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much, Therese. I have never been a fan of linear time and it seems to me that the sacred shouldn't, and couldn't, be confined by that. I am newly enamoured of starlight myself having written this. Thank you again for your lovely comments and support.

  4. That was so beautiful I cried xxx keep weaving sweetness.


    1. Thank you so much, Tamsyn. If this has made someone cry then that is high praise indeed xx


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I genuinely do appreciate and value what you have to say. For some reason I am currently struggling to reply but I am reading everything you say and I am grateful. I will work on the replying!