What, Exactly, is Twelfth Night?

Twelfth Night is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.

Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will

Viola, the shipwrecked young woman who manages a disguise as a young man (making her much resemble her twin brother, Sebastian, potentially lost at sea) garners the trust of the Duke, the love of the Duke’s lady, and the respect of his household, all as a man. She’s smart and sarcastic, and one of Shakespeare’s more likeable heroines. The play is witty and sharp, and, unlike some of Shakespeare’s comedies, ends to the satisfaction of most parties.

Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will

Okay, that’s all fine and dandy, you say. But why the heck is it called Twelfth Night? There aren’t any twelves, nothing twelve-like happens. Are there twelve days in the story? It feels longer than that.

As we all have come to discover, the title has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Even its subtitle, or What You Will, is more like William Shakespeare, opens a new window just said “I can’t figure out what to call this, so here you go” and handed the sheaves of paper scrap over to someone else to deal with.

Turns out, Twelfth Night was the festival at which the play would be premiered for Queen Elizabeth I, opens a new window in 1601, and thus, when good old Will couldn’t come up with a better title, that’s what it became.

What is Twelfth Night?

Twelfth Night is the night before January 6, the twelfth day after Christmas. In most Western cultures founded by Christians, opens a new window, it’s called Epiphany, opens a new window.  In some traditions, it’s the day the Three Wise Men appeared with gifts for baby Jesus; in other traditions, it’s the day of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. The former is what is most commonly recognized in Modern Western Christianity, which is why in some countries, particularly in Latin America, it’s called Three Kings Day, opens a new window.

In secular tradition, it’s the End Of Christmas. The day the decorations are put away and the real wintertime begins.

The word Epiphany comes from the Greek epiphaneia (ἐπιφάνεια), which means appearance or manifestation. It is particularly connected to the appearance of a deity to a worshipper, thus its use in the Greek translation of the Bible in multiple books of the New Testament. In Christian tradition, it gradually evolved into a feast celebrating the birth of the Christ.  

In Elizabethan England, under the Church of England, opens a new window, January 6 was actually the beginning of an eight day festival. It was the day the Yule Log was extinguished and the charcoal put away for the next Christmas. There was a very special Twelfth Cake in which those who found certain things baked in would have new roles for the day: the happy finder of the baked-in-bean would be king for the day, opens a new window (called Lord of Misrule), others would be the new villain, fool, or the tart.

Yeah, that’s right. Someone in the Queen’s court could be the Twelfth Night Tart.

Twelfth Night celebrations in England have died down from their former eight days of debauchery and spices to a more mellow night for seeing plays, but the central idea of jollity to wrap up the Christmas season is still there.


Do you celebrate Epiphany, or Twelfth Night?   

Links updated 2020.12.24