Christmas Music Matters: Twelfth Night

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Welcome to the 12th Day of Christmas: The Holy Theophany and Epiphany of Christ.

Since the Christian Day, like the Jewish Day, begins at sundown, last night was Twelfth Night!

Christmas is not only on December 25. Here’s the story:

Originally, most Christians had one feast for all of the Revelations of Christ: The Expectation of Christ’s Birth, The Nativity, the visit of the Magi, the Circumcision and Naming, the Baptism, and the Encounter with Simeon and Anna in the Temple. All celebrated at once, usually around January 6.

Gradually, in a kind of Liturgical “Big Bang,” different Churches began to distribute these Feasts over several months. To make a long story short, here is how they ended up in the Roman (Western) Tradition, which includes Anglicans and many Protestant Christians, on the one hand, and in the Byzantine Greek Tradition:


  • Four Weeks of Preparation: Advent
  • The Nativity: Christmas Day: December 25
  • The Circumcision: January 1 (no longer on the Roman Calendar)
  • The Visit of the Magi: Epiphany: January 6 (now the nearest Sunday for RCs). Twelfth Night
  • The Baptism: January 13 (or nearest Sunday)
  • The Presentation in the Temple (February 2)


  • 40 Days of Preparation: The Christmas Lent (begins November 15)
  • The Nativity & the Visit of the Magi: Christmas Day: December 25
  • The Circumcision: January 1
  • The Baptism of Christ: Theophany: January 6
  • The Encounter with Simeon and Anna in the Temple (February 2)

It should be noted that Dec 25 corresponds to the Winter Solstice, the Birth of the New Light, and February 1-2 is the ancient Fire Festival of Imbolc, at which the Goddess Bridget becomes the nursemaid for the New Light born at the Solstice. It is therefore most natural that the ancient observances would shine through both these Christian calendars. The Feast of St. Bridget is also on Feb 2!

The Christmas Season of celebration, therefore, has its core at December 25-January 6 (The Twelve Days of Christmas), and continues until the formal close with the Feast on February 2.

In Rome, the church Christmas decorations, including the manger scenes, remain until February 2. Try as I might, I can’t convince Chris to leave the Tree up that long! In New Orleans, Twelfth Night (January 5/6) is the beginning of Mardi Gras Season, which runs until midnight between Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday.

So…that having been said, how about some appropriate music?

First, let’s listen to the Byzantine Chant for the very important Great Feast of the Theophany:

Russian Tone (English):

Greek Tone (Arabic and English):

The Great Blessing of Water at Theophany in the Orthodox Church of Japan (Russian Tones, sung in Japanese):

Greek Tone (English-Arabic) Great Blessing of Waters in Virginia:

(I hope my point is getting across, that the Byzantine Tradition is not something distant and foreign. It is thoroughly planted all over the world, including here in the U.S.!)

Great Blessing of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers:

Now, on to the reveling!

Shakespeare (whoever he was, he was certainly associated with the Rosicrucian Movement) wrote a play for the end of the Christmas Season (Feb 2), and called it Twelfth Night for the Feast of Jan 5/6. I was lucky enough to be part of a production of the play at Yale years ago with Jim Kramer.

Here are some selections to conclude our musical journey that we have taken together this Christmas:

Twelfth Night begins with this wonderful soliloquy by Duke Orsinio:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again! It had a dying fall;
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more;
‘T is not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou!
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute! so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

Twelfth Night, Act I Scene 1

And a musical setting by John Gardiner:

The Clown has four songs in Twelfth Night:

Come Away Death:

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.

    Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
On my black coffin let there be strown;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there!

O Mistress Mine:

O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear; your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low:
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.

What is love? ‘T is not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

I am gone Sir:

I am gone, sir,
And anon, sir,
I ‘ll be with you again,
In a trice,
Like to the old Vice,
Your need to sustain;
Who, with dagger of lath,
In his rage and his wrath,
Cries, ah, ha! to the devil:
Like a mad lad,
Pare thy nails, dad;
Adieu, goodman devil.

The Play then ends with the Clown singing this ditty:

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

     But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, &c.
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain, &c.

     But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, &c.
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain, &c.

     But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, &c.
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain, &c.

     A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, &c.
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

Twelfth Night, ending song. Act IV Scene 3

Here are all four by Garth Baxter:

And a Madrigal setting:

Thus we come to an end of our musical journey. I have shared the music I know. I invite you to share yours!

To end, we’ll take our cue from another of the Bard’s plays, The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

William Shakespeare
From The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1

Merry Christmas!

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

Exeunt Omnes.

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