Or, What You WillThe comedy Twelfth Night was believed to be written by William Shakespeare as a celebration for the end of the Christmas season, first performed in 1602. The play uses music, cross-dressing, costumes and trickery associated with the holiday. It is believed that Shakespeare was going to originally name the play “What You Will,” but changed the name to the festival for which it was performed. (It is also reported that John Marston, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, released a play titled “What You Will” while Shakespeare was still writing his, forcing him to change the main title.) The title Twelfth Night, or What You Will, prepares the audience for its jovial feel of festivities consisting of drink, dance, and giving in to general self-indulgence. The subtitle What You Will implies that the audience is also involved in the merry spirit found in the play.
The Celebration of Twelfth NightTwelfth Night is a Christian festival that concludes the famous “Twelve Days of Christmas” and marks the beginning of Carnival Season. It is celebrated on January 5th or 6th, depending on the country, the confusion being because some have the custom of starting a new day at sunset (on the 5th), others at dawn (on the 6th). It is considered to be a magical time because the “12th Night” is the celebration of when the three “kings” visited the Christ child.
Twelfth Night is, oddly, a close relation of “All Hallows Eve,” or the American Halloween. All Hallows Eve marks the beginning of the winter festival that ends with Twelfth Night, and one can see similarities in both like costumes, excesses in food and treats, and other types of revelry. Traditionally, dating back to Celtic (non-Christian) Festivals, celebrations to end the winter were guided by “The Lord of Misrule,” symbolizing that the world was turning “upside down.” On this day the King and all those who were upper class would become the peasants and vice versa. At the beginning of the Twelfth Night festival, a cake was served that had a “bean” (sometimes made of gold) cooked into it. The cake was cut up and served, and the person who found the bean would rule the feast as “king.” Midnight signaled the end of his rule and the world would return to normal. The common theme was that the normal order of things was reversed.
The Carnival Season is celebrated world-wide. It is a time of indulgence, especially with food and drink, leading up to the Christian season of Lent. Carnival parties frequently include masquerade balls and costumes. New Orleans is the home of America’s largest and most famous Carnival Season. “King Cakes” are still served, and costumes and disguises are still the rule of the day.
The final day of Carnival is perhaps the most famous: Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday.” This is the last day of debauchery before Lent begins the next day on “Ash Wednesday.”