Gimbling in the Wabe – Twelfth Night

by Sharon Browning

Christmas for me always ends on January 5. We leave our holiday lights on through the night of the 5th, and then they get turned off for another year. We take down our tree and pack away our decorations on the 6th; in itself its own tradition, a finality to the season, a conscious moving on.

I could point out that we are coinciding with the prevailing Christian liturgical calendar which officially declares Christmastide over on January 5th, and enters into Epiphany on January 6, marking the arrival of the Three Wise Men at the birthplace of the Christ Child in Bethlehem.  I am a minister’s daughter, after all. (While “epiphany” is defined as “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi,” it originates from the ancient Greek verb “to appear”, thus also meaning “a manifestation of a divine or supernatural being” and “a moment of sudden revelation or insight.”)

Or I could point out that January 5th is Twelfth Night, which brings to close the Twelve Days of Christmas. Being a student of Shakespeare, I could continue to elucidate that his wonderfully adroit comedy, Twelfth Night, did not have anything to do with the religious holiday, per se, but was written as a Twelfth Night entertainment for the masses. In Shakespeare’s time, Twelfth Night had become a night of revelry, a time of “licensed disorder,” when social roles were often switched as part of the celebration: servants became the masters, men dressed as women and vice versa – a theme in many of Shakespeare’s works, and especially in Twelfth Night.

But my reasons for closing out the Christmas season on January 5, while tangentially touching on both Shakespeare and the liturgical calendar, are much more sentimental.

Years ago, I traveled to England as part of a collegiate program to study Shakespeare. (A group of us undergraduates were enrolled in the program, including my then-boyfriend /now-husband.) Having traveled extensively throughout the United States but never outside of it, I was understandably excited to be part of this adventure. It was even the first time I had flown in an airplane!

We touched down in Southampton on the evening of January 5, 1980, and immediately were bused to our hotel in Salisbury (a section of which dated back hundreds of years; we were told it had originally housed workers on the Salisbury Cathedral). Due to jet lag and excitement I was wide awake, and even though it was quite late and very dark, my boyfriend and I decided to go out for a walk, to take in this exotic and foreign land of which we had heard so much and yet knew so little.

We hadn’t gone too far until we found ourselves drawn to the majestic Salisbury Cathedral. One of the leading examples of early English architecture, the main body of the cathedral was completed in 1258, and boasts the tallest church spire in the UK as well as the largest cathedral close (80 acres). We didn’t know this, though, not back then. All we knew is that it seemed like we had crossed some kind of magical border into a place that was indeed sacred.

The cathedral was lit up like a beacon, from lights artfully hidden behind pillars and under arches to preserve a sense of harmony. Not seeing anything to discourage us, we walked up to and around the magnificent building, marveling at the immensity of it, the amazing workmanship that was apparent to even our pedestrian eyes. We had the place to ourselves, and it was so quiet that we could hear the wings of the pigeons (I could say doves, but no, I think they were “merely” pigeons) that startled when we got close to where they had thought to roost for the night; they flew up from one of the buttresses, and arced out and up, up, to disappear over the soaring roof. The night air was clear and cold, full of stars and sensate purity. It was as if we had entered into the presence of something far greater than we had ever encountered before; more than simply standing on a piece of history, it was as if we were truly in the presence of the divine.

Eventually we went back to the hotel, promising that we would return the next night with cameras in hand. But the following evening we were dismayed to find the cathedral dark, covered not in light but in shadow. The immensity of the building remained, but the magic of it was gone.

Asking around we learned that we had stumbled on the cathedral on Twelfth Night; it had been lit up specifically for that occasion. “Costs too much to keep the lights on all the time,” our tour guide informed us. We had been lucky, he shrugged.

Lucky, indeed. One of those rare twists of fate, one of those moments of happenstance that slip into our lives unheralded, that end up becoming the crux of our most precious memories. For me, that night in Salisbury marked my first step away from a comfortable life; what I found on the other side turned out to be exciting and immensely rewarding. In the days that followed, that trip to England taught me not only about Shakespeare, but about life and about myself, and about the depth and breadth of experience that binds us all together. It changed me.

And that wonderful, terrifying, incredible time of change was ushered in on the wings of birds fluttering in the hush of the night, in the chill of the air, in the sanctity of man’s attempt to touch God.

So every year, we mark the end of Christmas on January 5, to commemorate Twelfth Night and the magic it holds for us, as experienced by my husband and I and passed down to our children. To see the close of the holiday season not as an end, but as a new beginning, full of potential, open to moments of happenstance that will undoubtedly slip into our lives unheralded, and precious.

Happy New Year, everyone.

~ Sharon Browning

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