Twelfth Night

The night of January 5, the vigil or eve of Epiphany, is so called because it is the twelfth night from Christmas, if Christmas is counted as the first. (The Twelve Days are not calculated in the same way everywhere. In some places Christmas is counted making Epiphany the thirteenth day. In England it is particularly confusing because January 6 is Twelfth Day but January 5 is Twelfth Night.)

In England, Twelfth Night had long been a period of partying marking the end of the Christmas season. Masquerading was a common activity on Twelfth Night along with dancing, cross-dressing, and gambling. It was a time of social inversion when a mock king was elected to supervise the misrule. 

By the nineteenth century its reputation of riotousness was working against it and Twelfth Night was losing out to Christmas as the date for festivities. Victorian values were making the season more respectable and domestic. The gender-swapping and role reversals were theatricalized and absorbed by the pantomime where they became harmless family fare.

Since January 6, Epiphany, is celebrated as the arrival of the Magi or Three Kings, it is customary in many parts of the world to eat a “king cake”, a treat that comes in all shapes and sizes. Readers who remember the Second Gulf War may recall that American petulance at the French refusal to join in the coalition invading Iraq led to many renaming “French fries” as “Freedom fries.” Those who scorned such linguistic pettifoggery may be surprised to learn that our Gallic cousins were first into this fray. During the French Revolution of the 1790s, bakers were told that “gateaux des rois” were no longer politically correct — king cakes now had to be gateaux de Liberté: freedom cakes.

January 3

106 BC The birth of Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero was born on this date to a family of the equestrian class who had made it big in the chickpea business.  (Cicer is the Latin name for that useful legume). He was given an excellent education in philosophy rhetoric and the law and, as any young ambitious Roman of the elite did, embarked on the cursus honorum. In his life of public service, he rose from praefect to aedile to praetor to consul to provincial governor. Cicero earned a reputation as the greatest orator of his age and was a deadly advocate in the law courts, particularly fame for his prosecution of Cataline and his would-be rebels.

Cicero’s downfall came when he meddled in factional politics and chose the wrong side in the last days of the corrupt republic. He cheered the assassination of Caesar and made an enemy of the dictator’s heir and best friend, Octavian Caesar and Mark Antony who put him on a death list. He was murdered on December 7, 43 BC, and his head and hands were nailed up in the Forum. 

Cicero’s speeches, letters, and books were considered to be written in the purest form of Latin and inspired much imitation during the Renaissance. (The reader will recall the demand of the dying prelate in Robert Browning’s poem “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St Praxed’s” that his epitaph be in finest “Tullian” style.) His works have never been out of print for the last 500 years.

Since he would have been 2128 years old today, it seems fitting to conclude with remarks from his book On Old Age.

When I reflect on this subject I find four reasons why old age appears to be unhappy: first, that it withdraws us from active pursuits; second, that it makes the body weaker; third, that it deprives us of almost all physical pleasures; and, fourth, that it is not far removed from death.

The greatest states have been overthrown by the young and sustained and restored by the old. … Rashness is the product of the budding-time of youth, prudence of the harvest-time of age.

No one is so old as to think that he cannot live one more year.

When the young die I am reminded of a strong flame extinguished by a torrent; but when old men die it is as if a fire had gone out without the use of force and of its own accord, after the fuel had been consumed; and, just as apples when they are green are with difficulty plucked from the tree, but when ripe and mellow fall of themselves, so, with the young, death comes as a result of force, while with the old it is the result of ripeness. To me, indeed, the thought of this “ripeness” for death is so pleasant, that the nearer I approach death the more I feel like one who is in sight of land at last and is about to anchor in his home port after a long voyage.

In short, enjoy the blessing of strength while you have it and do not bewail it when it is gone, unless, forsooth, you believe that youth must lament the loss of infancy, or early manhood the passing of youth. Life’s race-course is fixed; Nature has only a single path and that path is run but once, and to each stage of existence has been allotted its own appropriate quality; so that the weakness of childhood, the impetuosity of youth, the seriousness of middle life, the maturity of old age—each bears some of Nature’s fruit, which must be garnered in its own season.

December 30

1916 The murder of Rasputin

Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin was a Siberian mystic whose seemingly supernatural powers won him the friendship of the Russian ruling family and a place of influence at a time of crisis in the empire. On this day in 1916 he was murdered by an aristocratic cabal.

Born into a peasant family in 1869, Rasputin underwent some sort of religious experience in his late 20s; he began making pilgrimages to to monasteries and holy men and soon acquired his own reputation for holy powers. Influential churchmen introduced him to high society in the capital St Petersburg and by 1905 he had met Tsar Nicholas II and his family.

The tsar’s son Alexei, heir to the Romanov dynasty, was a victim of hemophilia. Rasputin was asked to pray for the boy but it was his personal visits to the child that seemed to stem the disease. The tsarina Alexandra called Rasputin “our friend”, bringing him into intimate contact with the royal family. Lurid rumours spread about his relationship with the empress and her daughters, especially after news of Rasputin’s sexual behaviour with his many female followers gained public credence.

As Russia’s fortunes in World War One grew grim, Rasputin was blamed as a malign influence and a threat to national security. He had already been the subject in 1914 of an unsuccessful assassination attempt when he was lured to the palace of Prince Felix Yusopov in late 1916. There a gang of high-ranking nobles and politicians poisoned him and shot him, leaving Rasputin for dead. But when Yusopov went back to check on the body the prince recalled:

Rasputin lay exactly where we had left him. I felt his pulse: not a beat, he was dead.

Scarcely knowing what I was doing I seized the corpse by the arms and shook it violently. It leaned to one side and fell back. I was just about to go, when suddenly noticed an almost imperceptible quivering of his left eyelid. I bent over and watched him closely; slight tremors contracted his face.

All of a sudden, I saw the left eye open … A few seconds later his right eyelid began to quiver, then opened. then saw both eyes–the green eyes of a viper-staring at me with an expression of diabolical hatred. The blood ran cold in my veins. My muscles turned to stone. wanted to run away, to call for help, but my legs refused to obey me and not a sound came from my throat.

 Then a terrible thing happened: with a sudden vio lent effort Rasputin leapt to his feet, foaming at the mouth. A wild roar echoed through the vaulted rooms, and his hands convulsively thrashed the air. He rushed at me, trying to get at my throat, and sank his fingers into my shoulder like steel claws. His eyes were burst ing from their sockets, blood oozed from his lips. And all the time he called me by name, in a low raucous voice.

 No words can express the horror I felt. I tried to free myself but was powerless in his vice-like grip. A ferocious struggle began … This devil who was dying of poison, who had a bullet in his heart, must have been raised from the dead by the powers of evil. There was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die.

 I realized now who Rasputin really was. It was the reincarnation of Satan himself who held me in his clutches and would never let me go till my dying day. By a superhuman effort I succeeded in freeing myself from his grasp.

Rasputin struggled to his feet, made it out of the house and into the courtyard where he was shot yet again. His body was then thrown into the river from which it was recovered the next day.

His assassins claimed they were working for the good of Russia. In order to minimize scandal the killers were exiled or sent to the front lines of the war. Two months later the Russian Empire was overthrown in the February Revolution.

December 27

1814 The death of a prophetesss

When I was a young man, still in my teens, I visited London. The attractions included an English  girl I had met back in Saskatoon, Carnaby Street, the British Museum, and London newspapers. I was dazzled by the journalism, high and low. One advertisement in a tabloid caught my eye — it demanded that the Bishops open Joanna Southcott’s Box. It was implied that untold wisdom and cosmic secrets would be revealed and national calamities averted if they did. Who was Joanna Southcott? And what was in her box? Here is a near-contemporary account of the remarkable woman.

Joanna Southcott was born about the year 1750, of parents in very humble life. When about forty years old, she assumed the pretensions of a prophetess, and declared herself to be the woman mentioned in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation. She asserted that, having received a divine appointment to be the mother of the Messiah, the visions revealed to St. John would speedily be fulfilled by her agency and that of the son, who was to be miraculously born of her. Although extremely illiterate, she scribbled much mystic and unintelligible nonsense as visions and prophecy, and for a time carried on a lucrative trade in the sale of seals, which were, under certain conditions, to secure the salvation of the purchasers. The imposture was strengthened by her becoming subject to a rather rare disorder, which gave her the appearance of pregnancy after she had passed her grand climacteric. The faith of her followers now rose to enthusiasm. They purchased, at a fashion-able upholsterer’s, a cradle of most expensive materials, and highly decorated, and made costly preparations to hail the birth of the miraculous babe with joyous acclamation.

The delusion spread rapidly and extensively, especially in the vicinity of London, and the number of converts is said to have amounted to upwards of one hundred thousand. Most of them were of the humbler order, and remarkable for their ignorance and credulity; but a few were of the more educated classes, among whom were two or three clergymen. One of the clergymen, on being reproved by his diocesan, offered to resign his living if ‘the holy Johanna,’ as he styled her, failed to appear on a certain day with the expected Messiah in her arms. About the close of 1814, however, the prophetess herself began to have misgivings, and in one of her lucid intervals, she declared that ‘if she had been deceived, she had herself been the sport of some spirit either good or evil.’

On the 27th of December in that year, death put an end to her expectations—but not to those of her disciples. They would not believe that she was really dead. Her body was kept unburied till the most active signs of decomposition appeared; it was also subjected to a post-mortem examination, and the cause of her peculiar appearance fully accounted for on medical principles. Still, numbers of her followers refused to believe she was dead; others flattered themselves that she would speedily rise again, and bound themselves by a vow not to shave their beards till her resurrection.

It is scarcely necessary to state, that most of them have passed to their graves unshorn. A few are still living, and within the last few years several families of her disciples were residing together near Chatham, in Kent, remarkable for the length of their beards, and the general singularity of their manners and appearance. Joanna Southcott was interred, under a fictitious name, in the burial-ground attached to the chapel in St. John’s Wood, London. A stone has since been erected to her memory, which, after reciting her age and other usual particulars, concludes with some lines, evidently the composition of a still unshaken believer, the fervor of whose faith far exceeds his inspiration as a poet.

In the twentieth century the sealed box she had left behind was, indeed, opened. She had specified that it was to be examined only in a time of national crisis and in the presence of 24 bishops of the Church of England. In 1927 one bishop was found who agreed to be present at the opening — it contained only a few odd papers, a lottery ticket, and a horse pistol. True believers insisted that this was not the genuine casket and that the Panacea Society continues to hold it in a secret location until a conclave of 24 bishops is assembled.

December 23

The last of our Christmas in wartime excursions presents four out-of-the-ordinary glimpses of the sacred season in the midst of bloodshed.

The first is the cover of the Ustase Youth magazine. The Ustase was a pro-Nazi Croatian movement, ultranationalist, ultra-Catholic, and fascist, which allied its region of Yugoslavia to the Germans during the Second World War. 

You are not going to see too many images of the New Year’s baby, Stalin, Chiang Kai-she, Uncle Sam, and John Bull in together in a single illustration in your lifetime. Therefore, enjoy this version from the Canadian Home Journal, December 1943 edition. 

“Christmas Greetings” come from this Finnish cavalryman at a time in the war when that nation was allied to Germany and thus was, on paper at least, at war with Canada and the United States. 

“Happy Norwegian Christmas” cry this little nissen elves as they fly the flag of Nazi-occupied Norway. Both the flag and overtly patriotic cards were banned by the Germans so this would have been an underground production.

December 22


A Christmas-time ritual and example of social inversion or “topsy-turvy”. In Britian school boys would bar the door and refuse the master entrance until ritual verses were exchanged and a holiday was granted. The usual pattern was for boys to gather weapons and provisions as Christmas drew near and then seize the school or, more often, a single classroom;  if they could hold out for a set period, usually three days, they were allowed an extension of the usual Christmas holidays or a relaxation of the normal rate of flogging. If the master broke in they were generally beaten severely or given extra tasks. 

The first mention of it comes in 1558 where it is treated as already having been an old custom. Charles Hode’s 1660 manual A New Discovery of the Old Art of Teaching Schools suggested a set of rules be drawn up whereby masters were given warning and formal demands agreed on by head boys.  The tradition in known in Scotland from 1580 and there are some seventeenth-century Irish examples.  The growing tendency to spell out student’s rights in school charters rendered it obsolete and by the nineteenth century it had virtually disappeared in England — the last recorded barrings out of the schoolmaster seems to have been in 1938 in Derbyshire and 1940 in Northumberland.

Outside of the British Isles the custom can also be seen amongst the Pennsylvania Dutch, in Belgium, Denmark, and Holland where St Thomas’s Day was a time to bar out the master until he treated them to a drink.

November 27

One day away from Advent, our look at Christmas in wartime takes us to Nazi Germany. If Hitler’s National Socialists (and especially the SS) had had their way Christmas would have been replaced by a pagan Julfest with festivities on the winter solstice instead of December 25. However, Christmas was too firmly rooted in German culture to be attacked so directly. Instead the Nazi state tried a campaign of bait and switch, offering material and ceremonies that looked like Christmas but which were really subversive of its Christian essence.

This is mostly clearly in evidence in an Advent calendar sent out to German families to use in the run-up to Christmas Day. There were no stories of the baby Jesus; rather, a forest-born Golden Child was featured. No angels on the tree but swastika-shaped ornaments; St Nicholas was replaced by Knecht Ruprecht who was linked in the text to Nordic mythology.

Note the whirling sun which evokes the solstice and the swastika.

The caption says “Soon Ruprecht will enter the house and empty his sack for me. I gave his white horse hay which he likes.”

The 1943 edition of the Advent calendar shows German soldiers mourning at the grave of a fallen comrade surrounding by vignettes of Nazi conquests: burning villages in Russia, sinking merchantmen in the Atlantic, grapes from France, etc. The next year, the last Christmas of the war, this advent calendar kept the image of the soldiers but removed the wreath of victories celebrating territories the Germans had been driven out of.

November 26

1853 Birth of a pistolero

Who would have thought that one of America’s most iconic Western gunmen was born in Canada? Bartlomew William Barclay “Bat” Masterson first saw the light of day on this date in 1853 in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, an English-speaking area of that largely francophone province. His Irish immigrant family moved to the USA and settled in Kansas.

In his late teens Bat took up buffalo hunting and while search for a herd of bison in traditional Indian territory in 1874 took part in the famous Second Battle of Adobe Walls. He, other hunters, and a wagon train of settlers found themselves under siege at a trading post in the Texas panhandle when they were attacked by a party of Commanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa warriors, 700 strong. After 5 days they were rescued by cavalry and they abandoned the post to be burned by the vexed indigenes.

Masterston then scouted for the Army for a time, killed a man in a gunfight over a woman, and settled in Dodge City where he became a lawman. His handiness with a pistol led to many a posse, the capture of outlaws, and association with some of the legends of the West. Bat was friends with Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, Soapy Smitth, and Doc Holliday.

In the 1880s Masterton dabbled in journalism, gambling, and theater ownership; his taste in women ran to other men’s wives, circus performers, and dance-hall girls. In 1902 he moved to New York where his colourful turns of phrase, love of boxing, and exciting adventures in the West led to him becoming a journalist. He became friends with Theodore Roosevelt who always had a soft spot and a government patronage job for a manly man. Masterton was also a timekeeper for some high-stakes boxing matches. He died, diabetic and overweight in 1921 in New York.

Though not as great a subject of popular culture as Buffalo Bill or Wyatt Earp, the figure of Bat Masterton appears in a number of movies, but most notably in an eponymous  television series starring Gene Barry.

November 22

1837 William Lyon Mackenzie calls for an uprising

On this date Toronto newspaper publisher William Lyon Mackenzie called on his neighbours to rebel against their British colonial rulers with this Proclamation to the People of Upper Canada:

We have planted the Standard of Liberty in Canada, for the attainment of the following objects:

Perpetual Peace, founded on a government of equal rights to all, secured by a written constitution, sanctioned by yourselves in a convention to be called as early as circumstances will permit. 

Civil and Religious Liberty, in its fullest extent, that in all laws made, or to be made, every person to be bound alike.

The Abolition of Hereditary Honors, of the laws of Entail and Primogeniture, and of hosts of pensioners who devour our substance. 

A Legislature, composed of a Senate and Assembly chosen by the people. 

An Executive, to be composed of a Governor and other officers elected by the public voice. 

A Judiciary, to be chosen by the Governor and Senate, and composed of the most learned, honorable, and trustworthy, of our citizens. The laws to be rendered cheap and expeditious. 

A Free Trial by Jury — Sheriffs chosen by you, and not to hold office, as now, at the pleasure of our tyrants. The freedom of the press. Alas for it, now! The free presses in the Canadas are trampled down by the hand of arbitrary power. 

The Vote by Ballot — free and peaceful township elections. 

The people to elect their Court of Request Commissioners and Justices of the Peace — and also their Militia Officers, in all cases whatsoever. 

Freedom of Trade — every man to be allowed to buy at the cheapest market, and sell at the dearest.

No man to be compelled to give military service, unless it be his choice. 

Ample funds to be reserved from the vast natural resources of our country to secure the blessings of education to every citizen. 

A frugal and economical Government, in order that the people may be prosperous and free from difficulty.

An end forever to the wearisome prayers, supplications, and mockeries attendant upon our connection with the lordlings of the Colonial Office, Downing Street, London.

The opening of the St. Lawrence to the trade of the world, so that the largest ships might pass up to Lake Superior, and the distribution of the wild lands of the country to the industry, capital, skill, and enterprise of worthy men of all nations.

This was viewed by most Upper Canadians as smacking too much of republicanism, innovation, and the example of the United States. Despite Mackenzie’s attempts to lead a march on Toronto and to involve American and Quebecois supporters, the rebellion was a pathetic flop. Mackenzie fled to the US where he was jailed for violating the Neutrality Act.

November 19

The Hartlepool Monkey

According to legend, a monkey in a French military uniform was washed up on the shore during the Napoleonic Wars near Hartlepool, England, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Locals were said to have been baffled by the beast and, supposedly moved by ignorance of what a real Frenchman looked like, hanged the monkey as a spy. 

Some have suggested that it was a “powder-monkey” — a ship’s boy charged with carrying ammunition — that was hanged. Others claim that it was only a myth suggested by a popular song of the era:

In former times, mid war an’ strife,
The French invasion threatened life,
An’ all was armed to the knife,
The Fishermen hung the Monkey O!

The Fishermen wi’ courage high,
Seized on the Monkey for a spy,
“Hang him” says yen, says another,”He’ll die!”
They did, and they hung the Monkey O!

They tried every move to make him speak,
They tortor’d the Monkey till loud he did squeak
Says yen, “That’s French,” says another “it’s Greek”
For the Fishermen had got drunky, O!

“He’s all ower hair!” sum chap did cry,
E’en up te summic cute an’ sly
Wiv a cod’s head then they closed an eye,
Afore they hung the Monkey O!

What is undeniable is that the inhabitants of Hartlepool have warmly embraced the accusation of simiancide and adopted the incident as a part of their public identity. There are two statues to the little hominid in the town; H’Angus the Monkey is the official mascot of Hartlepool United football team and one of the men wearing the costume won election as mayor running under the name of “H’Angus” and promising free bananas for school kids. The Hartlepool Rovers rugby team’s crest is a beret-wearing monkey hanging from a gibbet.