It is the 5th of January 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.

The year was 567.

The Second Council of Tours met this year. Tours, in Western France, was a generally central location for a provincial council. This is not one of the ecumenical councils that would make universal theological proclamations, but rather a council for more pressing and practical issues. At hand for this council was the question of what to do with married priests. Full clerical celibacy in the Western church was about 500 years away. But as early as 325, the church had taught that priests might not marry after taking their vows, but one could get married before entering the priesthood.

The Second Council of Tours recognized that if you were married before you became a priest, you could remain married, but in the council's words, you must treat your wife like your sister. If you are caught in bed with your wife, you earn a suspension and demotion. Double beds were outlawed in the monastery in the same canon. Also, this is fun: the church finally permitted "modern" hymns by writers other than St. Ambrose worship wars are at least 1500 years old.

But if you are looking up this council of tours, it may not be for papal hot takes on physical relations and contemporary worship, but instead for Christmas decoration advice. The Second Council of Tours is regularly invoked as the council that set the Christmas church season from the first Sunday in Advent to the 12th Night of Christmas, Epiphany's eve, today.

The 17th canon of the council, in discussing the rules for fasting, declared that "From Christmas to Epiphany, there shall be daily prandium, because every day is a festival." (A prandium is a meal.) And thus, the 12th Night of Christmas became a time for marking the end of the season, a time for both taking down Christmas decorations and for one last holiday hurrah.

The 12th Night has traditionally been celebrated by taking down Christmas decorations and eating whatever is edible from them—wreaths and trees often contained fruits and nuts for decoration and consumption. This tradition was coupled with other foods and drink. The King Cake is traditionally served on this Night, as is a drink called Lamb's Wool, a strong ale with spices. The King cake usually has something baked into it, a pea, twig, little figurine, etc. The one who gets this in their slice is "the king" and possibly a kind of MC for the Night of revelry.

And there was to be revelry on the scale of Mardi Gras. After all, just like Mardi Gras, "12th Night" was one last party before a serious season was to commence. In Early Modern Europe, these were times for blowing off steam and practicing a kind of festive inversion to subvert the normal order. That a fancy way of saying that everyone got a kick out of crossdressing and telling rude jokes in public.

If you are familiar with Shakespeare's play "12th Night," you might remember that it is also called "What You Will," and it has nothing to do with 12th Night, except that it became a racy and anti-Puritan favorite for performing during 12th night celebrations.

However, the 12th Night is made tricky by the fact that some people have counted days from sunup to sundown instead of calendar days, so 12th Night for some lands on Epiphany, instead of the Night preceding it. In places like Ireland and Spain, this has led to slightly more religious observations, usually with references to the Magi, who, of course, didn't show up at the stable right away. In Spain, the day is called "Cabalgata de Reyes," and in Ireland, the Three Magi are placed in the manger for the day.

The 16th century Elizabeth England was perhaps the high point for the holiday that we now associate with taking down the last vestiges of Christmas. And this, because a council called concerning possibly amorous monks helped cement "Christmastide" as a season that culminates on this day, the 12th day of Christmas.

The reading for this, the 12th day of Christmas, comes from William Butler Yeats, "The Magi."

Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,

And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 5th of January 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by the uncontrollable mystery that is Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember…the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.