Two black iron wyverns stand guard outside the front door of the Castle whilst, when you step inside, two large terracotta ones turn round to look at you as you pass by into the Saloon. They are a heraldic symbol of Wessex and Wales, and 1,000 years ago flags with such golden dragons encouraged the Saxons into battle against the Vikings and are, of course, above all, associated with King Alfred the Great (of Wessex).

Inside the Saloon you now see again the portrait of the 3rd Earl, as the beautiful Christmas tree has just gone before Twelfth Night, January 6th, otherwise folklore says you risk bad luck. Epiphany marks the end of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” which were decreed by law by King Alfred the Great to be a holiday, “Holy days” and were to be taken by all by everyone from Christmas Day to Twelfth Night.

A coin depicting King Alfred (c.849-899)

Epiphany tart – there’s a recipe on p311 of ‘Christmas at Highclere’

In past times, the eve of Twelfth Night was one of celebration and as large a party as Christmas Day itself. In the West, it may be celebrated as the day the three Kings or Magi arrived with their gifts for baby Jesus. But the eastern churches celebrate it more for Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. The drinks served on this occasion were often hot and spicy recalling the spices brought by the Magi, with heavily fruited Twelfth night cakes and epiphany tarts with the pastry laid out in the shape of the star of Bethlehem.

Epiphany remains a national holiday in many parts of Europe though sadly not in England.

The Christmas tree has gone.

Sally and her team of elves are not on holiday. From the gardeners to the banqueting team, those in the office and the gift shop all kindly return to help to dismantle the garlands and trees. The different coloured baubles are sorted, packed away in old newspaper, labelled and stored again in Sally’s Sheds, all of which she has  carefully organised and labelled to make it easier for next year.

A beautiful early edition of ‘Twelfth Night’ in the Library

Despite its disappearance from the modern calendar, in this country at least, Twelfth Night is still part of our memory because of the William Shakespeare play of the same name. First performed on the eve of Epiphany in 1601, this comedy relies on confusion and mistaken identity taking the theme from these 12 days in which servants often dressed up as their masters, men as women and so forth, casting the normal order into confusion. Utterly embedded in the language and touchstones of his time, Shakespeare’s lines highlight the underlying themes of Twelfth Night “I say there is no darkness but ignorance” (The Fool).

Just as Epiphany welcomes the dawn and the light so, in the same way, the final scenes of the play allow the world to return to order, although the sense that “Nothing that is so, is so.” stays with audience.

January 6th is still celebrated in many countries as Dreikönigstag in Germany, Dia dos Reis or “Día de Reyes”  in South America, Theophany in Greece and there are other traditional customs  around the world. Perhaps it was a cheering moment in the darker days of winter, when we were closed off from the seasons and nature but as 2020 begins a moment of Epiphany might remain helpful for all us  –  the dawning of light, a revelation and a reminder of our heritage.