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Many of us, it turns out, have been counting the Twelve Days of Christmas in the wrong direction. According to Christian tradition, the count should begin on Christmas Day and conclude on Twelfth Night: Jan. 5 or 6, depending on how you count.
Twelfth Night is often bypassed in the United States, but will be celebrated in Salt Lake City Thursday, Jan. 6, with a concert by the early-music ensemble Sine Nomine Consort. Musicians will perform Renaissance and Baroque music on recorders, viols, percussion and harpsichord.
A quick refresher course on Twelfth Night observance shows there is plenty to celebrate. The holiday marks a confluence of several Christian traditions and some earlier ones, too.
Mary Johnson, who plays recorder in the consort, said the holiday celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem and is the time of Christmas gift-giving in many lands. It also marks Epiphany, which some Christian religions celebrate as an observance of the baptism of Jesus Christ and the beginning of his adult journey.
These religious elements melded in Europe with Pagan traditions of wintertime celebration, and a jolly night of feasting was the result, especially in England.
In good, lusty English fashion, those 12 days became a big party, Johnson said. "The partying included door-to-door wassailing, foods in abundance, hospitality at every level, singing, dancing, dramatics and usually a grand, final blow-out on the last evening," she said.
Shakepeare's comedy "Twelfth Night" is based on one of these rousing celebrations, which included a reversal in the roles of royalty and peasantry during an evening of revelry.
The local early-music concert will be a quieter affair, but still preserves some of Twelfth Night's sense of merry-making. "Celebrate Twelfth Night with Bells and Whistles" focuses on the ringing of bells on joyous occasions through music by John Dowland, J.C. Schickhardt, Thoinot Arbeau, Thomas Ravenscroft and traditional music from Germany, England and the United States.
The music will be played on instruments common during the 16th and 17th centuries. Singers will be featured on the English carol "Ding Dong Merrily on High" and other selections.
Marlin Haws, music director of All Saints Episcopal Church, sings tenor with the Sine Nomine Consort, an experience that differs from his usual musicmaking.
"Sometimes reading the Old English of the texts is challenging," Haws said, adding that performing early music has stretched his musicianship in new directions because of its rhythmic freedom and unusual harmonic progressions.
He thinks listeners will like the variety and beauty of the music. "[Early music] expands your musical experience and opens up opportunities to hear something different," he said.
Listeners are often surprised and fascinated by the recorders and viols played by members of the Sine Nomine Consort (the group's title is Latin for "without a name"). Before being introduced to early music played on period instruments, Haws was among those who connected the word "recorder" with the plastic whistles played by schoolchildren. Professional recorders are absolutely nothing like that, he said, noting their lovely, haunting tone.
Like recorders, viols come in a variety of sizes and pitch ranges. These bowed ancestors of today's violin, viola, cello and bass were popular in Renaissance times, when it was common for families to own a "chest of viols." The sets of fiddles in graduated sizes and pitch ranges provided family entertainment and fellowship during long winter evenings.
Perhaps the Twelfth Night concert will kindle some of that sense of festive merrymaking with friends and family. For Johnson, Twelfth Night observance is not so much about the day's profound religious connotations as it is about summing up the Twelve Days of Christmas and preparing to move on.
"For me, the reason for doing this concert is to give the Christmas Season its proper shape," she wrote in an e-mail. "The long Advent season of preparation (spiritual but also secular), Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and then a period of holidays, including family activities, New Year's. And, finally, the closing on Twelfth Night and life finally resumes."
Celebrate Twelfth Night with Bells and Whistles
Sine Nomine Consort will celebrate the traditional observance of the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem and the ending of the festive holiday season. Singers will join recorders, viols, guitar, harpsichord and percussion in seasonal and chamber music. Performers include Lisa Chaufty, Mary Johnson, Spencer Young, Marlin Haws, Jay Jordan, Herald Clark and VannessaBridge.
When • Thursday, Jan. 6, at 7:30 p.m.
Where • All Saints Episcopal Church, 1710 S. Foothill Blvd., Salt Lake City.
Admission • Free; reception to follow.