Tagged: Twelfth Night

Jan 05

Twelfth Night




I still can’t believe it’s 2012. I should probably be conducting an annual audit of crafting done, projects tackled, targets achieved, areas for improvement. Well, I hope you’ll forgive me. As it’s Twelfth Night (the end of the 12 days of Christmas) and because I’m an incorrigible collector of trivia (and also because I’m really not in the mood for searing self-scrutiny) I would like to turn the spotlight instead on the intriguing qualities of the number twelve, just before the clock strikes midnight.

There’s something truly compelling about twelve. Would ten red roses be as pleasing? I don’t think so. How would your clock face look divided into, say, eight? Plain wrong, I say. Would you want to buy your eggs in tens or twenties? No, me neither. It has to be by the dozen. Or half-dozen.

The pull of twelve goes back a long way, all the way to our earliest myths, legends and belief systems. The pantheon of principal Greek gods, for example, numbered twelve, with Hercules performing twelve labours (some days, I think I know how he felt). The Chinese and the Western zodiacs contain twelve signs each. Twelve is sacred in the Abrahamic religions  (twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples of Jesus). Chief Norse god Odin had twelve sons. Twelve knights sat round King Arthur’s round table.

Twelve months form the basis of most calendrical systems.Twelve inches go into a foot, three of those making that esteemed measurement of cloth, the yard. Now, where would we all be without that? I happen to switch between metric and imperial when sewing (do you too?) but I’ll gloss over that. A dozen is a venerable old unit of trade (how many bottles in a case of wine, do you think?) and you can still purchase items in quantities of 12 x 12, termed a gross (a measurement presumably coined by a grocer… ouch!). I need hardly remind you that in Blighty’s old monetary system we used to have 12 pence in a shilling. It still mystifies me that people ever got the right change. Anyway, we can trace a lot of that 12-based counting and measuring (weights, hours etc) to the Ancient Mesopotamians. Shame we can’t ask them why.

I’ll spare you the geometrical details – decagons (12-sided polygons) and dodecahedrons (12-faced polyhedrons) –  because I’m keen to move on to some Old English etymology. Our word twelve comes from the Germanic compound ‘twalif’ – ‘two left’ – meaning that there are two left over if you subtract ten. Isn’t that neat? And more than a little strange, when you think about it: that we should be so deeply entranced by arrangements of twelve and yet define that number by ten. Go figure. Count it out on your fingers if it’ll help.

My younger son was born at the very tail end of 1999 so is almost always the same age as the year we’re in, which is handy. Last month his 12 birthday candles were arranged on his round birthday cake like a clock face – how else? My big son, who’s now studying Further Maths (a source of both mystification and pride to me because I’m relatively innumerate) long ago chanted his numbers as a typical toddler will, but with the added delight of backforming his tens from twenties, thirties etc so that  eleven became ‘onety-one’ and twelve ‘onety-two’. How beautifully logical.

Anyway, I wish you a very happy and fulfilling Twenty Onety-Two. If you’re also a maker, may the power of twelves strengthen your crafting arm and imbue you with creativity, focus,  determination, and (perhaps most importantly in these tricky economic times) all the commercial nous of a Mesopotamian grocer.

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