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While most of us spent today hoovering up pine needles and recycling Christmas cards, a group of actors in London marked the Twelfth Night by rowing around on the Thames, feeding hidden peas to unsuspecting tourists and toasting a pub. 

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A bell is ringing quietly on the south bank of the Thames, a stone’s throw from the Tate Modern gallery. Among the throng of tourists, a little bell ringer not more than four years old draws the crowd in the direction of London Bridge, his spare hand tucked firmly into his mother’s. They proceed slowly until they are standing outside Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, where others have already gathered. They are waiting for the Holly Man, whose arrival on the south bank has, for the past 20 years, signalled the start of the Twelfth Night festival.

This small, strange festival of tradition is the work of a group of professional actors called The Lion’s Part. For the past two decades, they have been marking the end of the Christmas season on 5 January by dressing up, dancing and singing. And the festival, which used to be seen only by confused passers by, has now attracted a small-but-faithful following.

The Holly Man arrives on a Thames Waterman Cutter, a 34-feet long row boat known as the Trinity Tide, which also featured in the opening of the Globe and as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant. He is decked out like a Christmas tree, covered in branches from a fir, holly and ivy. His face is painted green and he wears a holly crown, a look disturbingly reminiscent of Old Gregg, the creepy half man half fish character from the Mighty Boosh. The Holly Man is just one version of the green man that appears in a whole host of English customs and other cultures around the world. Known at times as Jack o’the Green, the May King, Puck, Viridios and Pan, among other names, the green man is typically a symbol of rebirth.

Today, the Holly Man’s first act is to “wassail” the boat that delivered him to shore. According to the festival programme, the wassail comes from an old tradition whereby arguments between friends were mended by drinking ale. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon “waes hal”, meaning “I give you health”. With the audience’s help, he wassails the Globe and a nearby tree. “Here’s to this little apple tree! Long may it bear hatfuls, capfuls, and a little heap under the stairs!” A wassail bowl full of ale or cider is sloshed about during each toast.

Dancing follows and then a play, which takes place somewhat incongruously outside Pizza Express. At the end of the play, the troupe gives out Twelfth Cakes, the recipe for which dates back to 1803. A bean and a pea are concealed within two of the cakes; those who find them are crowned King and Queen respectively. A woman cries out that she has the bean and, in true pantomime-like fashion, is crowned the King. Nobody comes forward with the pea, so, after an appeal from the actors, an American tourist volunteers. Her friends are delighted to see her don a tall, pointed crown of leaves, and take her place by the Holly Man’s side.

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The King and Queen are whisked off on a procession through Borough Market to the George Inn pub. The little bell ringer, whose name, it turns out, is Peter, plays by the side of the road, bored now that he no longer has a role.

While the group makes its way through the market, a lone figure dress in a distinctive mammers’ coat, covered with different coloured strips of material, appears at the George. She has been sent ahead with the explicit instruction of buying the King and Queen a pint of lager and a lemonade, partly as thanks for being good sports, but also in case the wassail bowl needs a top up. This is her nineteenth year of performing in the festival. Has anything changed in that time? “No,” she says. “The only thing that’s different is the size of the audience.”

In the middle of the courtyard outside the George sits a Kissing Wishing Tree, which, we’re told, is what used to be made at Christmas before pine trees were introduced in 1840. A sign next to the tree urges people to tie a ribbon on one of its branches, “make a wish… and kiss”.

The procession arrives at the George an hour and a half after the start of the festival, yet it is only now that the real party begins. The setting suits, it being London’s only surviving galleried coaching inn, imbued with visible history. Punters lean over the railings on the upper floors, watching the Holly Man, King, Queen and their odd band of followers pirouette into the courtyard. The lead characters clamber up onto one of the picnic tables next to the Kissing Wishing Tree. Another wassail is said to the George and the King and Queen are formally thanked for taking part. Sure enough, lager is discreetly poured into the wassail bowl just in time for this final decree.

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One of the players announces that the festivities will continue in the form of drinking, dancing and storytelling in the pub – and then the Holly Man, King and Queen are finally allowed to disband. “Right, I’m off to scare some people,” says the Holly Man, before disappearing into the crowd.

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