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Twelfth Night
Mervyn Clitheroe's Twelfth Night party,
by "Phiz"
Observed byChristians
Significanceevening prior to Epiphany
ObservancesSinging Christmas carols, chalking the door, merrymaking, having one's house blessed, attending church services
Date5 or 6 January
Related toTwelve Days of Christmas

Twelfth Night is a festival in some branches of Christianity that takes place on the last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas, marking the coming of the Epiphany. Different traditions mark the date of Twelfth Night on either 5 January or 6 January, depending on which day one considers to be the first of the Twelve Days: 25 or 26 December.

A belief has arisen in modern times, in some English-speaking countries, that it is unlucky to leave Christmas decorations hanging after Twelfth Night, a tradition originally attached to the festival of Candlemas (2 February), which celebrates the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.[1] Other popular Twelfth Night customs include singing Christmas carols, chalking the door, having one's house blessed, merrymaking, as well as attending church services.[2][3]


In most Western ecclesiastical traditions, Christmas Day is considered the "First Day of Christmas" and the Twelve Days are 25 December – 5 January, inclusive,[4] making Twelfth Night on 5 January. However, in some traditions, days are counted as beginning at sundown, thus making 26 December the first full day of Christmas, putting Twelfth Night on 6 January.[5] In these traditions, Twelfth Night is the same as Epiphany and is also known as the "Thirteenth Day"[6] However, some churches that fall in the latter category consider Twelfth Night to be the eve of the Twelfth Day (in the same way that Christmas Eve comes before Christmas), and thus consider Twelfth Night to be on 5 January.[7]

Bruce Forbes writes:

In 567 the Council of Tours proclaimed that the entire period between Christmas and Epiphany should be considered part of the celebration, creating what became known as the twelve days of Christmas, or what the English called Christmastide. On the last of the twelve days, called Twelfth Night, various cultures developed a wide range of additional special festivities. The variation extends even to the issue of how to count the days. If Christmas Day is the first of the twelve days, then Twelfth Night would be on January 5, the eve of Epiphany. If December 26, the day after Christmas, is the first day, then Twelfth Night falls on January 6, the evening of Epiphany itself.[8]

The Church of England, Mother Church of the Anglican Communion, celebrates Twelfth Night on the 5th and "refers to the night before Epiphany, the day when the nativity story tells us that the wise men visited the infant Jesus".[9][10][11]

Origins and history

Wassailing apple trees on the twelfth night to ensure a good harvest, a tradition in Maplehurst, West Sussex
A Spanish Roscón de reyes, or Kings' ring. This size, approx. 50 cm (20 in) diameter, usually serves 8 people. This pastry is just one of the many types baked around the world for celebrations during the Twelve Days of Christmas and Twelfth Night.

In medieval and Tudor England, Candlemas traditionally marked the end of the Christmas season,[12] although later, Twelfth Night came to signal the end of Christmastide, with a new but related season of Epiphanytide running until Candlemas.[13] A popular Twelfth Night tradition was to have a bean and pea hidden inside a Twelfth-night cake; the "man who finds the bean in his slice of cake becomes King for the night while the lady who finds a pea in her slice of cake becomes Queen for the night."[14] Following this selection, Twelfth Night parties would continue and would include the singing of Christmas carols, as well as feasting.[14]


Food and drink are the centre of the celebrations in modern times, and all of the most traditional ones go back many centuries. The punch called wassail is consumed especially on Twelfth Night, but throughout Christmas time, especially in the UK, and door-to-door wassailing (similar to singing Christmas carols) was common up until the 1950s.[15] Around the world, special pastries, such as the tortell and king cake, are baked on Twelfth Night, and eaten the following day for the Feast of the Epiphany celebrations. In English and French custom, the Twelfth-cake was baked to contain a bean and a pea, so that those who received the slices containing them should be respectively designated king and queen of the night's festivities.[16]

In parts of Kent, there is a tradition that an edible decoration would be the last part of Christmas to be removed in the Twelfth Night and shared amongst the family.[17]

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London has had a tradition since 1795 of providing a Twelfth Night cake. The will of Robert Baddeley made a bequest of £100 to provide cake and punch every year for the company in residence at the theatre on 6 January. The tradition still continues.[18]

In Ireland, it is still the tradition to place the statues of the Three Kings in the crib on Twelfth Night or, at the latest, the following Day, Little Christmas.

In colonial America, a Christmas wreath was always left up on the front door of each home, and when taken down at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, any edible portions would be consumed with the other foods of the feast. The same held true in the 19th–20th centuries with fruits adorning Christmas trees. Fresh fruits were hard to come by, and were therefore considered fine and proper gifts and decorations for the tree, wreaths, and home. Again, the tree would be taken down on Twelfth Night, and such fruits, along with nuts and other local produce used, would then be consumed.

Modern American Carnival traditions shine most brightly in New Orleans. In the mid-twentieth century friends gathered for weekly king cake parties. Whoever got the slice with the "king", usually in the form of a miniature baby doll (symbolic of the Christ Child, "Christ the King"), hosted the next week's party. Traditionally, this was a bean for the king and a pea for the queen.[19] Parties centered around king cakes are no longer common and king cake today is usually brought to the work place or served at parties, the recipient of the plastic baby being obligated to bring the next king cake to the next function.

In the eastern Alps, a tradition called Perchtenlaufen exists. Two to three hundred masked young men rush about the streets with whips and bells driving out evil spirits.[12] In Nuremberg, until 1616, children frightened spirits away by running through the streets and knocking loudly at doors.[12] In some countries, the Twelfth Night and Epiphany mark the start of the Carnival season, which lasts through Mardi Gras Day.

In Spain, Twelfth Night is called Cabalgata de Reyes ("Parade of Kings"), and historically the "kings" would go through towns and hand out sweets.[15]

In France, Gateau des Rois ("Kings' Cakes") are eaten all month long. The cakes vary depending on the region; in northern France, it is called a galette and is filled with frangipane, fruit, or chocolate. In the south, it is more of a brioche with candied fruit.[15]


Twelfth Night in the Netherlands became so secularized, rowdy and boisterous that public celebrations were banned from the church.[20]

Old Twelfth Night

In some places, particularly southwest England, Old Twelfth Night is still celebrated on 17 January.[21][22] This continues the custom of the Apple Wassail on the date that corresponded to 6 January on the Julian calendar at the time of the change in calendars enacted by the Calendar Act of 1750.[23]

In literature

William Shakespeare wrote the play Twelfth Night, circa 1601.

Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night, or What You Will was written to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment. The earliest known performance took place at Middle Temple Hall, one of the Inns of Court, on Candlemas night, 2 February 1602.[24] The play has many elements that are reversed, in the tradition of Twelfth Night, such as a woman Viola dressing as a man, and a servant Malvolio imagining that he can become a nobleman.

Ben Jonson's The Masque of Blackness was performed on 6 January 1605 at the Banqueting House in Whitehall. It was originally entitled The Twelvth Nights Revells. The accompanying Masque, The Masque of Beauty was performed in the same court the Sunday night after the Twelfth Night in 1608.[25]

Robert Herrick's poem Twelfe-Night, or King and Queene, published in 1648, describes the election of king and queen by bean and pea in a plum cake, and the homage done to them by the draining of wassail bowls of "lamb's-wool", a drink of sugar, nutmeg, ginger and ale.[26]

Charles Dickens' 1843 A Christmas Carol briefly mentions Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present visiting a children's Twelfth Night party.

In Chapter 6 of Harrison Ainsworth's 1858 novel Mervyn Clitheroe, the eponymous hero is elected King of festivities at the Twelfth Night celebrations held in Tom Shakeshaft's barn, by receiving the slice of plum cake containing the bean; his companion Cissy obtains the pea and becomes queen, and they are seated together in a high corner to view the proceedings. The distribution has been rigged to prevent another person gaining the role. The festivities include country dances, and the introduction of a "Fool Plough", a plough decked with ribands brought into the barn by a dozen mummers together with a grotesque "Old Bessie" (played by a man) and a Fool dressed in animal skins with a fool's hat. The mummers carry wooden swords and perform revelries. The scene in the novel is illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). In the course of the evening, the fool's antics cause a fight to break out, but Mervyn restores order. Three bowls of gin punch are disposed of, and at eleven o'clock the young men make the necessary arrangements to see the young ladies safely home across the fields.[27]

See also


  1. ^ "Of late years a belief has grown up that it is unlucky to leave [evergreens] hanging after Epiphany Eve (5 January), but this seems to be a modern notion [...] The older tradition was that they must come down by Candlemas, the day on which the wider ecclesiastical Christmas season ends." – Radford, ed. Cole (1961). Encyclopaedia of Superstitions. London: Hutchinson.
  2. ^ Mangan, Louise; Wyse, Nancy; Farr, Lori (2001). Rediscovering the Seasons of the Christian Year. Wood Lake Publishing Inc. p. 69. ISBN 9781551454986. Epiphany is often heralded by "Twelfth Night" celebrations (12 days after Christmas), on the evening before the Feast of Epiphany. Some Christian communities prepare Twelfth Night festivities with dram, singing, rituals - and food! ... Sometimes several congregations walk in lines from church to church, carrying candles to symbolize the light of Christ shining and spreading. Other faith communities move from house to house, blessing each home as they search for the Christ cite.citation{font-style:inherit}.mw-parser-output q{quotes:"\"""\"""'""'"}.mw-parser-output code.cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:inherit;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-lock-free a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .cs1-lock-registration a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration{color:#555}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription span,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration span{border-bottom:1px dotted;cursor:help}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration,.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-right{padding-right:0.2em}
  3. ^ Pennick, Nigel (21 May 2015). Pagan Magic of the Northern Tradition: Customs, Rites, and Ceremonies. Inner Traditions – Bear & Company. p. 176. ISBN 9781620553909. On Twelfth Night in Germanvspeaking countries, the Sternsinger ("star singers") go around to houses carrying a paper or wooden star on a pole. They sing an Epiphany carol, then one of them writes in chalk over the door a formula consisting of the initials of the Three Wise Men in the Nativity story, caspar, Melchior, and balthasar, with corsses between them and the year date on either side; for example: 20 +M+B 15. This is said to protect the house and its inhabitants until the next Epiphany.
  4. ^ Hatch, Jane M. (1978). The American Book of Days. Wilson. ISBN 9780824205935. January 5th: Twelfth Night or Epiphany Eve. Twelfth Night, the last evening of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, has been observed with festive celebration ever since the Middle Ages.
  5. ^ Bratcher, Dennis. "The Season of Epiphany". The Voice. Christian Resource Institute. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  6. ^ Van Wagenberg-Ter Hoeven, Anke A. (1993). "The Celebration of Twelfth Night in Netherlandish Art". Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art. 22 (1/2): 65–96. doi:10.2307/3780806. JSTOR 3780806.
  7. ^ "Epiphany". Christ Lutheran Church of Staunton, Virginia. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  8. ^ Forbes, Bruce (2008). Christmas: A Candid History. University of California Press. p. 27. ISBN 9780520258020.
  9. ^ Beckford, Martin (6 January 2009). "Christmas ends in confusion over when Twelfth Night falls". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 26 May 2010.
  10. ^ "Twelve days of Christmas". Full Homely Divinity. Retrieved 2 January 2015. We prefer, like good Anglicans, to go with the logic of the liturgy and regard January 5th as the Twelfth Day of Christmas and the night that ends that day as Twelfth Night. That does make Twelfth Night the Eve of the Epiphany, which means that, liturgically, a new feast has already begun.
  11. ^ Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 1993. ...the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking.
  12. ^ a b c Miles, Clement A.. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance. Courier Dover Publications, 1976. ISBN 0-486-23354-5. Robert Herrick (1591–1674) in his poem "Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve" writes:
    "Down with the rosemary, and so
    Down with the bays and mistletoe;
    Down with the holly, ivy, all,
    Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall"
    According to the Pelican Shakespeare anthology, It was written for a private performance for Elizabeth I in 1601.
    As Herrick’s poem records, the eve of Candlemas (the day before 2 February) was the day on which Christmas decorations of greenery were removed from people's homes; for any traces of berries, holly and so forth will bring death among the congregation before another year is out.
  13. ^ Davidson, Clifford (5 December 2016). Festivals and Plays in Late Medieval Britain. Taylor & Francis. p. 32. ISBN 9781351936613. Playing seems to have continued after Twelfth Night, in the Epiphany season leading up to Candlemas on February 2, which sometimes was regarded as the last day of the Christmas season. We know that these weeks were an extension of the festive Christmas period.
  14. ^ a b Macclain, Alexia (4 January 2013). "Twelfth Night Traditions: A Cake, a Bean, and a King -". Smithsonian Libraries. Retrieved 5 January 2017. And what happens at a Twelfth Night party? According to the 1923 Dennison's Christmas Book, "there should be a King and a Queen, chosen by cutting a cake…" The Twelfth Night Cake has a bean and a pea baked into it. The man who finds the bean in his slice of cake becomes King for the night while the lady who finds a pea in her slice of cake becomes Queen for the night. The new King and Queen sit on a throne and "paper crowns, a scepter and, if possible, full regalia are given them." The party continues with games such as charades as well as eating, dancing, and singing carols. For large Twelfth Night celebrations, a costume party is suggested.
  15. ^ a b c Derry, Johanna (4 January 2016). "Let's bring back the glorious food traditions of Twelfth Night (largely, lots of cake)". The Telegraph. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  16. ^ Miles & John, Hadfield (1961). The Twelve Days of Christmas. London: Cassell & Company. p. 166.
  17. ^ Mark Esdale. "Main Page @ Bridge Farmers' Market".
  18. ^ "The Baddeley Cake". Drury Lane Theatrical Fund. Retrieved 30 November 2013.
  19. ^ MacClain, Alexia (4 January 2013). "Twelfth Night Traditions: A Cake, a Bean, and a King – Smithsonian Libraries Unbound". Unbound. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  20. ^ Hoeven, Anke A. van Wagenberg-ter (1993). "The Celebration of Twelfth Night in Netherlandish Art". Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art. 22 (1/2): 67. doi:10.2307/3780806. JSTOR 3780806.
  21. ^ Iain Hollingshead, Whatever happened to ... wassailing?, The Guardian, 23 December 2005, retrieved 23 May 2014
  22. ^ Xanthe Clay, Traditional cider: Here we come a-wassailing!, The Telegraph, 3 February 2011, retrieved 23 May 2014
  23. ^ Nick Easen, Wassailing the old English apple tree, BBC Travel, 16 January 2012
  24. ^ Shakespeare, William; Smith, Bruce R. (2001). Twelfth Night: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford/St Martin's. p. 2. ISBN 0-312-20219-9.
  25. ^ Herford, C. H. (1941). Percy & Evelyn Simpson, eds. Ben Jonson, Volume VII. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 169–201.CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter (link)
  26. ^ Herrick, Robert (1825). The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick. W. Pickering. p. 171.
  27. ^ Ainsworth, William Harrison (1858). Mervyn Clitheroe. G. Routledge & Company. pp. 41–55.

Further reading

  • "Christmas". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22 December 2005. Primarily subhead Popular Merrymaking under Liturgy and Custom.
  • Christmas Trivia edited by Jennie Miller Helderman, Mary Caulkins. Gramercy, 2002
  • Marix-Evans, Martin. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Peter Pauper Press, 2002
  • Bowler, Gerry. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. McClelland & Stewart, 2004
  • Collins, Ace. Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas. Zondervan, 2003
  • Wells, Robin Headlam. Shakespeare's Humanism. Cambridge University Press, 2006
  • Fosbrooke, Thomas Dudley c. 1810, Encyclopaedia of Antiquities (Publisher unknown)
  • J. Brand, 1813, Popular Antiquities, 2 Vols (London)
  • W. Hone, 1830, The Every-Day Book 3 Vols (London), cf Vol I pp 41–61.

Early English sources

(drawn from Hone's Every-Day Book, references as found):

  • Vox Graculi, 4to, 1623: 6 January, Masking in the Strand, Cheapside, Holbourne, or Fleet-street (London), and eating of spice-bread.
  • The Popish Kingdom, 'Naogeorgus': Baking of the twelfth-cake with a penny in it, the slices distributed to members of the household to give to the poor: whoever finds the penny is proclaimed king among them.
  • Nichols, Queen Elizabeth's Progresses: An entertainment at Sudley, temp. Elizabeth I, including Melibaeus king of the bean, and Nisa, queen of the pea.
  • Pinkerton, Ancient Scottish Poems: Letter from Sir Thomas Randolph to Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester dated 15 January 1563, mentioning that Lady Flemyng was Queen of the Beene on Twelfth-Day that year.
  • Ben Jonson, Christmas, His Masque (1616, published 1641): A character 'Baby-cake' is attended by an usher carrying a great cake with a beane and a pease.
  • Samuel Pepys, Diaries (1659/60): Epiphany Eve party, selecting of King and Queen by a cake (see King cake).

External links

7 Annotations

Tim Paul  •  Link

Surprisingly Sam calls the 7th January Twelfth Day. We would apply the title to the 6th - the Feast of the Epiphany.
Dickens, in a Christmas Carol, mentions the occasion being celebrated with a 'Twelfth Cake', as does Sam,but what did Pepys' games involve? In the 21st century the cake has been moved into December as a Christmas Cake.

Grahamt  •  Link

See 6th of January 1659/60 annotations:
There is a long discussion about 12th night and cakes, especially in continental Europe.
I was in Switzerland on 12th night this year, and there was no sign of 12th night celebrations, so perhaps it is a catholic thing, and has almost disappeared in protestant communities.

dirk  •  Link

12th night celebrations

In the central part of the Low Countries (now in Belgium) it was traditional to celebrate this on the first monday after January 6th. This day was known as 'Lost Monday' and closed a period of feasting and merriment. According to 16th century descriptions this was very much like 'Mardi Gras', involving mainly lots of drinking and 'doing' as many pubs as possible 'with the guys'. Traditionally the corporations offered a free meal to their members on that day (sausage on a 'plate' of hard bread).

Hannabella Powell  •  Link

If you read the diary, Pepys explains that they are celebrating on the 7th because in 1661, the 6th fell on a Sunday. The traditional 12th Night celebrations were a time for games, pranks and role playing featuring the Twelfth cake (like our fruit cake with a bean, pea and sometimes a clove baked into it. The cake is baked months in advance and soaked all the preceeding year with sack, rum or brandy). The reveler whose slice has the bean is to be treated like a king all night long, his every command to be obeyed. The pea indicates the lady who shall be the Queen, and if you read that same entry it appears that the pea had been divided in two when the cake was sliced and so that year there were 2 "Queens" presiding over the festivities. The clove, if used, indicated the Knave to keep the party jolly. At midnight or at the end of the party, the King's reign ended and he agreed to pay for next year's party and the Queen would bake the cake. During Pepys' time, the custom began to become popular of writing King, Queen, Knave on slips of paper with additional blanks containing wishes for the New Year. These were put into a hat and drawn out as they took their piece of cake. Pepys refers to this elsewhere.
In 18th Century Virginia there are several diaries describing these customs and in England from the 1790's sheets of Characters are printed each year to be cut and drawn from the hat with each guest having to assume that personna.
The French in Louisiana, when celebrating the Mardi Gras, bake "Babycakes" with a small doll in them for good luck. My Canadian Grandmother had a box of "charms" that she baked into our birthday cakes. Most of you have seen them in your Monopoly sets. Monopoly's inventor designed and tested the game in his kitchen and used what was handy for tokens---the same cake charms that where popularly sold in the 1920's.
All these practices have deep roots going back to ancient fertility celebrations.
Marcia Finger--Williamsburg, Virginia

Bushman  •  Link

When I was a boy in England the Christmas cake was baked some time ahead and soaked in Brandy. Inside my Mother inserted silver threepenny bits and you were favored to get one with your piece of cake.
This practice fell out of favor with my sisters when they were married as the metal for threepenny bits was changed from silver to a brass alloy that would discolour in the cake.

Pedro  •  Link

Twelfth night on board ship.

The Rev. Henry Teonge, chaplain of one of Charles's ships-of-war, describes Twelfth-Night on board:

'Wee had a great kake made, in which was put a beane for the king, a pease for the queen, a cloave for the knave, &c. The kake was cut into several pieces in the great cabin, and all put into a napkin, out of which every one took his piece as out of a lottery; then each piece is broaken to see what was in it, which caused much laughter, and more to see us tumble one over the other in the cabin, by reason of the ruff weather.'

The celebrated Lord Peterborough, then a youth, was one of the party on board this ship, as Lord Mordaunt.

Sandra LaRouche  •  Link

Mr. Pepys is to be thanked for the information provided here. I came upon your site while preparing for my own 12th Night Revel to be held 1/6/07. We shall have a bean, a pea and NOW a clove in the cake I am ordering, thanks to your information. I am wondering what's to prevent a man from getting the pea but then who cares! A Morris Dance side, the Capering Roisters, will come to dance as we wassail a newly planted grove of apple trees. I must go now to order my "kake".

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.


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