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Twelfth Night
Mervyn Clitheroe's Twelfth Night party,
by "Phiz"
Also calledEpiphany Eve
Observed byChristians
Significanceevening prior to Epiphany
Date5 or 6 January
Related to

Twelfth Night (also known as Epiphany Eve depending upon the tradition) is a Christian festival on the last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas, marking the coming of the Epiphany.[1] Different traditions mark the date of Twelfth Night as either 5 January or 6 January, depending on whether the counting begins on Christmas Day or 26 December.[2][3][4] January 6 is celebrated as the feast of Epiphany, which begins the Epiphanytide season.[5][6]

A superstition in some English-speaking countries suggests it is unlucky to leave Christmas decorations hanging after Twelfth Night, a tradition also variously attached to Candlemas (which marks the end of Epiphanytide on 2 February), as well as Good Friday, Shrove Tuesday, and Septuagesima.[7] Other popular customs include eating king cake, singing Christmas carols, chalking the door, having one's house blessed, merrymaking, and attending church services.[8][9]


In many Western ecclesiastical traditions such as the Lutheran and Anglican denominations of Christianity, Christmas Day is considered the "First Day of Christmas" and the Twelve Days are 25 December – 5 January, inclusive, making Twelfth Night on 5 January, which is Epiphany Eve.[1][10][11] In some customs, the Twelve Days of Christmas are counted from sundown on the evening of 25 December until the morning of 6 January, meaning that the Twelfth Night falls on the evening 5 January and the Twelfth Day falls on 6 January. However, in some church traditions only full days are counted, so that 5 January is counted as the Eleventh Day, 6 January as the Twelfth Day, and the evening of 6 January is counted as the Twelfth Night.[12] In these traditions, Twelfth Night is the same as Epiphany.[13][14] However, some 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.[15] The difficulty may come from the use of the words "eve" which is defined as "the day or evening before an event", however, especially in antiquated usage could be used to simply mean "evening".[16]

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.[17]

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".[18][10][19]

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 pastry is just one of the many types baked around the world for celebrations during the Twelve Days of Christmas and Twelfth Night.

In 567 A.D, the Council of Tours "proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast."[20][21][22][23] Christopher Hill, as well as William J. Federer, states that this was done to solve the "administrative problem for the Roman Empire as it tried to coordinate the solar Julian calendar with the lunar calendars of its provinces in the east."[24][25]

In medieval and Tudor England, Candlemas traditionally marked the end of the Christmas season,[26][27] although later, Twelfth Night came to signal the end of Christmastide, with a new but related season of Epiphanytide running until Candlemas.[28] 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."[29] Following this selection, Twelfth Night parties would continue and would include the singing of Christmas carols, as well as feasting.[29]


Food and drink are the centre of the celebrations in modern times. All of the most traditional ones go back many centuries. The punch called wassail is consumed especially on Twelfth Night and throughout Christmas time, especially in the UK, and door-to-door wassailing (similar to singing Christmas carols) was common up until the 1950s.[30] 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.[31]

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.[32]

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 continues.[33]

In Ireland, it is still the tradition to place the statues of the Three Kings in the crib on the 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. 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 the Twelfth Night, and such fruits, along with nuts and other local produce used, would then be consumed.

Modern American Carnival traditions are seen across former French colonies, most notably in New Orleans and Mobile. 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.[34] Parties centred around king cakes are no longer common and king cake today is usually brought to the workplace or served at parties, the recipient of the plastic baby being obligated to bring the next king cake to the next function. In some countries, 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.[30]

In France, La Galette des Rois ("Kings' Cake") is 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.[30]


Twelfth Night in the Netherlands became so secularised, rowdy, and boisterous that public celebrations were banned by the Church.[35]

Old Twelfth Night

In some places, particularly South West England, Old Twelfth Night is still celebrated on 17 January.[36][37] 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.[38]

In literature

William Shakespeare wrote the play Twelfth Night, circa 1601.

It is unknown whether Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night, or What You Will was written to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment, since there is no record of the circumstances of its composition.[39] The earliest known performance took place at Middle Temple Hall, one of the Inns of Court, on Candlemas night, 2 February 1602.[40] 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 Twelfth Nights Revells. The accompanying Masque, The Masque of Beauty was performed in the same court the Sunday night after the Twelfth Night in 1608.[41]

Robert Herrick's poem Twelfth-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.[42]

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 from gaining the role. The festivities include country dances, 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. At eleven o'clock, the young men make the necessary arrangements to see the young ladies safely home across the fields.[43]

"The Dead" — the final, novella-length story in James Joyce's 1914 collection Dubliners — opens on Twelfth Night, or Epiphany Eve, and extends into the early morning hours of Epiphany itself. Critics and writers consider the story "just about the finest short story in the English language"[44] and "one of the greatest short stories ever written".[45] Its adaptations include a play, a Broadway musical, and two films. The story begins at the bustling and sumptuous annual dance hosted by Kate Morkan and Julia Morkan, aunts to Gabriel Conroy, the main character. Throughout the festivities, a series of minor obligations and awkward encounters leaves Gabriel with a sense of unease, inducing self-doubt, or at least doubt in the person he presents himself as. This unease sharpens during a dinner speech in which Gabriel grandiosely ponders whether because "...we are living in a skeptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age", the generation currently coming of age in Ireland will begin to "lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humor which belonged to an older day." High spirits and singing soon resume. Gabriel and his wife Gretta depart for their hotel in the early morning hours. This destination for Gabriel kindles both erotic possibility and deep love. However, at the hotel, Gretta, moved by a song they had just heard sung at the party, offers a tearful, long-withheld revelation that momentarily shatters Gabriel's feelings of warmth, leaving him shaken and bewildered. After Gretta drifts off to sleep, Gabriel, still rapt in the emotional wake of her revelation, gazes out the window at the falling snow and experiences a profound and unifying epiphany, one that reconciles the fears, doubts, and façades that had haunted him throughout the evening and, he seems to recognise, throughout his life to that point.[46]

See also


  1. ^ a b 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.
  2. ^ "Epiphany: Should Christmas decorations come down on 6 January?". BBC News. 6 January 2017. Retrieved 9 January 2021.
  3. ^ Carter, Michael. "Why it is time for an epiphany over Christmas decorations". The Tablet. Retrieved 9 January 2021.
  4. ^ "The roots and traditions of Nollaig na mBan".
  5. ^ "Epiphany: Should Christmas decorations come down on 6 January?". BBC News. 6 January 2017. The Church of England celebrates the season of Epiphany from 6 January to 2 February.
  6. ^ Arcadi, James M. (2 February 2021). "Candlemas for the Souls". All Souls Anglican Church. The Feast of the Presentation is considered by many to be the close of the Christmas to Epiphany Season.
  7. ^ William Alexander Barrett (1868). Flowers and Festivals, Or, Directions for the Floral Decoration of Churches. Rivingtons. pp. 170–174.
  8. ^ 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 drama, 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 child.
  9. ^ 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 German-speaking 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 crosses 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.
  10. ^ a b "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. ^ "Epiphany at Home". Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. 4 January 2022. Twelfth Night (January 5), Epiphany of Our Lord (January 6), or another day during the time after Epiphany offers an occasion for gathering with friends and family members for a blessing for the home.
  12. ^ Bratcher, Dennis. "The Season of Epiphany". The Voice. Christian Resource Institute. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ "The roots and traditions of Nollaig na mBan".
  15. ^ "Epiphany". Christ Lutheran Church of Staunton, Virginia. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  16. ^ "eve noun - Definition, pictures, pronunciation and usage notes | Oxford Advanced American Dictionary at". Retrieved 9 January 2021.
  17. ^ Forbes, Bruce (2008). Christmas: A Candid History. University of California Press. p. 27. ISBN 9780520258020.
  18. ^ Beckford, Martin (6 January 2009). "Christmas ends in confusion over when Twelfth Night falls". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 5 January 2010. Retrieved 26 May 2010.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ Fr. Francis X. Weiser. "Feast of the Nativity". Catholic Culture. The Council of Tours (567) proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast. The Council of Braga (563) forbade fasting on Christmas Day.
  21. ^ Fox, Adam (19 December 2003). "'Tis the season". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 December 2014. Around the year 400 the feasts of St Stephen, John the Evangelist and the Holy Innocents were added on succeeding days, and in 567 the Council of Tours ratified the enduring 12-day cycle between the nativity and the epiphany.
  22. ^ Hynes, Mary Ellen (1993). Companion to the Calendar. Liturgy Training Publications. p. 8. ISBN 9781568540115. In the year 567 the church council of Tours called the 13 days between December 25 and January 6 a festival season.
    Martindale, Cyril Charles (1908). "Christmas". The Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent. Retrieved 15 December 2014. The Second Council of Tours (can. xi, xvii) proclaims, in 566 or 567, the sanctity of the "twelve days" from Christmas to Epiphany, and the duty of Advent fast; …and that of Braga (563) forbids fasting on Christmas Day. Popular merry-making, however, so increased that the "Laws of King Cnut", fabricated c. 1110, order a fast from Christmas to Epiphany.
  23. ^ Bunson, Matthew (21 October 2007). "Origins of Christmas and Easter holidays". Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). Retrieved 17 December 2014. The Council of Tours (567) decreed the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany to be sacred and especially joyous, thus setting the stage for the celebration of the Lord's birth...
  24. ^ Hill, Christopher (2003). Holidays and Holy Nights: Celebrating Twelve Seasonal Festivals of the Christian Year. Quest Books. p. 91. ISBN 9780835608107. This arrangement became an administrative problem for the Roman Empire as it tried to coordinate the solar Julian calendar with the lunar calendars of its provinces in the east. While the Romans could roughly match the months in the two systems, the four cardinal points of the solar year—the two equinoxes and solstices—still fell on different dates. By the time of the first century, the calendar date of the winter solstice in Egypt and Palestine was eleven to twelve days later than the date in Italy. As a result, the Incarnation came to be celebrated on different days in different parts of the Empire. The Western Church, in its desire to be universal, eventually took them both—one became Christmas, one Epiphany—with a resulting twelve days in between. Over time this hiatus became invested with specific Christian meaning. The Church gradually filled these days with saints, some connected to the birth narratives in Gospels (Holy Innocents' Day, December 28, in honour of the infants slaughtered by Herod; St. John the Evangelist, "the Beloved", December 27; St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, December 26; the Holy Family, December 31; the Virgin Mary, January 1). In 567, the Council of Tours declared the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany to become one unified festal cycle.
    Federer, William J. (6 January 2014). "On the 12th Day of Christmas". American Minute. Retrieved 25 December 2014. In 567 AD, the Council of Tours ended a dispute. Western Europe celebrated Christmas, December 25, as the holiest day of the season... but Eastern Europe celebrated Epiphany, January 6, recalling the Wise Men's visit and Jesus' baptism. It could not be decided which day was holier, so the Council made all 12 days from December 25 to January 6 "holy days" or "holidays," These became known as "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
  25. ^ Kirk Cameron, William Federer (6 November 2014). Praise the Lord. Trinity Broadcasting Network. Event occurs at 01:15:14. Archived from the original on 25 December 2014. Retrieved 25 December 2014. Western Europe celebrated Christmas December 25 as the holiest day. Eastern Europe celebrated January 6 the Epiphany, the visit of the Wise Men, as the holiest day... and so they had this council and they decided to make all twelve days from December 25 to January 6 the Twelve Days of Christmas.
  27. ^ 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.
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^ 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.
  30. ^ a b c Derry, Johanna (4 January 2016). "Let's bring back the glorious food traditions of Twelfth Night (largely, lots of cake)". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 11 January 2022. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  31. ^ Miles & John, Hadfield (1961). The Twelve Days of Christmas. London: Cassell & Company. p. 166.
  32. ^ Mark Esdale. "Main Page @ Bridge Farmers' Market".
  33. ^ "The Baddeley Cake". Drury Lane Theatrical Fund. Retrieved 30 November 2013.
  34. ^ 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.
  35. ^ 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.
  36. ^ Iain Hollingshead, Whatever happened to ... wassailing?, The Guardian, 23 December 2005. Retrieved 23 May 2014
  37. ^ Xanthe Clay, Traditional cider: Here we come a-wassailing!, The Telegraph, 3 February 2011. Retrieved 23 May 2014
  38. ^ Nick Easen, Wassailing the old English apple tree, BBC Travel, 16 January 2012
  39. ^ White, R.S. (2014). "The Critical Backstory" in Twelfth Night: A Critical Reader ed. Findlay and Oakley-Brown. London: Bloomsbury. pp. 27–28. ISBN 9781441128782.
  40. ^ Shakespeare, William; Smith, Bruce R. (2001). Twelfth Night: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford/St Martin's. p. 2. ISBN 0-312-20219-9.
  41. ^ Herford, C. H. (1941). Percy Simpson; Evelyn Simpson (eds.). Ben Jonson. Vol. VII. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 169–201.
  42. ^ Herrick, Robert (1825). The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick. W. Pickering. p. 171.
  43. ^ Ainsworth, William Harrison (1858). Mervyn Clitheroe. G. Routledge & Company. pp. 41–55.
  44. ^ Barry, Dan (26 June 2014). "Singular Collection, Multiple Mysteries". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 June 2018.
  45. ^ "An Exploration of 'The Dead'". Joyce's Dublin. UCD Humanities Institute. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  46. ^ Joyce, James. "Dubliners".

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 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

14 Annotations

First Reading

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".

Second Reading

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

Pepys doesn't mention playing SNAPDRAGON, but since it was played in Elizabethan times through to the Victorians, I assume he was familiar with this one ... which you can also play [I recommend WITH ADULTS only!]. For a picture of how the flames should look, and a testimonial that no one got hurt and they did indeed eat the nuts and raisins, see:…

Briefly, Snapdragon:
While we cannot recommend anyone play with fire in their own home, here’s how the Gastro Obscura team played snapdragon.

½ cup raisins
½ cup almonds
¾ cup, plus ¼ cup of around 50 percent alcohol, such as brandy or rum

1. Take a large, flat plate, and sprinkle the raisins and almonds on top, making sure to space them out.

2. Pick where you’ll play the game. A dim-to-dark room or outside at night is best for seeing the blue flames. Make sure wherever you set the plate is free of any tablecloth or flammable materials.

3. Pour the ¾ cup of alcohol onto the plate. Add more if the bottom of the plate is not thoroughly covered. Then, heat the other ¼ cup in a pot on the stove until it sizzles and steams. (This volatilizes the alcohol, increasing the amount of vapor and making it easier to set alight.)

4. Carefully pour the hot liquor into a mug or a bowl, making sure not to burn yourself.

5. Gather a large spoon, matches or a lighter, the mug, and the salt.

6. When ready to start playing, pour the liquor into the large spoon and set it alight. Then, carefully tip the flaming liquor onto the plate, letting it light the rest of the alcohol. It may not take right away. Reheat more alcohol and try again if it doesn’t work the first time.

7. Once the blue flames are leaping, players can reach for the raisins and almonds. Pinches of salt will make the fire briefly burn yellow and flare. Take care, since the plate will gradually heat up.

8. To refresh the flames, carefully stir the mix with the spoon, or add more alcohol. Eat what you pull from the fire.

Good luck!

Third Reading

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

We aways had gingerbread men on Twelfth Night when I was a child:

'No confectionery symbolises the holidays quite like gingerbread. ...

'Gingerbread may be an indulgent treat if you’re only considering the calorie content. But it’s Christmas, and indulging in a treat can be a healthy part of life –- especially when this classic biscuit includes many nutrients that may benefit your health.

'Gingerbread is believed to have originated in its earliest form in 2400 BC in Greece. Surprisingly, this recipe didn’t contain any ginger -– it was a honey cake.

'But the version of gingerbread we know today didn’t take shape until the 11th century when the Crusaders returned from the Middle East with ginger in hand. Ginger was first cultivated in ancient China, where it was commonly used as a medical treatment.

'This led to the cooks of nobility in Europe to experiment with ginger. As ginger and other spices became more affordable in the mid-1600s, gingerbread caught on.

'The original term “gingerbread” referred to preserved ginger, which was developed into a confection made with honey and spices. ...

'Queen Elizabeth I is credited with creating the first gingerbread men. She would delight visiting dignitaries with gingerbread figures baked into their likeness. ...

'Ginger has a long history of use in various forms of traditional and alternative medicine. Research shows it may aid in digestion, reduce nausea and help fight the common cold and flu.
'It’s also believed ginger may support weight management, help manage arthritis and may alleviate menstrual symptoms.
'Molasses is an ingredient sometimes found in gingerbread. It’s made by refining sugarcane or sugar beet juice. Molasses is naturally rich in antioxidants, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous and vitamin B6. All of these vitamins and minerals may help relieve constipation, treat anaemia and support bone and hair health.
'Cinnamon is another ingredient of gingerbread. It’s a versatile spice with significant health benefits. It has antimicrobial properties and is rich in antioxidants – natural molecules that may help protect against diseases such as type 2 diabetes. Cinnamon may also help lower inflammation and can be a useful anti-ageing ingredient for the skin. Research has shown it may improve dental hygiene, reduce cholesterol and lower blood pressure.
'Similarly, nutmeg is associated with reduced inflammation and may benefit heart health.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link


On the other hand ...

'While gingerbread also contains ingredients that aren’t good for your health if you eat too much of it (such as sugar), you can feel a little less guilty if you indulge in a gingerbread biscuit as it contains many beneficial ingredients.

'For those who need to watch their diet, you can make gingerbread healthier.
'For example, use almond flour instead of regular flour. This gives a boost of protein, which may make you feel fuller and help stop over-eating. Almond flour is also a great gluten-free option.
'You can swap butter with coconut oil or olive oil, which may have less of an effect on cholesterol levels.
'Adding nuts, seeds and raisins to decorate can be an easy way to add nutrients (such as vitamin E, magnesium and selenium) and fibre.'

Excerpted from…

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

Wassailing -- singing -- to fruit trees was apparently an English country tradition. (I'm surprised Pepys didn't take advantage of this idea -- I'm sure there were a couple of trees in the garden at Seething Lane.)

"Traditionally, wassailing involves singing to the trees, beating them with sticks, toasting them with cider or putting bits of ale-soaked bread in their branches. The original rationale behind this custom isn’t clear; the idea might have been to waken the trees after the dead season of midwinter, although some people claim it is about driving away evil spirits or appeasing the spirits of the trees themselves.

"Wassailing is often popularly said to be a Medieval custom because the word has Medieval roots: it goes back to the phrase ‘wæs hail’, ‘be well’, a toast used to wish someone health when presenting them with a drink. Once a formal greeting, in Medieval England ‘wassail’ became a general word for drinking and feasting, and a name for the alcoholic drink itself.

"In Medieval sources, wassailing is not connected to crops. The first recorded wassailing of fruit trees at Twelfth Night dates from the late 16th century. There are no exact Medieval precedents.

"From the Early Modern period onwards it was a well-attested custom across southern England. It was always a tradition with great regional diversity, reflecting the crops and culture of different areas: in the West Country cider played an important role, while in the Weald there would be costumes, horn-blowing and trees splashed with ale."…

The article is about an easy and enjoyable way to transform an old traditions into a new traditions which helps to integrate newcomers into the community. There are a few trees around here which could benefit from some Twelth Night attention ... the singing bit will be helped by the alcohol.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

Country Life Magazine sheds light on some of the confusions about Twelfth Night. Excerpts only -- read the article to find out how Queen Vicky and the Industrial Revolution messed up the fun:

Once a time of merriment when rules were subverted, Twelfth Night has lost its sparkle, says Vicky Liddell, as she digs into the colourful past of the Feast of Fools and finds some traditions have lived on.

For most of us, Twelfth Night is the day we tear down tinsel and wrestle a desiccated tree out of the house, but until the late 19th century, it was a time of feasting and merriment, second in importance only to Christmas Day.
Fires were lit in the fields and revellers would go from door to door playing practical jokes on their neighbours. Also known as the Feast of Fools, Twelfth Night marked the end of the festive period and, in echoes of the ancient Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia in which social order was reversed, it gave everyone the chance to dispense with normal conventions. Today, as have festivals such as Shrovetide and Whitsun, it has lost its meaning and dissolved into a lacklustre end of Christmas.

The Twelfth Night celebrations reached their apogee during the Tudor period when, among the aristocracy and nobility, the day was marked by masques and pageants. In 1532, at Henry VIII's court, 200 dishes were served and temporary kitchens were erected in the gardens of Greenwich Palace.
Queen Elizabeth had her own gingerbread-maker, who created figures of her and her guests.
Her grandfather, Henry VII, employed his own Lord of Misrule and an Abbot of Unreason to lead the revelry.
Presents were exchanged and, right across the social scale, parties and family gatherings took place.

At the center of the festivities was a large domed fruit cake hiding a dried bean and a dried pea, which was given to all members of the household, including servants. Women were served from the left and men from the right. Whoever found the pea or bean in their slice was crowned ‘king’ or ‘queen’ for the evening, regardless of their social status.
Sometimes, a clove was also introduced, signifying the role of ‘knave’. In 1666, Samuel Pepys admitted in his diary to finding a clove and secretly inserting it into his neighbour’s slice. What followed was an evening of misrule in which everything was turned upside down, even gender roles, and where rules had to be obeyed, however ridiculous.

By the Georgian era, the game had become more elaborate and unique sets of characters were available to purchase from entrepreneurial stationers. ...

As the last embers of the yule log burned in the grate, a special drink, ‘Lamb’s Wool’, made from crab apples, cider and spices, was drunk and riotous parlour games — such as snapdragon, which involved snatching raisins out of flaming brandy without burning one’s fingers — were played with glee.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link


Robert May, a contemporary of Pepys and author of "The Accomplisht Cook", took the mischief further when he instructed his readers how to make joke pies full of live birds and frogs poised to escape when the crust was cut, saying: ‘This never fails to make the ladies skip and shreek.’

Twelfth Night was a time for ‘mumming’, when masked actors performed traditional folk plays. And, shortly before December 1600, Queen Elizabeth commissioned Shakespeare to write Twelfth Night; it was first performed in 1602 at Middle Temple to bring festivities to a close. The play, centered on twins Viola and Sebastian, makes use of the general disorder of traditional Twelfth Night celebrations and features many gender and status reversals.

The 18th century added confusion over the date of Twelfth Night. There has always been uncertainty about it, depending on whether or not December 25 or 26 is considered to be the first day of Christmas, so Twelfth Night can be January 5 (the eve of Epiphany) or on the Twelfth Day, January 6 (which marks the coming of the Magi).
The shift to the Gregorian calendar and the subsequent loss of 11 days complicated matters, as it meant the old Christmas day became Twelfth Night — so much so some celebrate old Twelfth Night on January 17.

Today, most regard Twelfth Night to be the evening of January 6 and the day in which, according to superstition, all decorations must be removed.
But this was not always the case.

Before the Victorians, decorations were kept in place until Candlemas Day on February 2 and taking them down too early was considered bad luck, because many believed tree spirits lived in the holly and the ivy, which, if released outside prematurely, could adversely affect the harvest.

By the late 19th century, Twelfth Night was losing its sparkle. The rise of the Industrial Revolution meant employers were keen to have their workforce back in good time after Christmas and the New Year. ...

‘Twelfth Night may have lost its significance,’ observes Prof Martin Johnes, author of "Christmas and the British", ‘but it is quite typical of Christmas traditions. We imagine they are static and historic — and that is part of their attraction — but they shift and alter with our changing tastes and culture.’…

Bring back the Feast of Fools!!!

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


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