Now Christmas is past, Twelfth Night is the last
To the Old Year adieu, Great joy to the new
This twelfth night of the twelve days of Christmas is the official end of the winter holiday season and one of the traditional days for taking down the Christmas decorations (see also January 13 and February 1). This is also a traditional day for wassailing apple trees. In southern and western England, revelers gathered in orchards where they sang to the trees, drank to their health, poured hot cider over their roots, left cider-soaked toast in their branches for the birds and scared away evil spirits with a great shout and the firing of guns.
The ancient Roman tradition of choosing the master of the Saturnalian revels by baking a good luck bean inside a cake was transferred to Twelfth Night. In Italy, the beans were hidden in focaccia rather than a cake: three white beans for the Magi and one black one. Whoever found the black bean was made king and could choose his queen and rule the banquet. In colonial Virginia, a great Ball was held on this night. The King wins the honor of sponsoring the Ball the following year; the Queen the privilege of making next years Twelfth Night Cake.
or King and Queen
Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where Beans the King of the sport here;
Beside we must know
The Pea also
Must revel, as Queen, in the Court here.
Begin then to choose,
(This night as ye use)
Who shall for the present delight here.
Be a King by the lot
And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day Queen for the night here.
Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurgd will not drink
To the base from the brink
A health to the King and the Queen here.
Next crown the bowl full
With gentle lambs-wool;
Add sugar, nutmeg and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.
Give then to the King
And Queen wassailing;
And though with ale ye be wet here;
Yet part ye from hence,
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.
- Robert Herrick
This final day of the Christmas season, was considered the beginning of Carnival in Italy, where it was associated with jokes and tricks. In Tuscany, a man used to dress up like a witch (Befana?) and surround himself with befanotti, low-life characters wearing false beards and inside-out jackets. Booths were set up in the piazzas, offering toys and games. Vendors dressed up young boys like women, with blackened faces, caps on their heads, a long reed in one hand, a lantern in the other and hung them with baskets of oranges and golden pine cones. All of these resemble Saturnalian customs (December 17) and Twelfth Night does partake of the quality of Saturnalia with its emphasis on light-hearted fun, social satire and role reversals.
In some Italian communities, engagements are announced on Epiphany. The remaining bachelors and spinsters are then paired off by lot (reminiscent of Valentine's Day). If a girl is left without a partner she is given the title of Befana for the year.
In France, the special cake served on this night is the galette des rois. It is thin and round and is cut into pieces in the pantry, always one more piece than there are guests, and carried into the room covered with a white napkin. The youngest member of the party gets to distribute the pieces. A small china doll (formerly a bean) is baked into the cake and the person receiving this piece becomes the Queen or King and gets to choose a consort. The extra piece is called le part a Dieu, and is set aside for the first person to come through the door.
In Portugal, the bolo-Rei cake is ring-shaped and, besides the dried lima bean which designates the King (who must make the cake the following year), contains amulets and fortune-telling trinkets.
In England, the Twelfth Night cake is usually a rich and dense fruitcake which contains both a bean and pea. The man who finds the bean is the King, the woman who finds the Pea is the Queen. But if a woman finds the bean, she can choose the King, while the man who finds the pea can choose the Queen. The royal pair then direct the rest of the company in merriment. They assign the revelers ludicrous tasks or require them to behave in ways that are contrary to their usual roles. In France, every action of the royal pair is commented upon and imitated with mock ceremony by the entire company, who shout "the Queen drinks," "The King laughs," "The Queen drops her handkerchief!"
Traditional Twelfth Night foods served in England include anything spicy or hot, like ginger snaps and spiced ale. If you didn't try out the Snapdragon game on Solstice or Christmas, try it on Twelfth Night. It's the perfect game for this wild and rowdy holiday.
In Russia, this was a night for divination. Pushkin describes several of these customs in Eugene Onegin. Every one put a ring into a dish and then traditional songs were sung which predicated events like bereavement or marriage. Then a ring was chosen at random from the dish and the fate of the song ascribed to its owner.
If you want to celebrate Twelfth Night in an appropriately medieval way, try these instructions from Robert May in The Accomplisht Cook (1665):
Make the likeness of a Ship in paste-board, with flags and streamers, the guns belonging to if of Kickses [odds and ends], bind them about with packthred, and covere them with course paste proportionable to the fashion of a Cannon with Carriages, lay them in places convenient, as you see them in Ships of War; with such holes and trains of powder that they may all take fire; place your Ship firm in a great Charger; then make a salt round about it, and stick therein egg-shells full of sweet water; you may by a great pink take out all the meat out of the egg by blowing, and then fill it with rose-water. Then in another Charger have the proportion of a Stag made of course paste with a broad arrow in the side of him, and his body filled up with claret wine. In another Charger at the end of the Stag have the proportion of a Castle with Battlements, Percullices, Gates, and Draw-bridges made of pasteboard, the Guns of Kickses, and covered with course paste as the former; place it at a distance from the Ship to fire at each other. The Stag being plac't betwist them with egg-shells full of sweet water (as before) placed in salt. At each side of the Charger wherein is the Stag, place a Pie made of course paste, in one of which let there be some live Frogs, in the other live Birds; make these pieces of course paste filled with bran, and yellowed over with saffron or yolks of eggs, gild them over in spots, as also the Stag, the Ship, and Castle; bake them, and place them with gilt bay-leaves on the turrets and tunnels of the Castle and Pieces; being baked, make a hole in the bottom of your pieces, take out the bran, put in your Frogs and Birds, and close up the holes with the same course paste; then cut the lids neatly up to be taken off by the Tunnels: being all placed in order upon the Table, before you fire the trains of powder, order it so that some of the Ladies may be perswaded to pluck the Arrow out of the Stag, then will the Claret wine follow as blood running out of a wound. This being done with admiration to the beholders, after some short pawse, fire the train of the Castle, that the peeces all of one side may go off; then fire the trains of one side of the Ship as in a battle; next turn the Chargers, and by degrees fire the trains of each other side as before. This done, to sweeten the stink of the powder, let the Ladies take the egg shells full of sweet waters, and throw them at each other. All dangers being seemingly over, by this time you may suppose they will desire to see what is in the pieces; where lifting the first the lid off one pie, out skips some Frogs which makes the Ladies to skip and shreek; next after the other pie, whence comes out the Birds; who by a natural instinct flying at the light, will put out the candles: so that what with the flying Birds, and skipping Frogs, the one above, the other beneath, will cause much delight and pleasure to the whole company: at length the candles are lighted, and a banquet brought in, the musick sounds, and every one with much delight and content rehearse their actions in the former passages.
Blackburn, Bonnie and Holford-Strevens, Leofranc, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames and Hudson 1987
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Womens Press 1937