Jan 052015
 

twelfth9

Twelfth Night is an old festival, in some Christian cultures (chiefly in Europe), more or less obsolete now, marking the coming of the Epiphany (6 January). It had its heyday from Regency to Victorian times in England. Different traditions mark the date of Twelfth Night on either 5th January or 6th January. The Church of England, Mother Church of the Anglican Communion, celebrates Twelfth Night on the ­­­­5th calling it the equivalent of the eve of Epiphany. In Western Church traditions the Twelfth Night concludes the Twelve Days of Christmas, although in others the Twelfth Night can precede the Twelfth Day. Generally speaking it’s a question of how you count the Twelve Days. In 567 the Council of Trent established the liturgical season of Christmas as lasting from Christmas Day to Epiphany, so many people assume that Epiphany is Twelfth Night. This cannot be correct unless you make 26 December the 1st day of Christmas. To put it bluntly, this is absurd. Christmas Day is the first day of Christmas, so 5th January is the 12th day, and Epiphany comes next (see tomorrow’s post). In fact they are two quite distinct festivals although over time cultures have muddled them up. Nowadays if households celebrate the end of the Christmas season at all they do so on Epiphany and not Twelfth Night – hence the muddling of traditions. But a few communities have revived old customs although they have been modernized considerably. In London, for example, in several boroughs there are big parades, but they incorporate folk customs, such as morris dancing, that have nothing to do with Christmas.

A belief has arisen in more 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 was once the official end of the Christmas season. They took all the decorations down in my hostel today.

In medieval and Tudor England, the Twelfth Night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve (Halloween). Usually it had an element of social inversion, in which the people of high social class adopted a low status and vice versa. Such customs generally disappeared around the time of the Industrial Revolution when they were conceived of as a threat to social order. Historically on Twelfth Night some method would be chosen to elect a Twelfth King. Commonly it was by drawing cards from a special deck which assigned various roles to guests – including king. The king ruled the feast until midnight and could order tomfoolery. In Regency and Victorian times the role was assigned by eating a cake that contained a bean and a pea. The cake was eaten at the start of the meal, and who got the bean was king and who got the pea was queen. There is reasonable evidence that such “elections” were rigged.

The major point of Twelfth Night is to go out of Christmas with a bang, so food and drink are central. Like Christmas, Twelfth Night gatherings tend to be home party affairs (with guests).

twelfth6

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 eaten with the other foods of the feast. The same held true in the 19th and early 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 eaten.

In families who still celebrate Twelfth Night, all the remaining special foods such as Christmas puddings and mince pies must be eaten. My mother always made a Twelfth plate and I continue in the family custom. Here’s mine from 2 years ago.

twelfth10

Drury Lane Theatre 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 now with a procession as well.

twelfth3

William Shakespeare wrote the play Twelfth Night, around 1601 on royal request 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. The play has many social elements that are reversed, in the tradition of Tudor Twelfth Night revels, such as a woman, Viola, dressing as a man, and a servant Malvolio imagining that he can become a nobleman. The wonderful element that few today know is that women in Shakespeare’s day were played by boys. So the part of Viola was a boy playing a woman pretending to be a man – being courted by Olivia, a woman being played by a boy. The complex sexual and social overtones would have been hilarious to contemporary audiences but are lost on modern audiences because the women’s parts are played by women.

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.

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.

NOW, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s 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 unurg’d will not drink
To the base from the brink
A health to the king and queen here.

Next crown a bowl full
With gentle lamb’s 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 whet here,
Yet part from hence
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.

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

Twelfth001

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.

Twelfth cake is the most important component of the dinner and in Victorian times turned into an elaborately decorated item as seen here:

twelfth7  twelfth8

Nowadays the Twelfth cake, with the demise of Twelfth Night as a celebration, has metamorphosed into the Christmas cake (when once Christmas pudding was the key sweet element), and the bean/pea cake has become an Epiphany tradition. There is not a universally set way to make a Twelfth cake. The ornamentation plus bean/pea are common elements. I used to make a basic fruit cake, cover it with marzipan and royal icing, and then circle the fringes with 12 marzipan balls to signify the twelve days and with a bean embedded. No photos – sorry.

Here is the first known recipe for Twelfth cake taken from John Mollard, The Art of Cookery. (London 1803).  It makes a BIG cake.

Take seven pounds of flour, make a cavity in the centre, set a sponge with a gill and a half of yeast and a little warm milk; then put round it one pound of fresh butter broke into small lumps, one pound and a quarter of sifted sugar, four pounds and a half of currants washed and picked, half an ounce of sifted cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of pounded cloves, mace, and nutmeg mixed, sliced candied orange or lemon peel and citron. When the sponge is risen, mix all the ingredients together with a little warm milk; let the hoops be well papered and buttered, then fill them with the mixture and bake them, and when nearly cold ice them over with sugar prepared for that purpose as per receipt; or they may be plain.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

(required)

(required)