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).
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.
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.
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