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Twelfth Night Revels

The Conclusion of the Twelve Days of Christmas

I tell of festivals, and fairs, and plays. Of merriments, and mirth, and bonfire blaze; I tell of Christmas-mummings, new year’s day. Of twelfth-night king and queen, and children’s play; I tell of valentines, and true-loves-knots, Of omens, cunning men, and drawing lots— I tell of brooks, of blossoms, birds and bowers, Of April, May, of June, and July-flowers; I tell of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes. Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal cakes; I tell of groves, of twilights, and 1 sing The court of Mab, and of the fairy-king.

Robert Herrick

Christmas in Georgian times extended from Saint Nicholas’ Day (6th December) to the Epiphany (6th January). The twelve days of Christmas concluded with Twelfth Night, the sixth of January being the twelfth day after Christmas and therefore also known as Twelfth-day. To quote my copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

Twelfth-day OE The twelfth day after Christmas: the sixth of January, on which the festival of the Epiphany is celebrated; formerly the closing day of the Christmas festivities.

Twelfth-night OE The night of the twelfth day after Christmas (6 January) marked by merrymaking.

This edition was printed in 1973. The current internet entry states that the fifth of January is Twelfth Night, being the eve before Twelfth Day. Although some of the various sources I have consulted also consider the fifth to be Twelfth Night, my family have always taken decorations down on the sixth. It has become the custom to ‘undeck the halls’ on Twelfth Night; it is supposed to be bad luck to leave them longer and further, if an item is overlooked, it must remain in situ the whole year. In centuries past, it was considered safe to leave the decorations up until Candlemas (2nd February).

I suspect the confusion over the date has arisen from the fact that the fifth is the eve of Twelfth-day and the appellation of Twelfth-day has been lost in the mists of time, now to be merged with Twelfth Night. It all depends on whether you believe the twelve days of Christmas begin on Saint Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) or Christmas Day itself. To my way of thinking, if Twelfth Night is the twelfth day after Christmas, then counting begins the next day – the twenty-sixth.


William Hone, in his The Every-Day Book of 1825, has this entry for the fifth of January:

This is the eve of the Epiphany, or Twelfth-night eve, arid is a night of preparation in some parts of England for the merriments which, to the present hour, distinguish Twelfth-day. Dr. Drake mentions that it was a practice formerly for itinerant minstrels to bear a bowl of spiced-wine to the houses of the gentry and others, from whom they expected a hospitable reception, and, calling their bowl a wassail-bowl, to drink wassail to their entertainers. These merry sounds of mirth and music are not extinct. There are still places wherein the wandering blower of a clarionet, and the poor scraper of as poor a fiddle, will this evening strain their instruments, to charm forth the rustic from his dwelling, and drink to him from a jug of warm ale, spiced with a race of ginger, in the hope of a pittance for their melody, and their wish of wassail.

He also includes the following in the same entry:

Mr. Beckwith relates in the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1784, that “near Leeds, in Yorkshire, when he was a boy, it was customary for many families, on the twelfth eve of Christmas, to invite their relations, friends, and neighbours, to their houses, to play at cards, and to partake of a supper, of which minced pies were an indispensable ingredient ; and after supper was brought in, the wassail cup or wassail bowl, of which every one partook, by taking with a spoon, out of the ale, a roasted apple, and eating it, and then drinking the healths of the company out of the bowl, wishing them a merry Christmas and a happy new year. (The festival of Christmas used in this part of the country to hold for twenty days, and some persons extended it to Candlemas.) The ingredients put into the bowl, viz. ale, sugar, nutmeg, and roasted apples, were usually called lambs’-wool, and the night on which it is used to be drunk (generally on the twelfth eve) was commonly called Wassil eve.” The glossary to the Exmore dialect has “Watsail—a drinking song on twelfth-day eve, throwing toast to the apple-trees, in order to have a fruitful year, which seems to be a relic of the heathen sacrifice to Pomona.”

For the sixth of January, William Hone details the Epiphany, when the three wise kings visited the infant Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem. He then goes on to describe the twelfth-day schedule of pastry cooks in London:

In London, with every pastrycook in the city, and at the west end of the town, it is “high change” on Twelfth-day. From the taking down of the shutters in the morning, he, and his men, with additional assistants, male and female, are fully occupied by attending to the dressing out of the window, executing orders of the day before, receiving fresh ones, or supplying the wants of chance customers.

Before dusk the important arrangement of the window is completed. Then the gas is turned on, with supernumerary argand-lamps and manifold wax-lights, to illuminate countless cakes of all prices and dimensions, that stand in rows and piles on the counters and sideboards, and in the windows. The richest in flavour and heaviest in weight and price are placed on large and massy salvers; one, enormously superior to the rest in size, is the chief object of curiosity; and all are decorated with all imaginable images of things animate and inanimate. Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions, milk maids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms in snow-white confectionary, painted with variegated colours, glitter by ” excess of light” from mirrors against the walls festooned with artificial “wonders of Flora.”

So, if the cakes were made for Twelfth-day and Twelfth Cake was the highlight of the Twelfth Night celebrations, it therefore seems reasonable to conclude that Twelfth Night is the night of the sixth of January.

Twelfth Cake

According to tradition, a large, iced fruit cake (the forerunner of the modern Christmas cake) was baked with a dried bean and a dried pea inside it. Every person in the household was given a slice. The man who got the bean was declared the Twelfth Night King and the girl who got the pea was the Queen. They ruled until midnight, irrespective of their normal status, so for a few hours even servants could lord it over their masters. It was an opportunity for banter, foolish jokes, ridiculous orders and much merriment. Sometimes a coin was used in place of the bean and William Hone describes a method whereby revellers choose at random tickets and characters for the feast. Popular characters were Mrs. Candour (whom Jane Austen played in 1810), Sir Gregory Goose, Sir Tunbelly Clumsy and Miss Fanny Fanciful. The use of tickets became more prevalent as the nineteenth century progressed.

The original ‘Lord of Misrule’ from the Middle Ages, who held sway over a wild court, and later metamorphosed into the ‘King of Bean’ is still upheld today by the British Armed Forces – officers and NCOs wait on and serve the men their Christmas dinner.

As can be seen from the excerpt above, in the first part of the nineteenth century the Twelfth-cake became particularly elaborate, covered in sugar frosting and trimmed with gilded paper. It was frequently ornamented with sugar-paste or Plaster of Paris figures.

Following the choosing of the King and Queen, the party began, with mummer’s plays, masquerades, dressing up, games such as Blind Man’s Buff and Puss in the Corner, story-telling, singing and dancing. A Twelfth Night ball was likely to be the grandest occasion of the year and often took the form of fancy dress or a masked ridotto.


Wassailing and the Wassail Bowl

Wassail or ‘waes-hael’ is a salutation meaning ‘be of good cheer’ and is used when drinking someone’s health or offering wine to a guest. The Wassail Cup or Bowl was similar to mulled wine and was made of ale, sugar, spices (especially nutmeg), toast and roasted apples. The Wassail Bowl (also termed ‘Lamb’s Wool’, from the corrupted La Mas Ubhal, meaning ‘the day of the apple fruit’) was offered to guests as part of the Twelfth Night celebrations. Groups of poor people would often go to the grand houses in the district and sing traditional wassail songs for drink or money.

In counties famed for the production of cider, such as Herefordshire, it was the custom to surround the largest tree in the orchard and sprinkle it with cider whilst singing and chanting. The Herefordians had another ritual performed on this night. They would light twelve bonfires in a wheat field, along with one larger than the others. Surrounding this large bonfire, toasts were made to the company in old cider and the fires wassailed as above. The object of this was to ensure the health of the trees and thus the following year’s harvest.

Wassail bowl is passed around the host's table


Passing the Wassail Bowl after dinner

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