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The Twelfth Night or Epiphany Eve is celebrated either on January 5 or January 6.  It is observed in the United States, Great Britain and throughout Europe mostly.

The Twelfth Night  marks the ending  of the traditional 12 Days of Christmas or the Christmas season. But why 12 days you may ask.

Many feel the custom of closing the Christmas season on January 5 or 6 comes from the pagan custom of marking the Winter Solstice for a certain number of days. This was a very popular tradition in Europe back in the 11th century. I know it's hard to imagine today with all the clocks and calendars we have around us; but, back then it was important to know days and time.  But the technicality of when exactly this season ends is still a mystery today. For some, Twelfth Night means the evening before the Twelfth Day or January 5.  To others it stands for the evening of the Twelfth Day exactly or January 6.   January 5 is also considered by some the Old Christmas Eve according to the Olde Style Calendar or Julian Calendar. Why? Because Christmas on this calendar fell on January 6. In some remote areas of Great Britain today, there are people who still observe ancient customs of the Old Christmas Eve.

Ever since the Middle Ages, the Twelfth Night has been observed with games, masquerades and other revelries.  The Lord of Misrule (see below) along with his assistant, a Fool, was the mock official of the Twelfth Night celebrations. These often involved singing, dancing, pantomimes and feasting. In some areas of England, they also include bonfires, masques and a custom known as "wassailing" the fruit trees. What's that? Basically it's means carrying jugs of cider to the orchards and offering toasts to the apple trees to ensure a good yield.

In France, Germany and the Low Countries, young boys dress up in exotic costumes and wear paper crowns as representatives of the Three Kings or Magi.  They then would go begging house to house, carrying paper star lanterns and long poles.

By the 18th Century the lavish Twelfth Night parties started to lose their popularity.  And by the 19th Century, they almost died out, with a few remnants surviving in small areas.  

In Belgium, Portugal, England, France, Germany and the Netherlands, the King of the Bean remains a popular Twelfth Night tradition.  In the United States, Twelfth Night pageants remain popular which include masked figures, costumed musicians and performing traditional English dances such as the Abbots Bromley Antler Dance or Horn Dance. In New Orleans, the Twelfth Night marks the beginning of the Carnival and ends on Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday.

Years ago in England it was a custom to go out in a  wheat field and light 12 small fires and one large one as a way to protect it from disease. In Ireland, they would set a sieve of oats as high as possible, with 12 lighted candles being set in the grain with one larger one in the middle.  The meaning of these customs has basically been forgotten. Some people say that these fires were to symbolize Jesus Christ and His 12 Apostles.  Others continue to view them as simply the survival of heathen sun worship.

In Westmoreland, a holly bush or young ash tree would have torches fastened to the branches.  The torches were lit and the tree was carried throughout the village accompanied by music. When the torches finally burnt out, two rival groups would fight for the remains of the tree and the rest of the night would be spent having fun.

In the United States, the tradition is that on the Twelfth Night you take down your Christmas tree and other greenery used to decorate your home during the holiday season.  Then you pile it up outside and burn it on this night. This custom of lighting bonfires on the Twelfth Night is gaining in popularity in the U.S.

Appointing a king to rule over the Twelfth Night festivities goes all the way to the reign of King Edward II in England.   The custom was to make a special cake, called either the King's Cake or Gateau des Rois,  to conceal either a bean, coin or pea inside of it.  Then the cake would be cut into pieces (as many as there were guests) on the Twelfth Night feast.  The youngest member would pass out the pieces of cake.  Whoever got the piece with the bean (or pea or coin) inside would then become crowned as The King of the Bean or Lord of the Misrule.

Now, what if a woman got this?  Apparently women weren't allowed to rule over the Twelfth Night Festivities. So if a woman got the piece, she'd have to pick a guy to become the King of the Bean.

The mock court (for the King) was created by drawing pieces of paper with character descriptions on them from a hat.  These characters would have to be maintained throughout the entire evening. This custom was kept in observance into the 19th Century.  But, later it was dropped because as time went on, too many crass and offensive characters had been introduced into the custom. But, elaborately decorated Twelfth Night cakes remained popular (even though the parties got cancelled) up until the late Victorian era. Many cakes are still prepared and served today in some parts of Europe.

A description of a Twelfth Night cake from 1620 states that it was made from a mixture of flour, honey, ginger and pepper.  Since spices were pricey in those days, and it was a status to have them, this cake was loaded with them!  Another recipe that comes from the French King Henry III in the 16th century as well, describes it as being baked in an octagonal mold and having a similarity to kugelhopf, a light pound cake. The cake was divided into 7 pieces, with the 8th piece being dedicated to God and given to the poor. These cakes were extremely popular in the aristcratic courts and were named, "gateaux des rois." 

Cakes in England were a little different than those in the rest of Europe. Because of the ease of getting dried fruits, the Twelfth Night Cake in England was filled with them.  They were heavy and more like a plum cake.  Frosting was put on top of these cakes around the 18th century for honored guests because sugar was a real scarcity in those days.  But, leave it to a woman to make sugar available!  Queen Elizabeth I loved sugar as well as almonds. By 1558, they became more accessible.  And, using almonds was also considered an aphrodisiac back then.  Later on, an almond candy called marzipan was added to the top of the plum cake and covered with a sugary icing. Not only was this good, it also helped preserve the cake.  In some cases, bakers added gum tragacanth to the icing to make it stiff enough to mold into fancy shapes and decorations.

Since these cakes were getting so fancy, no one wanted to tear them apart anymore to find a bean!  What to do?  In some cases, a hat was passed around with slips of paper in it.  The King and Queen were determined by a drawing.  Later on, these slips of paper evolved into cards representing Twelfth Night characters.  On some cakes, two little crowns on the top represented the King and Queen also.

For many, many years, miracle plays held in church sanctuaries about the Three Kings were held at this time of year.  Later on, as the performances became too secular, the plays were held outside the church.  Soon the religious dramas were replaced or joined by plays of popular tragedies, comedies or historical significance.  The play by William Shakespeare, "Twelfth Night" is believed to have been first performed for Queen Elizabeth I at Whitehall Palace in 1601.

The Twelfth Night pageants that are performed in the United States today are usually more modest and less elaborate than the Elizabethan ones in England. However, many of the dances and characters incorporated into the modern plays can be traced back to the medieval days.


Includes the song and lyrics.

Return to our January Monthly Holidays Listing

Source of Information:
"Holidays, Symbols & Customs  3rd Edition"
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Source for Twelfth Night Cake only:
"Twelve Days of Christmas. A Celebration and History"
by Leigh Grant 1995
Note: The illustrations in this book are awesome! Check it out!

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