Saturday, December 10, 2011

Twelfth Night

by Lauren Gilbert

Twelfth Night celebrations have taken place since medieval times. A religious holiday initially, it celebrated the coming of Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi at Jesus’ birthplace. It is the culminating festival of Christmastide, the twelve days of Christmas. The English traditions of Twelfth Night are what most of us think of when the name “Twelfth Night” is referenced: food, especially an ornate cake and great feasting, drinking, games, plays, dances and masked balls and other fun times. Shakespeare's play, Twelfth Night, is supposed to have been written to perform on Twelth Night. Although the Christmas tree was a Victorian modification, decorating with greenery, such as rosemary, ivy, mistletoe, holly, bay and laurel was very popular over centuries, from pagan times. Christmas fires, Yule logs and candles were also part of the celebration. Even Oliver Cromwell was not able to completely stamp out all vestiges of Christmastide and Twelfth Night during his Puritan rule, and the festivities rose again under Charles II.

Traditionally, Twelfth Night is celebrated on either the 5th or the 6th of January (depending on how the 12 days are counted, which varies somewhat from one tradition to another). The Twelfth Night tradition still seems strong in Great Britain (witness the many pictures of the mummers’ parades, the Holly Man, and other festivities found with the simplest Google search), Hispanic cultures still celebrate Three Kings Night, and there are surviving traditions in the other western European countries. However, in the United States, Twelfth Night is no longer celebrated commonly in the traditional sense. Twelfth Night was once widely celebrated in the colonies, especially those settled by the English. The colonists brought their traditions with them, and adapted them to their new environment. George and Martha Washington were married on Twelfth Night in 1759, and entertained on Twelfth Night throughout the day each year; Martha’s papers include a receipt for an enormous Twelfth Night Cake. Christmas wreaths, decorated with fruit (apples, oranges, etc. which were considered delicacies) were hung on doors, as can still be seen in Colonial Williamsburg.

The Twelfth Night Cake is customarily a ring-shaped cake with currants, candied fruits, nuts (or any combination) baked into it. Also baked into the cake was a coin, a carved or cast-metal baby (representing the Christ Child), or a bean and a pea. Whoever got the coin or baby was the king; in the case of the bean or pea, the man who got the bean was king, the woman who got the pea was queen. The king and queen ruled the festivities. Later, the king’s privileges included providing the next year’s cake. This cake may be elaborately iced and decorated, often with one or two crowns, or may be light and decorated with colored sugars. (This tradition still lives in the United States in some of the Mardi Gras customs; some Twelfth Night cakes are decorated with the colors now associated with Mardi Gras: purple, green and gold or yellow.)

Wassailing was also a tradition during Christmastide, and on Twelfth Night. Wassail (your health) involved toasting with a hot mulled cider and/or ale, and was very popular in southern England from about the 14th century on. One custom was wassailing the apple trees, which involved pouring a little wassail on the trees to ensure a good harvest and good cider the next year.

One important footnote: it was essential to remove the greenery before midnight. If left up, the greenery could attract goblins or cause bad luck in the new year, so it was traditionally taken down and burned. In America, the fruits used to decorate the wreaths were eaten as part of the celebratory feasts.

Beckford, Martin, “Christmas Ends In Confusion Over When Twelfth Night Falls,” THE TELEGRAPH, 1/6/2009, viewed 12/2/2011

Boyle, Laura, “Twelfth Night,” viewed 11-18-2011.

Doe, Martha, “The Puritan Ban on Christmas,” viewed 11/18/2011.

Lewis, Sandy, “UNDERSTANDING TWELFTH NIGHT The Holiday That Time Forgot,” 1/3/2005, viewed 12/2/2011.

Miller, Amy, “What Is The Twelfth Night Season?” Sharefaith Media for a Modern Church

By Lauren Gilbert
Author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel


  1. I wish we still had this holiday in America. I love the idea of those cakes.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Sorry we colonists let it slip from our heritage.

  3. Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green..."

    We used to go a-carolling as kids but I don't believe kids do that much anymore. I did hear carolers in the hospital lobby and it was a lovely sound.

    Thanks for a beautiful, informative post; I'm all set to travel back in time to Britain for Twelfth Night Festivities. (Keep the wassail warm!)

    "Love and joy come to you...and God bless you and send you a happy New Year..."

  4. Interesting blog! (And now I know why the Mardi Gras cakes are called king cakes!)

  5. The Christmas tree was introduced to Britain by Queen Adelaide--wife of William IV. It caused a bit of a stir...though certainly Albert took up the cause of the Christmas tree with a vengeance. As did Dickens...

    Cromwell, silly boy, did ban Christmas. As well as the theatre. And Mayday celebrations. That worked. Not.

  6. Great post---Geo. Washington's papers note the meager celebrations held on Christmas Day, in contrast to those on Twelfth Night. I blogged today at the Hearts Through History site on Dickens and his little ghost story that helped Christmas Day regain its primacy.


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