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A brief history of Twelfth Night

Most of us are aware of the superstition that the Christmas decorations must be taken down on or before Twelfth Night, the final day of the twelve days of Christmas. The twelve days of Christmas are commemorated in a popular song first published c. 1780. The song ends with the line ‘ Three French hens, two turtle doves and a Partridge in a pear tree’.

The Church of England starts the twelve days on Christmas Day and celebrates Twelfth Night on 5th January, the eve of Epiphany when the Magi or three wise men visited Jesus. Others count Boxing Day as the first day of the Christmas holiday and hence 6th January as Twelfth Night.

Some say that if you do not take the decorations down by Twelfth Night then you must leave them up until Candlemas Day on 2nd February, or even that they must be left until Shrove Tuesday, 28th February. If they are left until Shrove Tuesday you must burn the decorations and cook pancakes over their flames. If you leave them beyond that date then I am afraid goblins may come into the house and do mischief.

The Twelfth Night celebrations, also known as the Feast of Fools, can be traced back to pre-Christian festivals such as the Celtic festival of Samhain and the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. On this night the Lord of Misrule is supposed to turn everything upside down and kings become peasants and vice versa. The traditions associated with this midwinter celebration preceded the traditional Christmas celebrations which were popularised in the C19th by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

One of the traditions associated with Twelfth Night (or the feast of Epiphany) is the baking of a cake, a tradition which goes back to the medieval period. The cake which should contain a dried bean and a dried pea reached a peak of popularity around 1700, was declining by 1800, and was extinct by 1900. The dried bean and pea in the cake were the way in which the King and Queen of Misrule were identified for the evening’s traditional entertainment. In the medieval and Tudor periods the Twelfth Night cake was made with yeast like a fruit brioche or panettone. The discovery in the early C18th that beaten eggs could be used to raise a cake meant that the recipes became more like a rich fruit cake.

The earliest printed recipe for a Twelfth Night cake was published in The Art of Cookery: Made Easy and Refined (1803) by John Mollard, when these cakes were at the height of their popularity. Mrs Beeton in her 1861 book Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management gives a recipe for a Twelfth Night cake, but it did not include the traditional dried bean and pea. Elaborately decorated cakes became popular in the late C18th and early C19th.

One celebrated C19th confectioner was Italian-born William Jarrin (1784–1848) who was famous for his elaborately decorated Twelfth Night cakes, which were displayed during the midwinter season in the window of his shop in Berkeley Square, London. The cakes were decorated like wedding cakes, with sugar and almond paste figures, often made using wooden moulds. The moulds for the decorations were quite difficult to use and were dusted with starch before sugar paste was pressed into them and then knocked out. The beautifully iced and decorated Twelfth Night cakes were the precursors of the Victorian Christmas cakes, which were introduced in the 1860s as part of a traditional family Christmas. From 1860 Queen Victoria had removed the traditional Twelfth Night festivities from the annual calendar as she regarded it as unchristian.

During the original Twelfth Night celebrations, which were very popular in the early Tudor period, the cake was distributed and the King and Queen for the evening identified by finding the dried bean or pea in their slice of cake. The evening of entertainment also included the party members adopting the roles of various characters selected from a pack of cards which included the King and Queen.

In the early C19th it was the custom to buy a set of Twelfth Night characters to accompany your cake. From the early 1840s the Illustrated London News could provide a supplement with a sheet of Twelfth Night characters drawn by famous illustrators such as Alfred Henry Forrester (1804–1872), who was also known by the pseudonym Alfred Crowquill. These were meant to be cut out and rolled up, and then put into a hat and passed around party guests. Each guest would draw a character and would have to stay in character until midnight.

The Twelfth Night tradition is still maintained in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where the actor Robert Baddeley (1733–1794) left a legacy for actors appearing on Twelfth Night to enjoy a traditional cake and a toast in punch.

Samuel Pepys records a party on Epiphany night on 6 January 1660: we had a brave cake brought us and in the choosing Pall was the Queen and Mr Stradwick was King. After that my wife and I bid adieu and came home, it being a great frost.

William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, or What You Will was written around 1601 to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment. The earliest recorded performance was at Middle Temple Hall, one of the Inns of Court in London, on Candlemas Night, 2nd February 1602. The play contains many elements that are reversed such as Viola, a woman dressed as a man and Malvolio a servant who imagines that he has become a nobleman.

The tradition of Twelfth Night entertainment and cake appears to have died out towards the end of the C19th in most parts of the country. The decorative cake became the Christmas cake, and the hidden bean and pea transformed into a silver sixpence in the Christmas pudding.

In parts of the West Country Twelfth Night is the date for wassailing, which can include door to door offerings of mulled cider and wishes of good health in the coming year in exchange for gifts. In cider apple growing regions the orchards are also visited to sing to the trees to encourage a good harvest the following year. This tradition is most famously celebrated at Whimple and Sandford in Devon and in Carhampton and Dunster in Somerset.

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