Published: 18-03-2010, 08:31

Twelfth Night

According to an old European form of reckoning, the CHRISTMAS SEASON ended on the twelfth day after Christmas. People relaxed and celebrated during these dozen days known as the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. Twelfth Night marked the last evening of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Twelfth Night customs called for one final burst of feasting and revelry to commemorate the close of the Christmas season. Church custom, and some ethnic traditions, placed Twelfth Night on the evening of January 5. In certain places, however, people celebrated Twelfth Night on January 6.

In past eras the English, French, Spanish, German, and Dutch com-memorated Twelfth Night with feasts, special cakes, and a kind of masquerade presided over by the KING OF THE BEAN (see also CHRISTMAS CAKES). This mock king may have evolved from a similar figure popular during the Roman midwinter festival of SATURNALIA. In medieval courts, mock kings, like jesters, served to entertain the assembled company during the Christmas season. Records from some English households indicate that they were chosen from among those with musical or other skills that lent themselves to entertainment. Moreover, they took charge of organizing the holiday season festivities. These mock kings acquired many other names, including the LORD OF MISRULE, the Master of Merry Disports, and the Abbot of Unreason. Records from late medieval FRANCE indicate that one method of choosing this mock ruler was to serve out pieces of cake into which a single bean had been baked. The one whose piece of cake contained the bean got the job. His title, Rex Fabarum, or King of the Bean, may have referred back to this manner of selection or to his lack of real power.
During the Renaissance this particular title and custom appear to have gravitated towards Twelfth Night. Ordinary people began celebrating Twelfth Night with feasts, cakes, and bean kings. These kings, along with their queens, directed the remainder of the feast. The rest of those attending the feast took up the role of courtiers. The following day, Epiphany, introduced the image of a different kind of king. Starting in the Middle Ages, western European Epiphany customs began to revolve around commemorations of the arrival of the Three Kings, or MAGI, in BETHLEHEM.

In or around the year 1600 William Shakespeare wrote a play called Twelfth Night, Or What You Will. Although the play does not refer to the holiday per se, it does weave a comedy around the actions of characters in disguise. Some literary researchers think that Shakespeare put the words “Twelfth Night” into the play’s title in order to suggest a particularly appropriate time of year for the play’s performance. Indeed, playgoing was a popular activity during the Twelve Days of Christmas.

During the Renaissance some of the most splendid feasts of the Christmas season occurred at the homes of the wealthy on Twelfth Night. In ENGLAND King Henry VIII (1491-1547) appears to have introduced the Italian custom of celebrating Twelfth Night with MASQUES. These elaborate costumed events featured the enactment of some simple scenes or tableaux using song, dance, flowery speeches, and fancy scenery. The custom might be thought of as an elite version of the MUMMING practices already established among the common people. The masques performed at court were short, simple, and sometimes frivolous works designed to raise as much laughter as possible while providing a colorful spectacle. These productions were very popular during the Christmas season, but were also performed at other times of year. The famous writer Ben Jonson (1572-1637) raised the artistic level of these works somewhat when he offered a Christmas masque — Christmas His Masque—to be performed at court in the year 1616. In England the Twelfth Night masque reached its zenith in the early seventeenth century and afterwards began to decline.

In the late seventeenth century the English diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) described his enjoyment of a new custom whereby Twelfth Night merrymakers drew slips of paper from a hat on which were written the names of characters found at the bean king’s court. They were expected to impersonate this character for the rest of the evening. In this way everyone present at the celebration, not just the king and queen, got into the act. By the end of the eighteenth century this innovation had almost completely replaced the earlier custom of planting a bean and a pea inside the Twelfth Night cake. In fact, it became so popular with ordinary folk that, by the end of the eighteenth century, shops sold packets of cards with names and drawings of characters printed on them. The absurd names given to these characters served to describe their exaggerated personalities. Examples include Sir Tunbelly Clumsy, Sir Gregory Goose, and Miss Fanny Fanciful.
In the early part of the nineteenth century, the English still celebrated Twelfth Night with parties, cakes, mock kings, and characters. The English writer Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) described the Twelfth Night festivities of his era in the following way:

Christmas goes out in fine style,—with Twelfth Night. It is a finish worthy of the time. Christmas Day was the morning of the season; New Year’s Day the middle of it, or noon; Twelfth Night is the night, brilliant with innumerable planets of Twelfth-cakes. The whole island keeps court; nay all Christendom. All the world are kings and queens. Everybody is somebody else, and learns at once to laugh at, and to tolerate, characters different from his own, by enacting them. Cakes, characters, forfeits, lights, theatres, merry rooms, little holiday-faces, and, last not least, the painted sugar on the cakes, so bad to eat but so fine to look at, useful because it is perfectly useless except for a sight and a moral — all conspire to throw a giddy splendour over the last night of the season, and to send it to bed in pomp and colours, like a Prince [Miles, 1990,337-38].

By the early nineteenth century, the Twelfth Night cake had evolved into a large and complicated display of cake, icing, and other embellishments. Bakeries displayed these models of the confectioner’s art in their windows, and people gathered outside to admire them. The playful atmosphere of Twelfth Night may have encouraged schoolboys to carry out the following Twelfth Night prank. Unnoticed among the throng of cake-admirers, they pinned the clothing of two adults together or nailed a gentleman’s coattails to the windowsill. Then they stood back and enjoyed the confusion that arose when the pinned and nailed individuals attempted to leave the bakery window.

The importance of Twelfth Night as a holiday declined throughout the second part of the century. Some writers blame this on the rapid industrialization of the English economy, which in general resulted in the increase of the number of workdays and the decrease in the number of holidays. As Twelfth Night began to wane, so did its customs. One of them, however, the Twelfth Night cake, was kept alive in at least one place by a curious bequest. In the late eighteenth century an actor by the name of Robert Baddeley achieved some success playing at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. In his will he left a sum of one hundred pounds to be invested in such a way as to provide the actors playing at Drury Lane Theatre on January 5 with wine and a Twelfth Night cake every year. The will also stipulates that in return for the feast the company drink to his health.

Some Twelfth Night customs may have been created indirectly by the acts of politicians. The British calendar reform of 1752 moved the calendar forward eleven days in order to synchronize the country with the continental European calendar (see OLD CHRISTMAS DAY). With the stroke of a pen, the day that would have been Christmas Eve became Epiphany Eve. This maneuver appears to have transferred several English Christmas customs, such as the WASSAILING OF FRUIT TREES and the viewing of the GLASTONBURY THORN to Twelfth Night.

When the British settled in colonial America, they brought their Twelfth Night celebrations with them. In the eighteenth century Twelfth Night parties frequently took place in regions where large numbers of English colonists had settled, such as Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. They were especially popular with members of the Church of England (later the Episcopal Church) and among the wealthy, who celebrated Twelfth Night with formal balls. These balls featured a bountiful buffet table, loaded with such delicacies as Twelfth Night Cake (a kind of fruit cake), roasted meats, candied fruit, cookies, fritters, and New Year’s pie. This last item was an elaborate dish prepared by placing a beef tongue into a boned chicken, wedging the chicken into a boned duck, stuffing the duck into a boned turkey, cramming the turkey into a boned goose and then roasting the stuffed goose in an oven. Just as in Europe, colonial and early American cooks placed a bean and a pea inside their Twelfth Night cakes as a means of selecting a Twelfth Night king and queen.
In colonial and early American times the Christmas season, capped by the celebration of Twelfth Night, was associated with romance and served as a favorite time of year for weddings (see also Twelve Days of Christmas). Twelfth Night balls offered young, single people the chance to meet and to interact freely, and thus, hopefully, to find a mate. This goal was facilitated by the fact that the parties usually featured dancing and some form of masking, as well as card and dice GAMES. Indeed, some balls were designed exclusively as affairs for the young. One very famous colonial romance led to a marriage scheduled for Epiphany the day after Twelfth Night. George Washington (1732-1799) and his bride, Martha Dandridge Custis (1732-1802), married on January 6,1759.
Needless to say, those who did not celebrate Christmas deplored the idea of a Twelfth Night ball (see CHRISTMAS IN COLONIAL AMERICA; PURITANS). One man, Mordecai Noah, who published a book on home economics in the year 1820, had this to say about the wasteful custom of Twelfth Night feasting:

What a sum to be destroyed in one short hour! The substantials on this table, consisting of a few turkeys, tongues, hams, fowls, rounds of beef and game, all cold, could have been purchased for fifty dollars; the residue of this immense sum was expended for whips, creams, floating islands, pyramids of kisses, temples of sugarplumbs, ices, blanc manges, macaroons and plumb cake; and ladies of delicacy of refined habits, of soft and amiable manners, were at midnight, cloying their stomachs, after exercise in dancing, with this trash [Weaver, 1990,13-14].

Some Twelfth Night customs appear to have sprung from its posi-tion as the last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Old folk customs in France and the German-speaking countries encouraged noisemaking processions on Twelfth Night, designed to drive out the spirits that prowled the dark evenings of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Old German folk beliefs also suggested that Berchta, a frightening figure associated with the Twelve Days, appeared to people most often on Twelfth Night. In fact, the day took on her name in some German-speaking areas, becoming Perchtennacht, or “Berchta Night.” Finally, other Twelfth Night customs arose from its status as the evening before Epiphany. On this evening Italian children expect La Befana to arrive bearing their Christmas season GIFTS. Likewise, children in the Spanish-speaking world await the arrival of the gift-bearing Three Kings (see also Epiphany; CHRISTMAS IN MEXICO; CHRISTMAS IN THE PHILIPPINES; CHRISTMAS IN SPAIN).