Tuesday, 4 January 2011


“Mirth is God’s medicine. Everybody ought to bathe in it.” - Henry Ward Beecher

Tonight is the Twelfth Night of Christmas, marking the coming of the Epiphany tomorrow and concluding the Twelve Days of Christmas. This is formally the last day of the Christmas festivities and the Twelfth Night was observed in the past as a last chance for merrymaking, before the solemn Feast Day of the Epiphany. It was common for people to dress up (often cross-dressing) and for reversals to occur as part of the merry-making (for example, servants masquerading as masters, and vice-versa). Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night” was written to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment. The play has many elements that are reversed, in the tradition of Twelfth Night, such as a woman, Viola, dressing as a man, and a servant, Malvolio, imagining that he can become a nobleman.

For most people nowadays the only practical aspect of the 5th January is that it is said to be the last day for taking down the Christmas decorations, or bad luck will follow. In the past Twelfth Night had its own traditions, which have largely been consigned to history. The Twelfth Night cake was made the centre of a particular custom, by which a King and Queen were chosen to rule over the festivities of the night. A bean and a pea were baked in the cake, and when slices were handed out to the company, whoever got the piece with the bean in it became King, while whoever got the pea was Queen. The custom was so well known that “The King of the Bean” was proverbial for someone temporarily in charge of celebratory fun.

In some cases, coins were used instead of beans and peas, while others adopted the more prosaic method of drawing names from a hat, which gave scope for widening the play-acting, by giving all people attending characters as well. This gave occasion for great mirth and merriment as stock characters were used, which were almost pantomime-like (for example, a comic Frenchman known as Monsieur François Parlez-Vous; the Irishman Patrick O’Tater; a tedious authoress - Lady Bluestocking; a dandy: Beau Whipper-Snapper; a young ingénue Nelly Violet, etc).

The drink for the night was often in the form of a ceremonial wassail bowl (similar to the modern punch bowl), from which everyone was served. It contained a special drink, often called “Lamb’s Wool”, made from roasted apples, sugar, and nutmeg in ale, or sometimes wine. By extension from the one Twelfth Night cake, the day had become by the 19th century a great one for cakes and pastries in general. Every London confectioner made a point of displaying a splendid windowful of cakes in all sorts of shapes and sizes for Twelfth Night in the 1800s.

In agricultural areas, two interrelated customs connected to Twelfth Night were wassailing, and the lighting of fires in the wheat fields, to ensure a good crop for the coming year. In some parts of England, twelve fires of straw, in a row were started. Around one fire, which was larger than the rest, the peasants and workers drank a glass of cider to their master’s health and success to the next harvest. Returning home they received carraway seed cakes and cider.

For Poetry Wednesday today, here is Robert Herrick’s poem about the Twelfth Night festivities, from his collection “Hesperides”:

by Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674)

NOW, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean's the king of the sport here;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.

Which known, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink
To the base from the brink
A health to the king and queen here.

Next crown a bowl full
With gentle lamb’s wool :
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the king
And queen wassailing:
And though with ale ye be whet here,
Yet part from hence
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.

The pictures are Twelfth Night character illustrations from the Illustrated London News of January 1848, by Richard “Dicky” Doyle.


  1. We have lost so much by abandoning some of these wonderful old customs. Yes, surely our world is changing, but not always for the best. Maybe reviving some of these old holidays and customs would be very worthwhile!

  2. yeah well you could play parlour games any time really