Twelfth Night


Twelfth Night
(5/6 January)
   Still regarded by many people as the end of the *Christmas season, and this has a long-standing official sanction, as the Council of Tours of ad 567 ruled that the twelve days from the Nativity to the Epiphany would constitute one religious festival. For most of us nowadays the only practical aspect of the date is that it is said to be the day (or the last day) for taking down the Christmas decorations, or bad luck will follow, but in the past Twelfth Night had its own traditions, which have largely been forgotten.
   The overriding feeling of reports of Twelfth Night celebrations in the 18th and 19th centuries is that although substantial in their own right, they were somewhat quieter and more subdued that those at Christmas, but the other recurrent feature is that there is invariably mention of cake and alcohol. The Twelfth Night cake was made the centre of a particular custom, by which a King and Queen were chosen to preside over the festivities. 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 everybody present characters as well. Samuel Pepys recorded using this method for the first time in his Diary for 6 January 1669. *Herrick (Hesperides, 1648) also devotes a whole poem to the 'Twelfe Night King and Queene'. Substantially the same bean-King custom existed on the European continent, and Hutton believes that the custom was reintroduced to Britain from the Continent by the late Tudor period.
   The drink was often in the form of a ceremonial *wassail bowl - a large receptacle, 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. Hone reports that every London confectioner made a point of displaying a splendid windowful of cakes in all sorts of shapes and sizes (Hone, 1827: 24-30).
   In agricultural areas, two interrelated customs connected to Twelfth Night were *was-sailing, and the lighting of fires in the wheat fields, to ensure a good crop for the coming year. The latter was apparently confined to the western side of England as reported from Herefordshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucestershire: '... they make twelve fires of straw, in a row. Around one fire, which they make larger than the rest, they drink a glass of cider to their master's health and success to the next harvest. Returning home they receive car-raway seed cakes and cider . . .' (Thomas Rudge, History of the County of Gloucester (1803), ii. 42).
   See also *Baddeley cake, *Holy Thorn, *wassailing.
   ■ Wright and Lones, 1938: ii. 50-91; Hutton, 1996: 15-16, 110-11; Brand, 1849: i. 21-34; Hone, 1827: i. 24-30.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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