Twelfth night marks the end of the midwinter festivities, concluding the twelve days of Christmas and marking the coming of the ‘Feast of Epiphany’.
The recent past saw twelfth night celebrations in the British Isles forming an important part of the Christmas festivities, with parties and balls common in every town and village. Today it is unusual to hear mention of them, which in our view is a shame.
The commercialisation of the festivities; Christmas goods appearing in shops during September, would seem to have sated the appetite by Boxing Day (Feast of St Stephen), so that for most it would seem, ‘Christmas’ is just ‘one day’.
There is confusion as to when Twelfth Night falls. Many hold that it is the evening of the 5th of January. It was once usual to view each new day as starting at sunset, therefore Christmas day began at sunset on 24th December (Christmas Eve) and carried on till sunset on the 25th. After this came Boxing Day, the first of the 12 days of Christmas. In this way the Twelfth Night (after sunset on the 5th) would come before the Twelfth Day (6th). In the western world today, we have a very different comprehension of the words eve and night, seeing a new day as beginning either immediately after midnight or at daybreak the following morning and therefore celebrate Twelfth Night on the 6th January.
In Italy, it’s the end of Christmas and the start of carnival season. People take on the guise of La Befana (a gift-giving witch), play pranks and tricks, cross-dress (gender reversal), and it is common for engagements to be announced.
In France, a thin cake is made, cut prior to serving and then ceremonially carried to the guests. The youngest present serves, those finding a small china doll in their portion becoming King or Queen of the festivities. A piece of cake is left for the next guest who calls at the household and this is called the ‘share of the Virgin Mary,’ or ‘share of the poor.’
In modern Twelfth Night/Epiphany celebrations, the French President is not permitted to ‘find’ the doll, after all one cannot be head of state and the monarch of misrule as well. To avoid this, a cake without a doll is served at Elysée Palace. The nature of Twelfth Night, whilst celebratory, is also discordant and unruly. The Lord of Misrule an archetypal figure who symbolises a world turned upside down. On this day the King becomes peasant and the peasant becomes King, those on high are temporarily struck low and vice versa. At the stroke of midnight, the rule of this ‘Fool-King/Queen for a Day’ ends and the world returns to normality.
We in Britain have a long history of Twelfth Night celebration. Decorations must be taken down or bad luck will follow in the coming year. The Yule log, lit on Christmas Eve (kindled from the remains of the previous years log). Has it’s charred remains stored to kindle next years. Festivities included drinking and eating, anything spicy or hot, such ginger cake and spiced ale. Twelfth Night cakes were often luxurious, contained rich ingredients and took a good deal of preparation. For the poor, the cake was replaced with a pudding (made over from Christmas leftovers) boiled in a pot. It is suggested that this is the forerunner of the Christmas pudding, but it is more likely that the Twelfth Night cake/pudding became the traditional Christmas cake. The Christmas pudding, which has it’s origins in plum porridge/pudding, was originally associated with Christmas Eve. A bean and a pea would be baked within the cake to respectively determine a Twelfth Night King and Queen. A man receiving the bean would be crowned King, a woman who received the pea became Queen. A woman finding the bean could choose her own King and vice versa for a man finding the pea. The King and queen were rulers of the Twelfth Night festivities and directed the celebrations.
The custom introduced from France, was brought to England by Mary Queen of Scots, who added the pea so a Queen could also be chosen. In addition to the bean/pea there was also a clove for a knave or rogue, a forked stick or twig for a cuckold and a piece of rag for someone of loose morals. The including of small charms in Christmas Cake/pudding in order to divine the recipients future continues to this day.
Although the celebrations are much diminished today, an annual Twelfth Night celebration is held on the banks of the river Thames. A Holly Man arrives by boat ‘bringing in the green’, a St. George folk play is performed, Twelfth Night Cakes are distributed, and a King and Queen chosen.
In the USA the celebrations are very much alive.
In New Orleans Carnival season begins on Twelfth Night (January 6th) and the period between Epiphany and Mardi Gras is known as ‘king cake season.’
The King Cake custom was brought to New Orleans by French settlers and was a central feature of Twelfth Night balls. The recipient of the bean being chosen as Queen. Today a wooden replica of a cake is employed, which contains a gold bean (for the Queen) and several silver beans (to determine members of her court). There are customs associated with this day in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.
It is interesting to note that in many US cakes, the bean is replaced by a ceramic or even a plastic baby doll, with a king wearing a crown being an alternative. This is perhaps further evidence of the ‘Christianisation’ of the festivities, however New Orleans cakes have been known to include figures of a breast, a penis or of an entwined naked couple! These figurines are more in keeping with the pagan nature of the festivities, celebrating sexuality and procreation.
Across America, wreaths are pinned to the front door of houses, and are taken down on Twelfth night, edibles woven into them are eaten, though it’s more usual to hang candy, nuts, fruits, etc upon the Christmas tree itself. In Manitou Springs, Colorado, Epiphany is marked by the Great Fruitcake Toss. Fruitcakes are thrown around to dispose of unwanted festive food and celebrants dress up a kings, fools, etc. Though participants must take an item of canned food with them to take part, it is still indicative of our modern western society that we take such an attitude toward excess food. Neither our poorer ancestors or those people in parts of the world today, being in a position to treat food in such a dismissive, if humourous manner.
Twelfth Night rituals and customs have their origins in a pre-Chiristian, pagan Europe.
In Rome, selecting a ruler for involved baking a bean in Foccacia. There are clear parallels between Twelfth Night and Saturnalia with both sharing attributes of raucous fun, inversion of the social order, and male/female role reversal, etc.
The ‘King’s Cake’ concept can be found across the pre-Christian landscape of Europe. A random selection method used to elect a man as ‘sacred king’, not for one night, but for a period of one year. This fortunate (or unfortunate) individual would be treated like a king, then ritually sacrificed. His blood shed upon the soil to ensure the success of the next harvest.
As Christianity spread across Europe aspects of local religions/cults could not be eradicated entirely, they were instead assimilated into Christian celebrations in more acceptable forms. The electing of a ‘sacrificial King’ became unacceptable, and the period became a celebration of the Magi, the Wise Men journeying to find the new King, the ‘Christ Child’. – Epiphany.
Epiphany means manifestation or appearance, it celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ. Western Christians acknowledge the visitation of the ‘Three Wise Men’ or Magi, to the newly born Jesus, however this feast means something altogether different to Eastern Christians, who at this time commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan.
Here we concentrate on the theme of journeying, with pre-Christian stories being told at this time, for example the story of ‘The Baboushka’ who travels in vain to find the Christ child. For those of us familiar with this folk story, the theme of regret and being too busy to follow opportunity or ‘our star’ strike a familiar chord around this time of year, with the intent to make amends with our New Year’s resolutions.
The story is told quite charmingly for children here http://www.bbc.co.uk/cbeebies/misc/stories/misc-baboushka/
Other versions have the Baboushka deliberately misleading the Magi, who remain undeterred in their quest to bring the gifts of divine Kingship, Priesthood, and sacrificed god to the divine infant. Whose fate although predetermined is also willingly embraced.