Twelfth Night: confectionery and customs


Mary Clitheroe’s Twelfth Night party by “Phiz”

In recent times Twelfth Night has become the traditional time for taking down the Christmas tree, although there is now some dispute over whether the occasion should fall on the 5th or the 6th of January. A celebration dating back to the Middle Ages, during the nineteenth century it was one of the most popular of the Christmas holiday celebrations.

A detailed explanation of the origins and customs of the occasion was presented in a two column article in Birmingham’s Daily Post, January 6th, 1871, opening with a vivid description of an expected street scene:

This evening, if it happens to be tolerably fine, there will be a crowd at every confectioner’s window, admiring those indigestible dainties – the Twelfth Cakes; resplendent in all the colours of the rainbow, adorned with a multiplicity of grotesque ornaments and figures reposing amidst flowers, fruits and bonbons, illuminated by the most brilliant gas-light and artfully reflected in the most polished of mirrors. Yet of the crowd who linger and admire, not one in a thousand has any idea the origin of this Pantomime of Confectionery

The article goes on to explain how the feast day originated from the Roman celebration of Saturnalia when it was customary to make special merriment and feasting and to draw lots to see which of the company should be King for the night…the Saturnalia ceased but the Festival remained, beginning with the Nativity, or Christmas day and ending with the Epiphany, or Twelfth Day. 

In the Christian tradition, Epiphany represents the arrival of the three wise kings to the Nativity scene, and celebrations of the event can be traced back to Medieval times:

In the ‘Middle-Ages’, Twelfth Night was celebrated with special Church observances. There was a sort of Miracle Play performed in honour of the Three Kings. These personages, properly habited, used to make their appearance in church, preceded by a star…on being received by the clergy, the Three Kings were taken to the altar and there deposited gifts in commemoration of the gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts were divided among the priests. The gifts over, the Three Kings went to sleep, then came a boy, clothed in an alb (representing an angel) who made this announcement “All things which the prophets said are fulfilled”. Then there was chanting and everyone went away to feast and make merry and choose King and Queen out of the Twelfth Cake. 

There is further description of secular celebrations: The Mummers continued their antics on Twelfth Night, and Saint George, the Dragon and Old Father Christmas, the Grand Turk and Beelzebub played their pranks in old manor houses and country towns…in all private houses, Twelfth Night was celebrated with special feasting, drinking from the wassail bowl, games of all kinds, fiddling and dancing. 

The tradition of the Twelfth Cake is also included made of flour, honey, ginger and pepper…the maker thrusts in at random a small coin as she is kneading it. When it is baked it is divided into as many portions as there are persons present in the family. It is distributed and each has his share. Portions are also assigned to Christ, the Virgin and the three magi, which are given away in alms. Whoever finds the piece of coin is sainted by all as King, and being placed on a seat or a throne is thrice lifted aloft with joyful acclamations. The paper notes that this custom was played out on the continent, as well as in England, but that while continental celebrations chose only a king, in England it was customary ‘always’ to choose a king and a queen a bean and a pea were put into the cake and whoever found the bean in his slice was King and whoever found the pea was Queen…generally it was contrived that the master and mistress of the house became King and Queen, but occasionally mirth was provoked by an accidental change of parts. 


Three local customs from the Midlands, apparently peculiar to their community, are listed:

Pagot’s Bromley (Bagot’s Bromley) a man came along the village with a mock horse fastened to him with which he danced, at the same time making a snapping noise with a bow and arrow. He was attended by half a dozen villagers wearing mock deer’s heads and displaying the arms of the chief landlords of the place. The party danced “The Hays” and other country dances, and were rewarded with a pot of ale and a general contribution from the village.

The following tradition is still carried on in Herefordshire:

In Herefordshire the apple trees used to be solemnly wassailed on Twelfth Night eve – that is sprinkled with ale from the wassail bowl to make them bear well in the next season. The same custom existed (perhaps in some places still does) in all the cider counties.

And finally another custom from Herefordshire, as described in this same item from the Post:

At the approach of evening on the vigil of Twelfth Day the farmers and their friends and servants meet together and at about six o’clock walk out to a field where wheat is growing. In the highest part of the ground, twelve small fires and one large one are lighted up. The attendants, headed by the master of the family, pledge the company in old cyder, which circulates freely on these occasions.  A circle is formed round the large fire, when a general shout and halloing takes place, which you hear answered from all the adjunct villages and fields. Sometimes fifty or sixty of these fires may be seen at once. This being finished, the company return home where the good housewife and her maids are preparing a good supper. A large cake is always provided, with a hole in the middle. After supper, the company all attend the bailiff (or head of the oxen) where the following particulars are observed. The master, at the head of his friends, fills the cup, generally of strong ale, and stands opposite the first or finest of the oxen. He then pledges him in a toast. The company follows his example with all the other oxen, addressing each by name. This being finished, the large cake is produced and with much ceremony put on the horns of the first ox, through the hole above mentioned. The ox is then tickled to make him shake his head. If he throws the cake behind, then it is the mistresses perquisite, if it is thrown before in what is called the ‘bocay’ then it is the bailiff himself claims the prize. The company then return to the house, the doors of which they find locked, nor will they be opened till some joyous songs are sung. On their admittance a scene of jollity ensues and which lasts the greatest part of the night.


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