The Twelve Days of Christmas (finally) conclude this weekend with Epiphany, or “Twelfth Night”, marking the arrival of the Three Kings from the East in Jerusalem so that they might adore the baby Jesus. Once again, however, biblical traditions merge with earlier ethnic ones, creating hybrid celebrations and customs. In western Christian culture, Twelfth Night was a big party night before the nineteenth century, the peak of the Christmas season rather than the afterthought that it is today. I’m wondering if that is changing, however: there have always been Epiphany services in churches in our area but this particular year I’ve been invited to three Twelfth Night parties. Maybe people are getting fed up with the sheer consumerism of Christmas Day and refocusing on the social and festive aspects of the holiday season through Twelfth Night.
Two Renaissance views of the Adoration of the Magi: by Hans Memling (c. 1470, Museo del Prado, Madrid) and British Library Egerton MS 2125, Ghent, early sixteenth century.
Twelfth Night traditions vary from place to place and time to time, but there are some constants: there is always feasting, there are always cakes, and there is generally some sort of performance that involves role-playing, often world-turned-upside-down role playing, such as Shakespeare’s cross-dressing Viola of Twelfth Night; or, What You Will, which was first performed in 1602 as part of the festivities. This particular play survives because it was included in the 1623 First Folio, but it is just one of many Twelfth Night masques that were staged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for both elite and popular audiences.
Viola’s duel with Sir Andrew Ague Cheek, 1788 print by H.W. Bunbury, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; printed edition of a masque performed for King James VI on Twelfth Night,1607.
Twelfth Night celebrations also have to include a cake, but there seem to be many recipe variations: spiced cakes, fruit cakes, sugared “Kings’ Cakes” with multicolored icing or little crowns on top, “rich cakes”,Martha Washington’s “Great Cake”. I particularly like the recipes from Colonial Williamsburg and the Folger Shakespeare Library: these cakes are rather dense, alternatively brandy-soaked, and to be really authentic they should be baked with surprises inside that relate to the Twelfth Night festivities: a bean, a coin or a trinket representing the baby Jesus, perhaps a slip of paper to be safe. At parties in the past, the guest who found the prize in his/her slice became the king or queen of Twelfth Night. Some old recipes refer to the insertion of both a bean (for the king) and a pea (for the queen), so two “sovereigns” can rule over the festivities. Again, the world is turned upside down–for a night. And of course, as the last image illustrates, everybody wants to be King, even if it was just “King of the Bean”.
David Teniers the Younger, Twelfth Night (the King Drinks), 1634-40, Museo del Prado, Madrid; 1841 editorial cartoon, British Museum.