Twelfth Night

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.


Twelfth Night Magi MS

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.

Twelfth Night Viola

Twelfth Night Masque 1607 costume

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”.


Twelfth Night Cake 1841 BM

David Teniers the Younger, Twelfth Night (the King Drinks), 1634-40, Museo del Prado, Madrid; 1841 editorial cartoon, British Museum.

8 responses to “Twelfth Night

  • cecilia

    having been raised in a catholic household I was never taught any of this, interesting though that the penny in the cake was stolen and placed in the plum duff in our catholic household.. hmm.. so much to learn c

  • Alastair Savage

    Here in Spain, the traditional festivities are still living traditions. The roscon de reyes is a cake served on the night of the Three Kings and it is very similar to the oneyou describe. It is a round sponge cake with a hole in the middle for the paper crown. It is decorated with candied fruit. There is a hard bean and a model king inside (people aren’t so stressed about being sued over here). If you get the bean, you have to pay for the king. If you get the king, you get to wear the crown.
    However, Anglo-Saxon culture is moving in. People are not sure whether to give presents on Christmas Day (delivered by Santa Claus) or on Epiphany (delivered by the Kings). With true Spanish joie de vivre, they resolve it by celebrating both with equal gusto.
    Any Spanish schoolchild can rattle off the names of the Magi, which I doubt any British one could (I couldn’t do that before coming here).

    • jaklumen

      The rosca de reyes cakes that I see in my local Mexican grocery here (southeastern Washington state, USA) use a little plastic baby (a baby Jesus, I assume) instead of a hard bean and a model king.

      I’m not sure how much Latino children here have presents delivered by the Kings. Santa is ever present and local Spanish-language media has already been fretting about Santa supplanting the Kings.

      I am Anglo myself, Anglo-Jute (Danish-English) by heritage to be more precise. I’m guessing I’m a bit unusual as I do know the names of the Kings: Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar.

      [came here by way of Margy’s reblog]

      • daseger

        Well thanks for stopping by–I just returned from a Dominican bakery in Lynn with my own rosa de reyes cake–complete with the little baby inside! Happy Twelfth Night!

  • daseger

    Thanks for these comments Alastair; I knew the traditions were comparatively different in Latin cultures, both in the Old World and the New, so much so that it was developing into a very long post! So I focused on Anglo-Saxon culture. I know what you mean about the Magi; I had to look them up myself! I can’t remember ever learning their names.

  • Margy Rydzynski

    Reblogged this on Collectables and commented:

  • jane

    I know there are Greek and Eastern Orthodox churches in your area – I’ve seen their wonderful spires! My Orthodox friends here celebrate gift giving on Twelfth Night.
    I am surprised you do not mention public acknowledgement (in the newspapers, etc.) and understanding of that custom in Salem, as I assume there must be practicing Orthodox Christians in the area – am I wrong?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: