The 6th January celebrates the feast of Epiphany, the moment in the nativity story when the Magi present their famous gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  It is also the day which marks the traditional close of the twelve festive days that follow the birth of Christ.  In our time, Twelfth Night seems to have lost much of its original spark, reduced by many to a day when war is declared on carpets reluctant to give up the last of the Christmas tree needles.  However, in the past, Twelfth Night was one of the most looked forward to days of the Christmas calendar.

The early 19th century writer Leigh Hunt tells us: Christmas goes out in fine style, with Twelfth Night.  It is a finish worthy of the time.  Christmas Day was the morning of the season; New Year’s Day the middle of it, or noon; Twelfth Night is the night, brilliant with innumerable planets of Twelfth-cakes.  The whole island keeps court; nay, all Christendom.  All the world are kings and queens.  Everybody is somebody else, and learns at once to laugh at, and to tolerate, characters different from his own, by enacting them.  Cakes, characters, forfeits, lights, theatres, merry rooms, little holiday-faces, and, last not least, the painted sugar on the cakes, so bad to eat but so fine to look at, useful because it is perfectly useless except for a sight and a moral – all conspire to throw a giddy splendour over the last night of the season, and to send it to bed in pomp and colours, like a Prince.

A few centuries earlier, in 1512, Henry VIII marked the day by taking part in an Italian Masque the kyng with xi other wer disguised, after the manner of Italie, called a maske, a thing not seen afore in England, they were appareled in garmentes long and brode, wrought all with gold, with visers and capes of gold, and after the banket done . . these Maskers came in, with six gentlemen . . and desired the ladies to daunce. By contrast, Charles II chose a different entertainment 150 year later and according to custom . . opened the revels of the night by throwing the dice himself in the privy chamber . . and lost his £100.

Samuel Pepys – usually so sociable – declined to partake in his family’s celebrations of 1665, and went to my viall, leaving my wife and people up at their sports, which they continued till morning, not coming to bed at all. A year later he was still of the same mind It being Twelfth Night, they had got the fiddler, and mighty merry they were; and I above came not to them, leaving them dancing and choosing King and Queen.

Pepys refers to the old custom of the election of the Bean King – the first man to find a bean in a slice of Twelfth Night Cake; and the Pea Queen – the first woman who locates a pea.  The 17th century poet, Robert Herrick throws a little light on role of the cake:

Now, now the mirth comes

With the cake full of plums,

Where bean’s the king of the sport here;

Besides we must know,

The pea also

Must revel as queen in the court here.

Begin then to choose

This night as ye use,

Who shall for the present delight here

Be a king by the lot,

And who shall not

Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here

Which known, let us make

Joy-sops with the cake;

And let not a man then be seen here,

Who unurg’d will not drink,

To the base from the brink,

A health to the king and the queen here.

Jointly, the King and Queen ruled over the festivities of the day, and all – irrespective of class or status – would be duty bound to do whatever was bidden of them.  When Mary Queen of Scots had Twelfth Cake at Holyrood Castle in 1563 her maid, Mary Fleming, drew the pea and was dressed in the Queen’s own clothes for the rest of the day.  Although William Sandys, in the 19th century, said of Twelfth Night in our time it is probably the most popular day throughout Christmas, thanks to the Twelfth Cake and other amusements, the Victorians reined in the festivities, eventually banning them altogether.

The illustration above, dating from 1794, shows Twelfth Night Cake taking pride of place in the centre of the table. To the right, a hat is being passed around, and a woman selects, in raffle fashion, a card from within (although one cannot help speculating that she is being steered by the young man to a card of his choosing).  Written on the cards were names of characters to be portrayed in the Bean King and Pea Queen’s court.  These could be fictitious or real personages.  For example, on the male side could be the Prince of Wales, the Lord Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, or the Archbishop of Canterbury.  On the female side might be found the Queen Mother, the Princess Royal, maids of honour and ladies in waiting.  Going back to Leigh Hunt for a moment:

The whole island keeps court; nay, all Christendom.  All the world are kings and queens.  Everybody is somebody else, and learns at once to laugh at, and to tolerate, characters different from his own, by enacting them.

Look at the Dairy section for details of the Twelfth Night Concerts in Broadway on 6th January 2011, and the following year at the Riverhouse, Walton-on-Thames, where some of the old world customs will be observed.