Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Twelfth night, or what they ate at Christmas

With Christmas just over a week away, I'm going to write about a custom most of my UK ancestors were familiar with – but which has died out here in Britain.

It's not about a Christmas Day custom, though, but one which occurred during the festive season. Janet Few's already written a lovely post on Worldwide Genealogy about her own family Christmas tree tradition, so I thought I'd branch (sorry!) out a bit.

Dividing the Twelfth Night Cake
These days, the Christmas season seems to start in November (and in September in the shops). But go back in time and it really started on Christmas Day, or the night before, and continued for 12 days until Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night. For many people this day was an even bigger one for parties, feasting and present-giving.

So today I'm looking at something which started out as part of the celebrations of Epiphany, when the three Magi, or Wise Men, or Kings, arrived in Bethlehem. Twelfth Cake, also known as Twelfth Night Cake, Bean Cake or King Cake.

It was a rich fruit cake in which a dried bean and pea were baked. When the family, friends and neighbours were gathered round the table, the cake would be divided up and whoever found the bean in their slice would be king for the night, while the person who got the pea would be queen.

Misrule: The King Drinks, David Teniers the Younger

Most accounts skip over what happened if a woman got the bean, or a man the pea, but it seems that whoever got a 'wrong' legume would then choose a king or queen, as appropriate.

The monarchs for the night then ruled over all the others until midnight and were in charge of the feasting.

This seems to be a distant echo of the Roman Saturnalia, a midwinter festival which was partly assimilated by Christmas festivities, when a Lord of Misrule oversaw the upturning of social norms and a wild time was had by all.

By the end of the 18th century the King and Queen were joined by others, such as Sir Tunbelly Clumsy and Miss Fanny Fanciful, caricature characters picked out of a hat or bag. They acted as the merry monarchs' courtiers.

Plain Twelfth Cake (plum cake)

Twelfth Cake probably started out as a delicious fruit, nut and spice cake, but, as sugar became more available, would be dusted with icing sugar or covered in white icing. A paper crown, or one or two made of sugar paste, was often put on top.

During the 18th century decorations increased until the cake ended up covered in paste mouldings as elaborate as a Robert Adam ceiling, while usually keeping the crown or crowns. Sometimes the other Twelfth Night characters were also added to the decorations.

And with the cake, and the feasting, and the fun, and present-giving, Twelfth Night was 'probably the most popular day throughout the [sic] Christmas' when William Sandys published his book Christmastide in 1852.

So why don't we eat Twelfth Cake these days? What happened to it?

The Victorians did. In particular, Victoria herself. As Christmas Day became more of a family celebration, thanks to Dickens, Prince Albert and all the rest - because many of our 'traditional' Christmas customs are fairly recent in historical terms - it began to rival Twelfth Night.

Then in the 1870s Victoria banned Twelfth Night. Boo! Hiss!

To be more specific, she thought it was too pagan, too un-Christian, with its boozy celebrations and dangerous misrule, and too disruptive to hard work, so she had it removed as an official holiday. No day off work; no feasting or upsetting the social order.

The cake, with its decorations modified, and without its pea and bean, moved to Christmas Day.
Well, my ancestors weren't going to lose a delicious treat as well as a holiday, were they?
Black Bun

And it seems that Twelfth Cake was also the ancestor of a Scottish cake/pie called Black Bun, which I've eaten on Hogmanay.

Another Twelfth Night tradition was drinking a wassail - spiced cider, or wine or ale. With the flesh of baked apples floating in it, it was known as Lamb's Wool. It would go very well with a slice of cake or Black Bun.

The inspiration for this post came from my friend Lesley, who asked me if I knew anything about Twelfth Cake. I said I did, a bit, and dashed off to do some research. Any excuse! It was so interesting I wanted to share it with you.

So thanks to her, and to you for being a wonderful Worldwide Genealogy community. I'll end by wishing you a very Merry Christmas, if you celebrate it, and a happy holiday season to all. In the words of a favourite of mine, the Wassail Song:

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too!
Twelfth Night Feast by Jan Steen

All illustrations are in the public domain


  1. Is there a Like button on this that I can't see? Anyway, I really enjoyed your piece, thank you :)

  2. Is there a Like button on this that I can't see? Anyway, I really enjoyed your piece, thank you :)

  3. Replies
    1. I can only see 'share' buttons... that's a good point about a 'like' button.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. spending boxing day catching up on some blogs! love this one

  5. Thank you, Diane, that's lovely of you.


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