Today, in the 21stcentury US, the holiday of Twelfth Night has largely been forgotten, but one hundred and fifty years ago, we all would have had a rollicking good time.
Twelfth Night refers to the evening of the twelfth day of Christmas, and is observed as the holy day of Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. It occurs on either January 5thor 6th, depending on your region and religious denomination, and marks the end of the holiday season. Various traditions sprang up around this feast day, and it saw a surge in popularity in medieval and Tudor England. Customs then died out for a time before seeing a resurgence in the Late Regency and early Victorian period.
The center piece of any Twelfth Night celebration is the Twelfth Night cake. These were usually a rich fruit cake made from eggs, butter, fruit, nuts, and spices—a bit like Italian panettone. The king cake now made for Mardi Gras/Carnival in parts of the world is one variation. These cakes were often large and elaborately decorated with sugar frosting and delicate figures made of plaster of Paris or almond paste. Within each cake was baked a dried bean and a dried pea. The man who received the slice of cake with the dried bean became the Lord of Misrule for the evening, and the woman who found the dried pea was his Lady or Queen. In later years, gold tokens were used in place of the bean and pea because they were thought to be more gentile, as well as easier to locate within the baked confection.
The Lord of Misrule—who alternatively might be called the King of the Bean or the Abbot of Unreason—became lord of the evening. His job was to foster fun and mischief, and order his subjects to do all sorts of merry and ridiculous things. No matter how ludicrous the lord’s commands, they had be to be obeyed. He was often outfitted with a paper crown, a scepter, and even a mock throne.
The rest of the party guests formed his mock court, taking on various roles in masquerade. Sometimes these roles were assigned by other items being baked into the cake—a twig for the fool, a rag for the tarty girl, or a clove for the villain. More often they were chosen from slips of paper drawn from a dish. During the late 1820s and onward it become increasingly popular to procure Twelfth Night character cards from stationers who made up large paper sheets that hosts could cut up into individual cards. These could then be sent to guests ahead of time, or drawn from a bowl as the slips of paper. Many of these caricatures were highly irreverent, and some were quite offensive and prejudiced to our more enlightened 21stcentury eyes. The goal of this mock court was to turn society on its head, making the fool the king and the servant the lord, and vice versa.
These parties were characterized by great feasting, drinking, dancing, and singing, as well as parlor games. Decorations were bright and colorful, and no party was complete without a few tricks. The song “Sing a Song of Sixpence” is supposedly inspired by one such notorious Twelfth Night prank. Amateur theatrics were also often staged. These parties were visited by wassailers moving from house to house as they sang and wished their neighbors good health. In exchange, they were given wassail, and a penny for each person along with a cup of cider and a piece of cake.
Holiday decorations were also traditionally removed on Twelfth Night, for it was thought to be bad luck to leave them up after. The Christmas greens were burned and the charred remains of the Yule log—which would have remained burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas to bring the house good fortune for the coming year—were gathered up after the party and kept in a safe place as protection, and so that they could kindle the next year’s Yule log with them.
I had great fun writing about a fictional Twelfth Night party for the opening scenes of A Stroke of Malice, Lady Darby and Gage’s latest adventure, and I hope readers get more than a few laughs from their revelry. It’s inspired me to want to revive this fun holiday tradition, and perhaps it might inspire you, too.
A Stroke of Malice
by Anna Lee Huber,
Berkley Prime Crime Trade Paperback,
April 7, 2020,