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Happy Twelfth Night!

No, not the play by Shakespeare, though it is named for the holiday.

Starting in the Middle Ages, Twelfth Night referred to the last of the twelve days that make up Christmas.  You know, like in the carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas.   It is celebrated January 5th, the Eve of the Epiphany, or on Epiphany itself, January 6th.

The holiday ended two weeks of revelry and role reversal.  Led by a Lord of Misrule, often someone of low status within the household, servants dressed as their masters.  Both men and women cross-dressed.  Songs and mummery entertained the wealthy, and everyone feasted.  Cooks prepared special food and drink, such as wassail and a King Cake.  In England, a bean and a pea were baked into a ‘plum cake’.  (This sounds like a precursor of the plum pudding of Dickens’ day.) Whoever found the bean won the title of King, while the recipient of the pea would be Queen.  If a woman found the bean in her slice, she was allowed to choose the King, and a man who found the pea chose the Queen.

Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Mexico have versions of the King Cake, with coins, tokens, or beans hidden inside.  There are references to Twelfth Night cakes in English cookbooks in Victorian times, and my mother-in-law speaks fondly of the King Cakes eaten during her childhood in France.

Although To be Seduced opens shortly after Twelfth Night, there is no mention of the holiday in the book.  My heroine was raised in a Puritan household, and they did not celebrate any part of the Christmas season.  As the Bible does not mention that the early Christians commemorated the birth of Christ, they considered it unseemly to acknowledge it.  And they objected strenuously to the secularization of Christmas — some things never change!  Under Cromwell, celebrating Christmas was outlawed.

My family’s Twelfth Night dinner ends with a cake of whatever flavor takes the cook’s fancy, with a quarter baked in. When my youngest was a toddler, I figured the quarter would be easy to find and hard to swallow!  As it is, the poor child didn’t get an uncrumbled slice of cake till she was about eight.  Whoever finds the coin is King or Queen and gets to (read: must) wear a paper crown for the rest of the night.  And our tradition is rippling outward now.  My oldest started throwing Twelfth Night parties in high school, and one of her college friends has asked about plans for the 2010 party.

Remember, if you decide to try a King Cake, TELL EVERYONE TO TAKE SMALL BITES!!  (Seriously! I almost choked on a penny when I was a kid!!)

Here is a link for a modernized version of a medieval King Cake.

And here is an eighteenth century recipe that looks like a plum pudding.

Twelfth Night,or King and Queen

Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where Bean’s the King of the sport here;
Beside 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.

Next crown the bowl full
With gentle lambs-wool;
Add sugar, nutmeg and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must do
To make the wassail a swinger.

Give then to the King
And Queen wassailing;
And though with ale ye be wet here;
Yet part ye from hence,
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.
- Robert Herrick, 1648

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