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Twelfth Night Traditions

A published folklorist, Pollyanna enjoys writing about hidden histories, folk customs, and things that go bump in the night.

"The Adoration of the Magi" by Edward Burne-Jones (1904)

"The Adoration of the Magi" by Edward Burne-Jones (1904)

Twelfth Night falls upon 5th January, or 6th, depending on whether you consider the Twelve Days of Christmas starting on either 25th or 26th December. Most consider it to be the last night before the Epiphany, which falls on 6th January. This is the day in most Christian beliefs that the Three Kings visited the baby Jesus in Nazareth and presented their gifts, and is marked in the Christian calendar as a feast day to celebrate Christ's presentation as the Son of God to mankind.

There are many interesting traditions associated with this festival, some of which pre-date Christianity itself.

Bonfeld Protestant Church in Bad Rappenau, Germany, featuring a Christmas tree and Nativity scene.

Bonfeld Protestant Church in Bad Rappenau, Germany, featuring a Christmas tree and Nativity scene.

Twelfth Night Superstitions

It is believed that if you don't take your Christmas decorations down by the end Twelfth Night, then you will invite bad luck into the house.

Interestingly in earlier times, you had much longer to bring the decorations down. These were to be removed by Candlemas, which is celebrated on the 40th day after Christmas, on 2nd February. The English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote this description in his work, "Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve";

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe ;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall :
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind :
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.

As the deadline for bringing decorations down changed, the superstition still remained.

Don't throw any holly-leaves on the fire! A symbol of eternal life, it bodes ill for anyone who decides to burn it! This plant was believed to protect the home from witches and evil spirits, with the red berries representing the blood of Christ.

If you have kept a Yule Log burning in the hearth throughout Christmas, make sure to sprinkle some of the ashes in your garden or vegetable patch to ensure your plants thrive. Better still, mix some in the ground when planting your seeds to bring in a bumper crop.

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Wassailing

There are various different practices known as a Wassail in English traditions. It is used to describe a cup of mulled cider, a warm spiced drink enjoyed during winter. This derives from the practice of the door-to-door Wassail whereby local agricultural workers would visit houses after dark, singing their good health and offering a sip of their mulled cider in exchange for a few coins or some food to help them get through the winter months.

On Twelfth Night, an Orchard Wassail is held in some parts of the country to toast the apple trees that brought a bounty to the community during the previous year. Toast is hung from the boughs of the tree, and cider splashed on the roots. Pots and pans are banged, and a great din is roused by the revellers to wake the trees up to wake up the apple trees, drive out any evil spirits, and prevent blight in the orchard.

You can read a full account of one such Orchard Wassail in this article.

Wassailing at Maplehurst, West Sussex, England. Part of the ceremony includes anointing the roots of the tree with cider to put back some goodness into the soil.

Wassailing at Maplehurst, West Sussex, England. Part of the ceremony includes anointing the roots of the tree with cider to put back some goodness into the soil.

Chalking the Door

On Twelfth Night or sometimes Epiphany, some Christians will mark their doors with chalk with a pattern to bring blessings to the house. The format of year is used, with the first two numbers at the start of the pattern, the last two at the end of the pattern. Between these, the letters C, M, and B, are written.

These letters represent the initials of the traditional names of the Three Kings, or Magi, that visited Jesus on the Epiphany; Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. It is also an abbreviation of the blessing, "Christus mansionem benedicat", meaning "May Christ bless this house". It is thought that this tradition was inspired by the Old Testament tale of the Israelites marking their doors to protect them from the Angel of Death.

This custom is attested by the Vatican.

The top-left of this door is marked with chalk, wishing for blessings on the house.

The top-left of this door is marked with chalk, wishing for blessings on the house.

Misrule, Mayhem, and Cake!

Like any festival, food is an important part of the celebrations.

In Kent, when the decorations were taken down, an edible decoration would be removed the last. This would be broken up, shared among the family, and eaten, to bring good health for the rest of the year.

Twelfth Night has some lingering practices that originated with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, when like Christmas, singing, dancing, and feasting would be take place. A highlight of the winter months, these celebrations were adapted and adopted into the Christian festival of Christmas.

A popular practice in Tudor times was to appoint a Lord of Misrule during the Twelfth Night Feast. His responsibilities would include organising games and entertainment for the Feast of Fools. To select the man who would play this part, a bean was baked into a cake. Whoever found the bean would be crowned the Lord of Misrule, or King of the Bean. Some cakes would include a pea in order to crown a Queen of the Pea.

"Dennison's Christmas Book" (1923), describes how costumed Twelfth Night Parties would be held, and a Twelfth Night Cake would be baked for such an occasion. A bean and a pea would be baked into the cake, and whoever found them would become King and Queen for the duration of the night.

Twelfth Night would be an evening of parties, and many employers would provide their workers with cake and drink, before they started work again after the Epiphany.

The Theatre Royal on London's Drury Lane, still provides a Twelfth Night Cake for the actors after Robert Baddeley, a successful actor, left a request in his will that £100 would be provided each year in order to provide the actors in residence with cake and punch on 6th January. This tradition has been followed since 1795.

"The Lord of Misrule" by Spencer Baird Nichols (1915)

"The Lord of Misrule" by Spencer Baird Nichols (1915)

Twelfth Night Cake Recipe

There are many different recipes for various takes on the Twelfth Night Cake. This one will produce a type of spiced bread, a little like German Stollen.


You will need:

  • 8 cups of sifted all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups of milk, heated to boiling point then cooled to lukewarm
  • 1 cup of granulated sugar
  • 1lb of butter or shortening
  • 6 eggs (plus 1 extra for glazing)
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • ½ ounce of yeast (roughly 4½ teaspoons)
  • A sprinkle of cloves
  • A teaspoon of cinnamon
  • A teaspoon of ginger
  • ½ to 1 cup of sweetmeats, depending on your taste - such as candied citrus peals, raisins, chopped glacé cherries, and chopped glacé angelica root
  • A dried bean and a dried pea
  • Dried fruit and frosting to decorate

Method:

  1. Dissolve the yeast into a small amount of warm water and leave to activate.
  2. Grease a baking tray, or lay a section of grease-proof (non-stick) paper on the pan.
  3. Boil the 2 cups of milk and leave to cool to a warm temperature.
  4. Sift just 2 cups of flour into a bowl and add the salt.
  5. In a separate bowl, sift 6 cups of flour. Make a hole in the centre, and pour in the yeast mixture.
  6. Knead this mixture together by hand, and slowly pour in the milk.
  7. Beat the eggs and pour them into another separate bowl. Mix with the butter and sugar until it is a light paste. Then stir in all of the spices and sweetmeats, and include your bean and pea.
  8. Pour the sweetmeat mix into the cake dough, kneading again by hand to blend it in evenly. Place a tea towel over mixture and leave to rise until doubled in size.
  9. Add the reserved flour and salt to the dough mixture and knead in, before shaping your bread into a ring on the pan.
  10. Cover with a cloth and leave to rise for another hour.
  11. Pre-heat the oven to 325°
  12. When your ring is risen, glaze with a beaten egg.
  13. Place in the oven and cook for between 1 and 1½ hours depending on the size of your cake.
  14. Leave to cool, then decorate.

Remember, whoever finds the bean and pea are King and Queen respectively!

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© 2019 Pollyanna Jones