And so we come to the concluding post on the how people marked the Twelve Days of Christmas in the 17th Century. This has been just a tiny glimpse at the many and varied ways people celebrated the traditional period of feasting and celebration that stretched from Christmas Day until tonight, the ‘Twelfth Night’ of Shakespearean fame…
The English church officially celebrates Twelfth Night on 5 January, the night before Epiphany which is the day when, in the nativity story, the wise men visited the infant Jesus. Others, traditionally, count the twelve days as beginning after Christmas Day and so celebrate it on the day and night of 6 January.
Either way, Twelfth Night was the best party of the year and marked the end of Christmas – it was seen out with games, feasting and merry-making that almost exceeded Christmas Day itself. All the elements we’ve talked about in these posts – from masques to meals, from drinking to games – were dialled up for Twelfth Night, making it a night to remember (or forget!).
For the rich, the day and night were marked by elaborate masques, plays, pageants, and expensive gifts to and from each other, all overseen by the Lord of Misrule, while the court of Charles II enjoyed an evening of heavy gambling. Lower down the social scale, simple but raucous parties, community wassailing, and family gatherings were the norm. The notion of otherwise unacceptable social mixing and generosity continued right until the end of the Twelve Days:
Hospitality was the goal of the season, and especially so tenants and poor neighbours could gain temporary access to the lord’s hospitality, in return for the enforced gifts that marked the dependence: licensed openness with a careful structure. The poor may have got to eat in the hall, not by the gate. In exchange an acceptance of the hierarchical relationship was implied – and required.– Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People’s History
Two long-standing traditions are the Twelfth Night Cake and the election of a King and Queen of Misrule for the night.
Originally made with yeast and dried fruit, as the price of sugar came down the Twelfth Night Cake came to resemble a fruitcake. A 1620 Geneva tract describes a recipe containing flour, honey, ginger and pepper, but you can also try this version from English Heritage…
Most importantly, the cake would contain a dried bean and a dried pea – if a man found the bean, he would be king for the evening and if a woman found the pea she would be the queen. If a woman found the bean she could choose the king and vice versa. A clove was also used to designate ‘the Knave’, with other characters nominated by items such as coins, thimbles, and rings. The king and queen then presided over the rest of the evening’s entertainments. In a neat twist, the modern practice of hiding a coin in the Christmas pudding is the legacy of this traditional Twelfth Cake.
Robert Herrick’s poem Twelfe-Night, or King and Queene, published in 1648, describes the election of king and queen by bean and pea in a plum cake, and the homage done to them by the draining of wassail bowls of lamb’s-wool, a mulled ale drink with sugar, nutmeg, and ginger.
Restoration diarist Samuel Pepys loved a good Twelfth Night celebration and in January 1660 he recorded that he spent the evening with his cousins, father and friends. The ‘excellent cake’ had a pea that had split ‘so there was two Queens’ while the bean was lost, so they ‘chose the Doctor to be King’. Six years later, he confessed to finding the clove before secretly putting it in his neighbour’s piece! Three years after that, he noted a change in the choosing of role, including the addition of two from Sir Martin Marrall, a popular play of the period:
I did bring out my cake, and a noble cake, and there cut into pieces with wine and good drink, and after a new fashion, to prevent spoiling the cake, did put so many titles into a hat and so draw cuts, and I was the Queen and The Turner, King; Creed [was] Sir Martin Marrall; and Betty [was] Millicent. And so we were merry till it was night.
For the ordinary person, Twelfth Night was the time to have one big, final blow-out before the drudgery of daily life returned. The date marked the end of the depths of winter, with the seasons now turning toward spring – the first Monday after Twelfth Night was traditionally ‘Plough Monday’, which was the beginning of the agricultural year.
Christmas was officially over.
Plough Monday, next after that Twelfth tide is past
Bids out with the plough, the worst husband is last– Thomas Tusser
And so we come to the end of our Twelve Days of Christmas! Thank you so much for journeying with us back to the 17th Century to discover how the festive period was celebrated over 350 years ago. It’s now time to put our feet up in front of the fire with a glass of Canary in hand, avoid getting drawn into a game of Snap-dragon, and officially welcome The Year of Our Lord 2019. We’ll be back before long with more history, as well as updates on our forthcoming events.
It just remains for us to wish you all a blessèd and happy New Year!
Steve Roud, The English Year
Historic Royal Palaces website: The Stuart Christmas Gift Guide, Issue #3 December 1667
Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People’s History
Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England, the ritual year 1400-1700