Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Twelfth Night ~ The Revels Concluding The Festive Season

I tell of festivals, and fairs, and plays.
Of merriments, and mirth, and bonfire blaze;
I tell of Christmas-mummings, new year’s day.
Of twelfth-night king and queen, and children’s play;
I tell of valentines, and true-loves-knots,
Of omens, cunning men, and drawing lots—
I tell of brooks, of blossoms, birds and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July-flowers;
I tell of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes.
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal cakes;
I tell of groves, of twilights, and 1 sing
The court of Mab, and of the fairy-king.

Robert Herrick

Christmas in Georgian times extended from Saint Nicholas’ Day (6th December) to the Epiphany (6th January). The twelve days of Christmas concluded with Twelfth Night, the sixth of January being the twelfth day after Christmas and therefore also known as Twelfth-day. To quote my copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

Twelfth-day OE The twelfth day after Christmas: the sixth of January, on which the festival of the Epiphany is celebrated; formerly the closing day of the Christmas festivities.

Twelfth-night OE The night of the twelfth day after Christmas (6 January) marked by merrymaking. 

This edition was printed in 1973. The current internet entry states that the fifth of January is Twelfth Night, being the eve before Twelfth Day. Although some of the various sources I have consulted also consider the fifth to be Twelfth Night, my family have always taken decorations down on the sixth. It has become the custom to ‘undeck the halls’ on Twelfth Night; it is supposed to be bad luck to leave them longer and further, if an item is overlooked, it must remain in situ the whole year. In centuries past, it was considered safe to leave the decorations up until Candlemas (2nd February). 

I suspect the confusion over the date has arisen from the fact that the fifth is the eve of Twelfth-day and the appellation of Twelfth-day has been lost in the mists of time, now to be merged with Twelfth Night. It all depends on whether you believe the twelve days of Christmas begin on Saint Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) or Christmas Day itself. To my way of thinking, if Twelfth Night is the twelfth day after Christmas, then counting begins the next day – the twenty-sixth. 


William Hone, in his The Every-Day Book of 1825, has this entry for the fifth of January: 

This is the eve of the Epiphany, or Twelfth-night eve, arid is a night of preparation in some parts of England for the merriments which, to the present hour, distinguish Twelfth-day. Dr. Drake mentions that it was a practice formerly for itinerant minstrels to bear a bowl of spiced-wine to the houses of the gentry and others, from whom they expected a hospitable reception, and, calling their bowl a wassail-bowl, to drink wassail to their entertainers. These merry sounds of mirth and music are not extinct. There are still places wherein the wandering blower of a clarionet, and the poor scraper of as poor a fiddle, will this evening strain their instruments, to charm forth the rustic from his dwelling, and drink to him from a jug of warm ale, spiced with a race of ginger, in the hope of a pittance for their melody, and their wish of wassail. 

He also includes the following in the same entry:

Mr. Beckwith relates in the Gentleman's Magazine, 1784, that "near Leeds, in Yorkshire, when he was a boy, it was customary for many families, on the twelfth eve of Christmas, to invite their relations, friends, and neighbours, to their houses, to play at cards, and to partake of a supper, of which minced pies were an indispensable ingredient ; and after supper was brought in, the wassail cup or wassail bowl, of which every one partook, by taking with a spoon, out of the ale, a roasted apple, and eating it, and then drinking the healths of the company out of the bowl, wishing them a merry Christmas and a happy new year. (The festival of Christmas used in this part of the country to hold for twenty days, and some persons extended it to Candlemas.) The ingredients put into the bowl, viz. ale, sugar, nutmeg, and roasted apples, were usually called lambs'-wool, and the night on which it is used to be drunk (generally on the twelfth eve) was commonly called Wassil eve." The glossary to the Exmore dialect has "Watsail—a drinking song on twelfth-day eve, throwing toast to the apple-trees, in order to have a fruitful year, which seems to be a relic of the heathen sacrifice to Pomona." 

For the sixth of January, William Hone details the Epiphany, when the three wise kings visited the infant Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem. He then goes on to describe the twelfth-day schedule of pastry cooks in London:

In London, with every pastrycook in the city, and at the west end of the town, it is "high change" on Twelfth-day. From the taking down of the shutters in the morning, he, and his men, with additional assistants, male and female, are fully occupied by attending to the dressing out of the window, executing orders of the day before, receiving fresh ones, or supplying the wants of chance customers.

Before dusk the important arrangement of the window is completed. Then the gas is turned on, with supernumerary argand-lamps and manifold wax-lights, to illuminate countless cakes of all prices and dimensions, that stand in rows and piles on the counters and sideboards, and in the windows. The richest in flavour and heaviest in weight and price are placed on large and massy salvers; one, enormously superior to the rest in size, is the chief object of curiosity; and all are decorated with all imaginable images of things animate and inanimate. Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions, milk maids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms in snow-white confectionary, painted with variegated colours, glitter by " excess of light" from mirrors against the walls festooned with artificial "wonders of Flora."

So, if the cakes were made for twelfth-day and Twelfth Cake was the highlight of the Twelfth Night celebrations, it therefore seems reasonable to conclude that Twelfth Night is the night of the sixth of January.

Twelfth Cake 

According to tradition, a large, iced fruit cake (the forerunner of the modern Christmas cake) was baked with a dried bean and a dried pea inside it. Every person in the household was given a slice. The man who got the bean was declared the Twelfth Night King and the girl who got the pea was the Queen. They ruled until midnight, irrespective of their normal status, so for a few hours even servants could lord it over their masters. It was an opportunity for banter, foolish jokes, ridiculous orders and much merriment. Sometimes a coin was used in place of the bean and William Hone describes a method whereby revellers choose at random tickets and characters for the feast. Popular characters were Mrs. Candour (whom Jane Austen played in 1810), Sir Gregory Goose, Sir Tunbelly Clumsy and Miss Fanny Fanciful. The use of tickets became more prevalent as the nineteenth century progressed. 

The original ‘Lord of Misrule’ from the Middle Ages, who held sway over a wild court, and later metamorphosed into the ‘King of Bean’ is still upheld today by the British Armed Forces – officers and NCOs wait on and serve the men their Christmas dinner. 

As can be seen from the excerpt above, in the first part of the nineteenth century the Twelfth-cake became particularly elaborate, covered in sugar frosting and trimmed with gilded paper. It was frequently ornamented with sugar-paste or Plaster of Paris figures.

Following the choosing of the King and Queen, the party began, with mummer’s plays, masquerades, dressing up, games such as Blind Man’s Buff and Puss in the Corner, story-telling, singing and dancing. A Twelfth Night ball was likely to be the grandest occasion of the year and often took the form of fancy dress or a masked ridotto.

Wassailing and the Wassail Bowl 

Wassail or ‘waes-hael’ is a salutation meaning ‘be of good cheer’ and is used when drinking someone’s health or offering wine to a guest. The Wassail Cup or Bowl was similar to mulled wine and was made of ale, sugar, spices (especially nutmeg), toast and roasted apples. The Wassail Bowl (also termed ‘Lamb’s Wool’, from the corrupted La Mas Ubhal, meaning ‘the day of the apple fruit’) was offered to guests as part of the Twelfth Night celebrations. Groups of poor people would often go to the grand houses in the district and sing traditional wassail songs for drink or money. 

In counties famed for the production of cider, such as Herefordshire, it was the custom to surround the largest tree in the orchard and sprinkle it with cider whilst singing and chanting. The Herefordians had another ritual performed on this night. They would light twelve bonfires in a wheat field, along with one larger than the others. Surrounding this large bonfire, toasts were made to the company in old cider and the fires wassailed as above. The object of this was to ensure the health of the trees and thus the following year’s harvest.

Passing the Wassail Bowl after dinner

Christmas Traditions Ancient and Modern

Most of the Christmas customs we observe today have been in existence since medieval times, but there are some the Victorians were responsible for. 

William Sandys has this to say, in his Christmas Carols, Ancient& Modern, 1833: 

The commencement of this feast is on the eve preceding the Nativity, having been announced by the waits for several nights previous. The first ceremony, after having properly decked the house with evergreens, including the misseltoe with its pearly berries, is, or should be, to light the Christmas block, or Yule log, a custom of very ancient date. This is a massy piece of wood, frequently the rugged root of a tree, grotesquely marked, and which should burn throughout the holidays, reserving a small piece to light the fire for the Christmas in the ensuing year. 

Deck The Halls 

The tradition of bringing evergreen foliage into the house is centuries old. It probably stems from the need for light, warmth and greenery in midwinter. Holly, ivy and mistletoe have long been revered as emblems of gladness and for their spiritual connections. Other popular plants were bay, rosemary, laurel, cypress, myrtle and chrysanthemum. 

From Poor Robin’s Almanack, 1695:

With holly and ivy,
So green and so gay,
We deck up our houses,
As fresh as the day;
With bays and rosemary,
And laurel compleat,
And everyone now
Is a king in conceit.

The Yule Log and Yule Candle

As aforementioned, the Yule Log was a ‘rugged root of a tree’ or a large branch. It was brought into the house on Christmas Eve and had to be large enough to burn for the full twelve days. A small piece of the log was retained to light the fire for the next year’s Christmas festivity. Nowadays, few people have a fireplace large enough for such a Yule Log, but the tradition continues in the form of a chocolate sponge roll covered in chocolate butter cream. 

Chocolate Yule Log, (C) Heather King

The Yule Candle was fairly new in the seventeenth century, but was lit on Christmas Eve and had to stay alight throughout Christmas Day. 

Kissing Bough 

The Kissing Bough (or Ball) was a round basket covered in evergreens. The most common plants used were holly, ivy, rosemary, laurel and bay, with mistletoe either intertwined among the other foliage or hung in a bunch underneath. Mistletoe has been revered for centuries and was considered so sacred it was cut with a golden sickle. Holly and other evergreen trees were also celebrated, as it was believed they provided a haven for woodland spirits while the deciduous trees had lost their leaves. Sometimes oat ears, apples, oranges, spices, small wax dolls or candles were added to the design, which was often completed with ribbons. 

Kissing Bough (C) Heather King

It was the custom to pluck a mistletoe berry from the Kissing Bough each time a kiss was taken beneath it. Once all the berries had gone, there were supposed to be no more kisses. One cannot help wondering how often that rule was adhered to!

Kissing under the Kissing Bough, 1800

Plum Pudding

The dark, sticky Christmas pudding of modern times evolved from a plum porridge of the Middle Ages. This was made from finely chopped beef and mutton, to which was added dried prunes, raisins or currants, spices and wine, plus breadcrumbs to thicken. Another medieval dish, called ‘frumenty’, was a sweet version, made from wheat (without the husk) boiled in milk and added eggs, sugar and spices. Gradually cooks thickened plum porridge further by the addition of eggs, shredded suet, more fruit and breadcrumbs. They also added such ingredients as rum or other spirits and beer, to increase the flavour. Towards the end of the sixteenth century it had changed from a light meal to line the stomach before the rich foods to follow, to a plum pudding and by about 1650 it had become the usual finale to Christmas dinner. 

In 1644, as part of the prohibition of Christmas, the Puritans specifically outlawed mince pies and plum pudding, the latter being decried as ‘the invention of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon’ and a ‘lewd custom’, with the ingredients being ‘unfit for God-fearing people’.

According to popular myth, the ‘Pudding King’, George I, is said to have asked for plum pudding in 1714 as part of his Christmas celebrations, and therefore is credited with its re-establishment in England. However, it is the Victorians who removed the meat and made plum pudding into a dish akin to the Christmas pudding of today, including dousing in flaming brandy!

The plum pudding

Courtesy of my friend Elizabeth Hanbury, here is the recipe for George I’s 9lb plum pudding in 1714:

1lb of eggs
1½ lb of shredded suet
1lb raisins
1lb dried plums
1lb mixed peel
1lb of currants
1lb sultanas
1lb flour
1lb sugar
1 lb breadcrumbs
1teaspoon mixed spice
½ grated nutmeg
½ pint of milk
½ teaspoon of salt
the juice of a lemon
a large glass of brandy
Let stand for 12 hours 

Boil for 8 hours and boil again on Christmas Day for 2 hours

Mince Pies

Legend says you should eat a mince pie a day for the twelve days of Christmas to enjoy twelve months of good luck.

Traditional Georgian mince pies were not like modern ones, though. They were made from minced meat, often ox tongue or whatever was available, with raisins, oranges, lemons, sugar and eggs.


Some of the most famous carols were in existence long before the Regency; others are old folk tunes with words added later, mostly in the Victorian era. Such songs as ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’, A Child This Day Is Born’, ‘The First Nowell’ and ‘I Saw Three Ships’ have been sung by carollers for around three hundred years, whilst the perhaps less familiar ‘The Boar’s Head’ is ancient, being known before the seventeenth century. The first verse might ‘ring a few bells’: 

The bores heed in hand bring I,
With garlans gay and rosemary,
I pray you all synge merely
Qui estis in convivio.

Carols and Christmas hymns have been sung for centuries. ‘The oldest printed collection of Christmas carols mentioned is that published by Wynkyn de Worde, in the year 1521. The colophon of this work is, “Thus endeth the Christmasse carolles, newely inprinted at Londō, in the fletestrete, at the sygne of the sonne, by wynkyn de worde. The year of out lorde, M.D.X.XI.”

Christmas Tree 

The Christmas Tree is popularly thought to have been introduced by Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, but this is not the case. While he certainly popularized the custom in the 1840s, it is much older, having its origins in pagan times when a branch of greenery was brought in. Nevertheless, it was Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, who first occasioned a tree to be decorated, for a children’s party on Christmas Day at Windsor in 1800. It was described by an observer as: 

“A fir tree, about as high again as any of us, lighted all over with small tapers, several little wax dolls among the branches in different places, and strings of almonds and raisins alternately tied from one to the other, with skipping ropes for the boys, and each bigger girl had muslin for a frock, a muslin handkerchief, and a fan, and a sash, all prettily done up in a handkerchief, and a pretty necklace and earrings besides.” 

Father Christmas

Saint Nicholas’ Day was celebrated with the exchanging of small gifts, but although the character of Father Christmas was recognized in the 1650s, he did not become the central figure of the festivities until Queen Victoria was on the throne.

Cromwell banned Christmas in 1652, an order by Parliament dated the 24th December of that year directing: 

“That no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon that day in respect thereof.”

However, Christmas continued to be practised, in secret and without any pomp and ceremony. In 1653, ‘A Vindication of Christmas’ mentions Father Christmas, complaining in mock terms of the past twelve years’ treatment and the cool reception to be met with even then. The author went on to describe a visit to farmers in Devonshire, including a merry carol. 

“Let’s dance and sing, and make good cheer,
For Christmas comes but once a year:
Draw hogsheads dry, let flagons fly,
For now the bells shall ring;
Whilst we endeavour to make good
The title ‘gainst a King. 

“Thus at active games, and gambols of hot-cockles, shooing the wild mare, and the like harmless sports, some part of the tedious night was spent.”

‘Old Father Christmas' also gets a mention in a pamphlet of 1734 by Dick Merryman, entitled Round about our coal-fire or Christmas entertainments. This little book is a collection of ghost stories, rhymes and Christmas lore, focussing on the feasting and partying so central to a Georgian festive season. Father Christmas is invoked as ‘Shewing what Hospitality was in former Times, and how little of it there remains at present’. This was clearly aimed at miserly landowners and the gentry. 

Father Christmas appeared in various mummers’ plays and folk theatre, sometimes as ‘as a grotesque old man, with a large mask and comic wig, and a huge club in his hand’. The name ‘Father Christmas’ is the traditional English appellation and although he has now become synonymous with Santa Claus, originally they came from two separate fables. Just when the red suit became part of the folklore is unclear, but it is probable it pre-dates the Victorian images. 


  1. Wonderful blog Heather, glad I found you. Happy 2016.

    1. Thank you, Jane. That is greatly appreciated. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Happy 2016 to you, too. H.