Twelfth Night

By Twelfth Night

5 January

The last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas is perhaps best known for Shakespeare’s play, yet it also holds its own traditions. Usually, Twelfth Night is the evening of 5 January, though if the Twelve Days begin on Christmas at sundown, as was originally dictated, then Twelfth Night would not occur until 6 January.

The Twelve Days of Christmas themselves were brought in by the Council of Tours in 567 as a way of unifying the Julian calendar, which was dictated by the sun, with the lunar calendars of Rome’s eastern provinces. As centuries passed, they took on their own customs within different regions. A medieval custom was to hold a celebration on Twelfth Night, where a comedic play would be performed at the request of the Lord of Misrule, an appointed anti-authority figure who caused general chaos. These plays, put on by Mummers, took place during key festivals, and Shakespeare’s was written to be part of this longstanding practice and played upon it, with gender-swapping protagonists and a situational-based farce.

Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night Act I Scene V

Twelfth Night was the last evening when Christmas carols could be sung, and people often had their homes blessed to mark the end of the season, as they removed the garnishes they had put up and put out the yule log which had been burning since Christmas Eve. The ashes of the yule log were then kept beneath a bed for good luck and used as kindling to light the next one a year later. As a lot of decorative items would be baked goods, on this last day of Christmastide they would be eaten and shared with relatives and neighbours. The main event of the celebration, however, was a large cake. This cake would have a dried pea in one half and a bean in the other. Women would be served from the left, men from the right. The man who found the bean in his slice would be King of the Revels for the evening and was responsible for rousing good cheer. The woman with the pea in her slice would be crowned Queen of Twelfth Night and could command all to do her bidding, without question.

The celebrations were banned by Queen Victoria, though some elements remain popular, such as the taking down of Christmas adornments on Twelfth night, and the sharing of the edible decorations amongst family and friends.

Jacob Jordaens, The Feast of the Bean King
Jacob Jordaens, The Feast of the Bean King, Public Domain
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