Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, which is either January 5th or January 6th is the traditional day for taking down Christmas decorations; the tree goes back outside in its pot, the baubles and tinsel is all put away in boxes and stowed in the garage, the last of the pine needles are hoovered up, the cards are unpinned from their ribbons and sorted… and suddenly the house seems dull and echoey.

Twelfth Night is also the Feast of Epiphany when the three wise men, the three kings or the magi, however you call them visited baby Jesus with their gifts and it was also the end of the winter festivities which had stated on All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween. I’m not sure that many people do much to mark twelfth night, apart from taking down their decorations, but it wasn’t so long ago when it would have been part of what most households would mark, often baking a special cake. It used to be that a dried pea and a dried bean would be  cooked in the cake mix, and whoever had the slices containing them would be the king and the queen for the party.

Certainly, when the National Mark Calendar of Cooking was written in the 1930’s it was a known custom, but already beginning to fade, as Ambrose Heath and – or, Dorothy Cottington Taylor wrote in the introduction to their Twelfth Night Cake recipe:

It is a pity to let old customs die out entirely, and a ‘Twelfth Night Party’, at which the cake takes pride of place, is sure to be popular. This cake was originally a highly spiced one and rather rich; but if the party is for children, a simpler mixture could be substituted.
Actually, the outside is by far the most important. The principal decoration should be twelve candles and stars. A pale-coloured icing (suggestive of a clear sky) assists in carrying out the scheme. Each persons ingenuity and resourcefulness can be exercised in evolving a really attractive cake worthy of ‘The Fast of the Star’.

Of course, Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’ was written especially to be part of a Twelfth Night entertainment; and in keeping with some of the old traditions, many things are reversed, such as a woman, Viola dressing up as a man, and  Malvolio imagining that he can become a nobleman. These same sort of things can be seen in pantomimes today. These ideas date right back to the Romans and beyond, typical of midwinter celebrations.

Here is the National Mark cake recipe:

  • 8 oz flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 8 oz sugar
  • 8 oz butter
  •  6 oz currants
  • 8 oz sultanas
  • 2 oz candied peel
  • 2 oz glacé cherries
  • 1 level dessertspoonful of mixed spice
  • a little milk to mix
  1. cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy
  2. stir in the sieved flour and spice,  and beaten eggs alternately
  3. mix in the fruit, adding a little milk if necessary
  4. pour into a greased lined tin and bake at 350°F, 180°C gas mark 4, for about 2 hours (cover with greaseproof paper if it gets too dark on top
  5. When cool ice with pale blue icing and decorate with candles and stars

Here is a poem by Robert Herrick, born in 1591 and died in 1674 – lambs wool is a warming drink made from ale, milk, spices and sugar, by the way!:


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 queen here.

Next crown a bowl full
With gentle lamb’s 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 whet here,
Yet part from hence
As free from offence
As when ye innocent met here.

by Robert Herrick

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