I have often thought it was regrettable that the modern push for sales has moved all the emphasis of the Season to before the actual day rather than leaving that time for proper Advent and making the real Christmastide – the Twelve Days of Christmas – the time of celebrations and fun. By the time New Year’s Day rolls around, the modern reveler is exhausted and ready to see the decorations get back in their box and start a tea-totaling time of fasting. The last thing most people want is a Twelfth Night party to celebrate the Epiphany on 6 January (the party should take place on the night of the 5th, just as New Year’s Eve is the party-time for New Year’s Day). After a month of pre-Christmas parties and days of binge eating and drinking, I think people would rather have an celebratory enema or finger in the eye rather than deal with the trauma of another round of revelry now.
Twelfth Night parties were like other Christmas parties in that there was lost to eat and drink and games that were good opportunities it flirt and make merry, but the star of the show was usually the Twelfth Cake, a huge fruit cake covered with icing/fondant and decorated with both the edible and inedible delights. Sugared fruits, marzipan, and candies would festoon the cake, but so would ribbons, holly, gold foil, and plaster of Paris ornaments. You’d want to eat your slice with due caution. Obviously, you didn’t want to pop a plaster of Paris robin in your mouth to find out the hard way it wasn’t made of sugar paste.
Nowadays we still have a Christmas cake, but it isn’t quite the rare and special treat it was for the people of the Regency times. Getting a big slice of frosted plum cake was a big deal and much appreciated, especially in homes of less economic wherewithal. In fact, William Sandys, a Regency era antiquarian who wrote the book on Christmas – literally, it was called Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London, Richard Beckley, 1833) — postulated that ‘Twelfth Night … is probably the most popular day throughout the Christmas, thanks to Twelfth Cake and other amusements’.
By the Regency, the Twelfth Cake no longer contained the dried bean or pea symbolizing the Christ child that bestowed favors upon the one who got it in their slice of the dessert. Of course, the dried bean no longer meant you got sacrificed to pagan gods either, so it wasn’t all bad. However, in Catholic countries (and New Orleans in the USA) the bean or tiny baby doll in the King Cake (Epiphany is also known as Three Kings’ Day, but there is no indication the Magi were kings; they were probably Persian astrologers) is still very much in practice. The recipes for the Kings’ Cakes are varied but the yumminess is ubiquitous.
Another thing that made Twelfth Night fun was masquerades or revels, giving party goer the opportunity to dress up and be silly, especially if they were “disguised” as certain well-known characters for satirical mockery. As Austen aficionado Maria Grace points out, “Common characters were Sir Gregory Goose, Sir Tumbelly Clumsy, Miss Fanny Fanciful and Mrs. Candour. Sets of pre-made characters could be purchased from stationers, or a family might copy them from books on games and merry-making.”
Fanny Austen, the beloved niece of Jane Austen, wrote to a friend about a Twelfth Night party in 1806:
On Twelfth Day we were all agreeably surprised with a sort of masquerade, on being dressed into character, and then we were conducted into the library, which was all lighted up and at one end a throne, surrounded by a grove of Orange Trees and other shrubs, and all this was totally unknown to us all! Was it not delightful? I should have liked you very much to have been of the party. Now I will tell you our different characters. Edward and I were the Shepherd King and Queen, Mama a Savoyarde with a Hurdy-Gurdy; Marianne and William her children with a Tambourine and Triangle; Papa and Aunt Louisa– Sir Bertram and Lady Beadmasc, one hundred years old– Aunt L with a great hoop; Aunt H a Pilgrim; Uncle John– a Turk; Elizabeth a flowergirl; Sophia–a fruitgirl; Fanny Cage– a haymaker; George– Harlequin; Henry– Clown; and Charley a Cupid! Was it not a good one for him, sweet fellow! He had a little pair of wings and a bow and arrow! and looked charming. Besides these great days we had Snapdragon, Bullet Pudding, and Apple in Water, as usual.
I hope everyone had a very, VERY merry Christmas Season and this year is full of joy for you all! Now, I’m going to take down the Christmas tree and assorted holiday trimmings and prepare for a certain amount of blandness in my décor.