Twelfth Night celebrations remain bigger than Christmas in much of the world. For many, the highly religious day still honors the Epiphany and arrival of the Three Kings. For others, the day is also a holdover (or hangover!) from ancient Roman Saturnalia, celebrated in a decadent carnival atmosphere. Festivities became so rowdy that Queen Victoria banned them from British holidays. Fortunately she continued to let them eat Twelfth Cake or King Cake on the 12th Night of Christmas, if not sooner.
In most Western Church traditions Christmas Day marks the First Day of Christmas December 25. The twelve day is January 5 at midnight or January 6, depending on who’s counting.
Need we say more? Saturnalia is about good times in excess. It was a time when servants ruled their lords and social structure was turned on its head. Drinking, wild partying, even gambling were embraced. The Lord of Misrule was generally a peasant chosen to be king—or queen. Is it no wonder that Queen Victoria became irritated by such a dastardly tradition?
In pagan times, the Twelfth Night marked the end of the winter festivities that started with All Hallows Eve. As all pagan celebrations were eventually transformed with the arrival of Christianity, Saturnalia was packaged into the Christmas season.
In medieval and Tudor England, the Twelfth Night Cake, a.k.a. King Cake, was central to festivities. They were elaborately decorated. The King Cake typically contained a bean or charm. The person who found it would become the king who would rule the feast. Some bakers included a pea to name the queen of festivities.
The “game” was enhanced over time with the addition of many 12th night characters that were drawn from popular culture. According to Lost Past Remembered, guests would become one of the characters for the night’s festivities by selecting a card from a random pack.
The festivities ended with the finale of cutting the elegantly decorated Twelfth Cake.
Twelfth cakes became elaborate affairs beginning in the sixteenth century. They were particularly popular in England between 1750 and 1850. Many were spectacularly decorated with figurines and ornaments made from sugar and sometimes with wax. One or two crowns often completed the cake. Competition among confectioners was fierce during the Christmas holidays with cakes in every bakery window.
Queen Victoria’s Twelfth cake of 1849 was a royal affair. The Illustrated London News covered it extensively on January 13 of that year. According to the article written by Mr. Mawditt, The Royal Confectioner, the Queen:
“participated in the old Christmas rituals and entertainments that had fallen into disuse until revived in the 1840s and strengthened by the introduction from Germany of the Christmas tree…”
Queen Victoria’s Twelfth Cake was an “oversized version of which Charles Dickens describes in A Christmas Carol.” The cake was 30 inches in diameter and height. It was topped with sixteen figures engaged in an elaborately formal open-air party held under trees.
The Twelfth Cake eventually morphed into the elaborate Christmas Cake that became the tradition of many families.
The art of elaborate Twelfth Cakes is not lost today. This impressive model was baked for Historic Food and documented on their website. It’s a faithful “reproduction” from John Mollard’s cookery published in 1803. Authentic 18th century molds were used for decoration.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens did much to promote Christmas festivities as we celebrate them today. In “The Ghost of Christmas Present” the famous illustration by John Leech from the original edition, the ghost appears to have his foot on a large Twelfth Night cake.
According to the Charles Dickens Museum, the Dickens family held their Twelfth night celebrations in the nursery of their later home on Devonshire Terrace. Dickens’s son Charley was born on January 6, 1863. The family often celebrated both events in one large party. The museum curators often place a Twelfth Night cake in the nursery of 48 Doughty Street to celebrate the holidays.
The terms are often interchanged. At the core, either cake is the centerpiece for the end of the Christmas festivities. It also contains one or more charms, a bean or a statue of baby Jesus. The person who gets this receives some special honor or good luck.
The style of cake varies widely from a simple sweet bread to fruit tarts to elaborately iced versions. In Latin America the cake is in the shape of a ring to commemorate the King’s Crown.
In parts of Europe and much of Latin America, the King Cake also celebrates the Epiphany or Three Kings Day when the Magi presented the baby Jesus with three gifts. This day, rather than Christmas is the day that gifts are exchanged. Children leave their shoes out in hopes that gifts will be left in them overnight.
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