The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Twelfth Day Ceremonies

Source: William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833), pp. lxxv - lxxix

"The Epiphany, or Twelfth-day, is a feast of very high antiquity. During the Saturnalia a king was elected, who was invested with full power over the assembled guests, and the custom of electing a twelfth-day king may have been modified from this, although the office of Lord of Misrule appears also to be similar. The various customs on this day are to commemorate the manifestation of our Saviour to the Gentiles, and have numerous references to the Magi, Wise Men of the East, or Three Kings as they are commonly called. According to Picart1, the feast was established in the church in the 4th century. It was an early usage to elect a King, though he does not appear among the revels of the old English court or nobility, not being mentioned in the accounts we have of them, or distinguished from the Lord of Misrule. It was not necessary that he should be chosen by lot (although most customary), for Brand says that in France, up to the end of last century, when the revolution destroyed for a time every thing of the sort, and when "La fête de Rois" was by order of  the council transformed into "La fête de Sans-culottes," it was the custom at the court to choose one of the courtiers for King, who was waited on by the other nobles. In Germany also the students and citizens in the various cities and universities used to choose one of their companions for King.

"The custom however to decide on a King by lot, usually a bean, whence he was called King of the Bean, is of considerable antiquity. In "Les Crieries de Paris," composed by Guillaume de Villeneuve in the end of the 13th century,2 is in this line: "Gastel è feve orroiz crier," when a note describes as "gateaux pour le jour de la fête des Rois," evidently alluding to the bean which marked the fortunate possessor as king. The method was to inclose a bean in the cake, as is still the case in French twelfth-cakes, and divide it into portions, when, as before mentioned, the bean denoted the royal personage. The King or Queen thus elected chose his or her consort, and in subsequent times appointed officers of their household; and in France when the King or Queen drank, the company, on pain of forfeit, were to exclaim le Roi ou la Reine boit.

"There was a King of the Bean in the time of Edward the Third; as in an account of the eighty year of his rein it appears that sixty shillings were given upon the day of the Epiphany to Regan the trumpeter and his associates, the court minstrels, in the name of the King of the Bean (in nomine Regis de Fabâ).3

"In some countries a coin was inserted instead of a bean, and portions of the cake were assigned to our Saviour, the Virgin Mary, and the three Kings, which wee given to the poor, and if the bean should happen to be in any of those portions the King was then chosen by pulling straws.

"The ingredients of the bean-cake, about two hundred years ago, were flour, honey, ginger, and pepper: what they are at present, Monsieur Jarrin can inform us, as his shop abounds with them on this feast. They cannot however compete with that beautiful frosted, festooned, bedizened, and ornamented piece of confectionery called, par eminence, Twelfth-cake, with its splendid waxen or plaster of Paris kings and queens, the delight and admiration of school-boys and girls. Besides the bean, a pea was sometimes put in for the queen, a custom which is referred to in Herrick's song for Twelfth-day, printed in the subsequent collection. [Now, Now, The Mirth Comes]  Baby-cake, in Ben Jonson's Masque of "Christmas," [Christmas, His Masque - Ben Jonson] is attended by "an usher bearing a great cake with a bean and a pease.'"

"Henry Teonge, who has been before quoted, gives a quaint description of Twelfth-day on board ship4 -- "January 6, 1676. Very ruff weather all the last night, and all this day. Wee are now paste Zante: had wee beene there this day, wee had seene a greate solemnity; for this day being 12 day, the Greeke Bishop of Zante doth (as they call it) baptise the sea, with a great deale of ceremony; sprinkling their gallys and fishing-tackle with holy water. But wee had much myrth on board, for wee had a greate kake made, in which was put a beane for the king, a pease for the queen, a cloave for the knave, a forked stick for the coockold, a ragg for the slutt. The kake was cut into severall peices in the great cabin, and all put into a napkin, out of which every on took his peice, as out of a lottery; then each peice is broaken to see what was in it, which caused much laughter, to see our leiuetenant prove the coockold, and more to see us tumble on over the other in the cabin, by reason of the ruff weather."

"The custom at present is to draw from a bowl tickets, or painted characters, including among them a king and queen, the remainder being according to the genius of the composer, and generally not displaying much fancy or taste but containing some caco-logy of the fictitious character, as

Sir Habakkuk Hzsty.
It is not right I should be left the last,
You cut so slow, you make your guests all fast.

Jack Robinson.
Safely returned from perils of the C's,
Myself and comrades come as brisk as B's,
Like gentlemen to live at home at E's,
To drink your T, your great Twelfth-cake to T's.

"In the course of last century, the tickets represented the ministers, maids of honour, and other attendants of the king and queen. A better way perhaps would be to elect a king and queen, and let the officers and ladies of the court then be appointed according to the genius of the parties, as the characters should be supported throughout the evening; we should not then have such anomalies, as a gouty harlequin, or a Miss Hoyden of seventy, or the mother of thirteen children as Fanny Flirt."

Notes from Sandys
1. Religious Ceremonies, London 1731, fol. vol. ii. p. 6. Return

2. Fabliaux et Contes, par Barb azan et Meon, vol. ii. 285. Return

3. Strutt's Sports and Pastimes, Hone's ed. ev0. p. 344. Return

4. Diary, p. 130-1. Return

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