The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Twelfth Day

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 2, pp. 601-604

This day, which is well known to be called the Twelfth, from it being the twelfth in number from the Nativity, is called also the Feast of the Epiphany, from a Greek word signifying manifestation, from our Lord having been on that day made manifest to the Gentiles. This, as Bourne observes, is one of the greatest of the twelve, and of more jovial observation for the visiting of friends, and Christmas gambols. But old Twelfth Day was on the 12th of January or the 12th day of the New Year.

The customs of this day, various in different countries, yet agree in the same end, that is, to do honour to the Eastern Magi, who are supposed to have been of royal dignity. In the Roman calendar, I find an observation on the fifth day of January, the eve or vigil of the Epiphany. "Kings created or elected by beans." The sixth is called "The festival of Kings," with this additional remark, that this ceremony of electing kings was continued with feasting for many days."

A writer in "Gentleman's Magazine," for December, 1764, things the practice of choosing king and queen on Twelfth Night owes its origin to the custom among the Romans, which they took from the Grecians, of casting dice who should be the Rex Convivii; or as Horace calls him, the Arbiter Bibendi. Whoever threw the lucky cast, which they termed Venus or Basilicus, gave laws for the night. In the same manner the lucky clown, who out of the general divisions of the plumb-cake draws the king, thereby becomes soveriegn of the company: and the poor clod-pole, whose lot the knave falls, is an unfortunate as the Roman, whose hard fate it was to throw the damnosum Caniculum. See also Alexander ab Alexandro, ii, 22.

The following extract from Collier's "Ecclesiastical History," vol. i. p. 163. seems to account in a satisfactory manner for the name of Twelfth day. "In the days of King Alfred, a law was made with relation to holidays, by virtue of which the twelve days after the Nativity of our Saviour were made Festivals."

In England Twelfth Day and Night were not unusual occasions for theatrical exhibitions and pageants. Hazlitt's Manual of Old Plays, 1892, passim. An unique broadside Bill or Advertisement announces the performance of a tilting match about 1590 at Westminster, in which one Callophisus challenges all comers in vindication of his mistress. This event had been signified by way of device "before the Queen on the previous Twelfth Night. But Shakespear's drama so-called was performed at the Middle Temple at Candlemas, 1602. Robert May, in his Accomplished Cook, 1660-71-85, supplies us with some very curious particulars of the "Triumphs and Trophies to be used at festival time, as Twelfth Day, &c." These are found extracted in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1815.

Evelyn notes under January 6, 1661-2: "This evening, according to custom, his Majesty opened the revels of that night by throwing the dice himself in the privy-chamber, where was a table set on purpose, and lost his £1000. (The year before he won £1500.) The ladies also played very deep. I came away when the Duke of Ormond had won about £1000, and left them still at passage, cards, &c." At other tables, both there and at the Groom-porter's, the writer beheld evidence of passion and folly, which he deemed deplorable and scandalous.

In "Vox Graculi," 1623, p. 52, speaking of the sixth of January, the writer tells us, "This day, about the hours of 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10: year in some places till midnight well nigh, will be such a massacare of spice-bread, that ere the next day at noone, a two-penny brown loafe will set twenty poore folkes teeth on edge. Which huntry humour will hold so violent, that a number of good fellowes will not refuse to give a statute marchant of all the lands and goods they enjoy, for halfe-a-crownes worth of two-penny pastries. On this night much masking in the Strand, Cheapside, Holburne, or Fleet-Street."

It appears from Herrick's "Hesperides," in a poem, entitled "Twelfe Night, or King and Queene" that the Twelfth Cake was formerly full of plumbs, and with a bean and a pea: the former whoever got, was to be king; whoever the latter, was to be queen. And at p. 271 of the same work, which is in everybody's hands, there is a farther illustration of this portion of the subject. See also in "Queen Elizabeth's Progresses," vol. ii, "Speeches to the Queen at Sudley," p. 8.

It may rather seem to belong to religious than popular customs to mention, on the authority of the "Gentleman's Magazine," for January, 1731, p. 25, that at the Chapel-Royal at St. James's, on Twelfth Day that year, "The King and the Prince made the offerings at the alter of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, according to custom. At night their Majesties, &c. played at hazard, for the benefit of the groom-porter." The same thing is stated by Walpole in a letter to George Montagu, Jan. 9, 1752.

In Gloucestershire there is a custom on Twelfe Day, of having twelve small fires made, and one large one, in many parishes in that country, in honour of the day. At Pauntly, on the borders of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, and thereabout, there is a superstitition, that the smut in wheat may be prevented in the following manner. On the eve of Twelfth Day, all the farm-servants assemble in one of the fields belonging to their respective employers, whose wheat has been sown, and at the end of twelve lands, they make twelve fires with straw in a row; one of these is made larger than the others; and round it they drink to their master's health and to a good harvest. On going home, they are treated to a repast of cakes soaked in cyder.

The same is done in Herefordshire under the name of wassailing, as follows. At the approach of the evening of the vigil of the Twelfth Day, the farmers, with their friends and servants, meet together, and about six o'clock walk out to a field where wheat is growing. In the highest part of the ground, twelve small fires, and one large one, are lighted up. The attendants, headed by the master of the family, pledge the company in old cyder, which circulates freely on these occasions. A circle is formed round the large fire, when a general should and hallooing take place, which you hear answered from all the adjacent villages and fields. Sometimes fifty or sixty of these fires may be all seen at once. This being finished, the company return home, where the good housewife and her maids are preparing a good supper. A large cake is always provided, with a hole in the middle. After supper, the company all attend the bailiff (or head of the oxen) to the wain-house, where the following particulars are observed: The master, at the head of his friends, fills the cup (generally of strong ale), and stands opposite the first or finest of the oxen. He then pledges him in a curious toast: the company follow his example with all the other oxen, addressing each by his name. This being finished, the large take is produced, and with much ceremony is put on the horn of the first ox, through the hole above-mentioned. The ox is then tickled, to make him toss his head: if he throw the cake behind, then it is the mistress's perquisite; he before (in what is termed the boosy), the bailiff himself claims the prize. The company then return to the house, the doors of which they find locked, nor will they be opened till some joyous songs are sung. On their gaining admittance, a scene of mirth and jollity ensues, which lasts the greatest part of the night.

Formerly it was customary in Devonshire on this night to drink hot cyder and eat cakes, and after the company had partaken of this entertainment to their satisfaction, they proceeded into the orchard, where they offered a portion to the apple-trees and pear-trees by laying a piece of cake on a bough of each, and pouring over it a libation of hot cyder. The men who happened to be present then fired a salute, and the women and girls sang in chorus:

"Bear blue, apples and pears enou',
Barn fulls, bag fulls, sack fulls,
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!

There are several versions of the subjoined song; but that here given is current in Devonshire on Twelfth Day:

"Apple-tree, apple-tree,
Bear apples for me:
Hats full, laps full,
Sacks full, caps full;
Apple-tree, apple-tree,
Bear apples for me."

In the South-hams of Devonshire, on the Eve of Epiphany, the farmer attended by his workmen, with a large pitcher of cyder, goes to the orchard, and there, encircling one of the best bearing trees, they drink the following toast three several times:

"Here's to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou may'st bud, and whence thou may'st blow!
And whence thou may'st bear apples enow!
Hats full! caps full!
Bushel — bushel — sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza!

This done, they return to the house, the doors of which they are sure to find bolted by the females, who, be the weather what it may, are inexorable to all entreaties to open them till some one has guessed at what is on the spit, which is generally some nice little thing difficult to be hit on, and it the reward of him who first names it. The doors are then thrown open and the lucky clodpole receives the tit-bit as his recompense. Some are so superstitious as to believe that if they neglect this custom, the trees will bear no apples that year.

On the Eve of Twelfth Day, as a Cornish man informed Mr. Brand, on the edge of St. Stephen's Down, October 28, 1790, it is the custom for the Devonshire people to go after supper into the orchard, with a large milk-pan full of cyder, having roasted apples pressed into it. Out of this each person in company takes what is called a clayen cup, i.e. an earthenware cup full of liquor, and standing under each of the more fruitful apple-trees, passing by those that are not good bearers, he addresses it in the following words:

"Health to thee, good apple-tree,
Well to bear, pocket-fulls, hat-fulls,
Peck-fulls, bushel-bag-fulls!"

And then drinking up part of the contents, he throws the rest, with the fragments of the roasted apples, at the tree. At each cup the company set up a shout. Pennant, in his account of this custom, says "that after they hadve drank a chearful glass to to their master's health, success to the future harvest, &c. then returning home, they feast on cakes made of carraways, &c. soak'd in cyder, which they claim as a reward for their past labours in sowing the grain. This" he observes, "seems to resemble a custom of the antient Danes, who in their addresses to their rural deities, emptied on every invocation a cup in honour of them." Pennant's Tour in Scotland, edit. 8 vo. Chester, 1771, p. 91. Comp. Apple Howling and Firing At The Apple Trees.

Moresin observes, that our ceremony of choosing a king on the Epiphany, or Feast of the Three Kings, is practised among the Romanists about the same time of the year; and that he is called the Bean King, from the lot. Papatus, 1594, p. 143.

From a description given in an old writer, we gather that the materials of the Twelfth Cake were in his time (1620) flour, honey, ginger, and pepper. One was made for every family. The maker thrust in, at random, a small coin as she was kneading it. When it was baked, it was divided into as many parts as there were persons in the family. It was distributed, and each had his share. Portions of it also were assigned to Christ, the Virgin, and the three Magi, which were given away in alms. Whoever found the piece of coin in his share was saluted by all as king, and being placed on a seat or throne, was thrice lifted aloft with joyful acclamations. He held a piece of chalk in his right hand and each time he was lifted made a cross on the ceiling. These crosses were thought to prevent many evils, and were much revered. Aubanus, Mores, Leges, et Ritus Omnium Gent. 1620, p. 266.

Mr. Brand adds an account of the more modern practice from the "Universal Magazine," for 1774. After tea a cake is produced, and two bowls, containing the fortunate changes for the different sexes. The host fills up the tickets, and the whole company, except the King and Queen, are to be the ministers of state, maids of honour or ladies of the bed-chamber. Often the host and hostess, more by design perhaps than by accident, become King and Queen. According to Twelfth day law each party is to support his character till midnight. In France while that country had a Court and King, one of the courtiers was chosen king, and the other nobles attended on this day at an entertainment. The Bean King was for the nonce supreme. At the end of the year 1792, the Council-general of the Commons at Paris passed an arrêt, "La Fête de Rois" (Twelfth Day) was thenceforth to be called "La Fête de Sans-Culottes." It was called an anti-civic feast, which made every priest that kept it a Royalist.

This custom is practised no where that I know of at present in the North of England, though still very prevalent in the South.

In Germany they observed nearly the same rites in cities and academies, where the students and citizens chose one of their own number for King, providing a banquet on the occasion.

Editor's Note: I regret that I am unable to provide a translation of any Latin or French passages. I'm none too helpful with Old or Middle English, either.

See notes on the practices and songs of Wassailing! Also see Brand's The Religious Use of the Bean and Three Kings Of Cologne. Finally, see from William Hone's The Every Day Book: Eve of Epiphany and  Epiphany.

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