Twelfth Night

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Twelfth Night,

Jan. 5, the vigil or eve of EpiphanyEpiphany
[Gr.,=showing], a prime Christian feast, celebrated Jan. 6, called also Twelfth Day or Little Christmas. Its eve is Twelfth Night. It commemorates three events—the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1), the visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem (Mat.
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, so called because it is the 12th night from Christmas, counting Christmas as the first. In England, Twelfth Night has been a great festival marking the end of the Christmas season, and popular masquerading parties are typical entertainment.
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Twelfth Night

Epiphany Eve, Old Christmas Eve

According to an old European form of reckoning, the Christmas season ended on the twelfth day after Christmas. People relaxed and celebrated during these dozen days known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. Twelfth Night marked the last evening of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Twelfth Night customs called for one final burst of feasting and revelry to commemorate the close of the Christmas season. Church custom, and some ethnic traditions, placed Twelfth Night on the evening of January 5. In certain places, however, people celebrated Twelfth Night on January 6.

Feasts, Cakes, and Kings

In past eras the English, French, Spanish, German, and Dutch commemorated Twelfth Night with feasts, special cakes, and a kind of masquerade presided over by the King of the Bean (see also Christmas Cakes). This mock king may have evolved from a similar figure popular during the Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia. In medieval courts, mock kings, like jesters, served to entertain the assembled company during the Christmas season. Records from some English households indicate that they were chosen from among those with musical or other skills that lent themselves to entertainment. Moreover, they took charge of organizing the holiday season festivities. These mock kings acquired many other names, including the Lord of Misrule, the Master of Merry Disports, and the Abbot of Unreason. Records from late medieval France indicate that one method of choosing this mock ruler was to serve out pieces of cake into which a single bean had been baked. The one whose piece of cake contained the bean got the job. His title, Rex Fabarum, or King of the Bean, may have referred back to this manner of selection or to his lack of real power.

During the Renaissance this particular title and custom appear to have gravitated towards Twelfth Night. Ordinary people began celebrating Twelfth Night with feasts, cakes, and bean kings. These kings, along with their queens, directed the remainder of the feast. The rest of those attending the feast took up the role of courtiers. The following day, Epiphany, introduced the image of a different kind of king. Starting in the Middle Ages, western European Epiphany customs began to revolve around commemorations of the arrival of the Three Kings, or Magi, in Bethlehem.

Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

In or around the year 1600 William Shakespeare wrote a play called Twelfth Night, Or What You Will. Although the play does not refer to the holiday per se, it does weave a comedy around the actions of characters in disguise. Some literary researchers think that Shakespeare put the words "Twelfth Night" into the play's title in order to suggest a particularly appropriate time of year for the play's performance. Indeed, playgoing was a popular activity during the Twelve Days of Christmas.


During the Renaissance some of the most splendid feasts of the Christmas season occurred at the homes of the wealthy on Twelfth Night. In England King Henry VIII (1491-1547) appears to have introduced the Italian custom of celebrating Twelfth Night with masques. These elaborate costumed events featured the enactment of some simple scenes or tableaux using song, dance, flowery speeches, and fancy scenery. The custom might be thought of as an elite version of the mumming practices already established among the common people. The masques performed at court were short, simple, and sometimes frivolous works designed to raise as much laughter as possible while providing a colorful spectacle. These productions were very popular during the Christmas season, but were also performed at other times of year. The famous writer Ben Jonson (1572-1637) raised the artistic level of these works somewhat when he offered a Christmas masque - Christmas His Masque - to be performed at court in the year 1616. In England the Twelfth Night masque reached its zenith in the early seventeenth century and afterwards began to decline.


In the late seventeenth century the English diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) described his enjoyment of a new custom whereby Twelfth Night merrymakers drew slips of paper from a hat on which were written the names of characters found at the bean king's court. They were expected to impersonate this character for the rest of the evening. In this way everyone present at the celebration, not just the king and queen, got into the act. By the end of the eighteenth century this innovation had almost completely replaced the earlier custom of planting a bean and a pea inside the Twelfth Night cake. In fact, it became so popular with ordinary folk that, by the end of the eighteenth century, shops sold packets of cards with names and drawings of characters printed on them. The absurd names given to these characters served to describe their exaggerated personalities. Examples include Sir Tunbelly Clumsy, Sir Gregory Goose, and Miss Fanny Fanciful.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, the English still celebrated Twelfth Night with parties, cakes, mock kings, and characters. The English writer Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) described the Twelfth Night festivities of his era in the following way:

Christmas goes out in fine style, - with Twelfth Night. It is a finish worthy of the time. Christmas Day was the morning of the season; New Year's Day the middle of it, or noon; Twelfth Night is the night, brilliant with innumerable planets of Twelfth-cakes. The whole island keeps court; nay all Christendom. All the world are kings and queens. Everybody is somebody else, and learns at once to laugh at, and to tolerate, characters different from his own, by enacting them. Cakes, characters, forfeits, lights, theatres, merry rooms, little holiday-faces, and, last not least, the painted sugar on the cakes, so bad to eat but so fine to look at, useful because it is perfectly useless except for a sight and a moral - all conspire to throw a giddy splendour over the last night of the season, and to send it to bed in pomp and colours, like a Prince [Miles, 1990, 337-38].


By the early nineteenth century, the Twelfth Night cake had evolved into a large and complicated display of cake, icing, and other embellishments. Bakeries displayed these models of the confectioner's art in their windows, and people gathered outside to admire them. The playful atmosphere of Twelfth Night may have encouraged schoolboys to carry out the following Twelfth Night prank. Unnoticed among the throng of cake-admirers, they pinned the clothing of two adults together or nailed a gentleman's coattails to the windowsill. Then they stood back and enjoyed the confusion that arose when the pinned and nailed individuals attempted to leave the bakery window.

Decline of Twelfth Night

The importance of Twelfth Night as a holiday declined throughout the second part of the century. Some writers blame this on the rapid industrialization of the English economy, which in general resulted in the increase of the number of workdays and the decrease in the number of holidays. As Twelfth Night began to wane, so did its customs. One of them, however, the Twelfth Night cake, was kept alive in at least one place by a curious bequest. In the late eighteenth century an actor by the name of Robert Baddeley achieved some success playing at London's Drury Lane Theatre. In his will he left a sum of one hundred pounds to be invested in such a way as to provide the actors playing at Drury Lane Theatre on January 5 with wine and a Twelfth Night cake every year. The will also stipulates that in return for the feast the company drink to his health.

Old Christmas Eve

Some Twelfth Night customs may have been created indirectly by the acts of politicians. The British calendar reform of 1752 moved the calendar forward eleven days in order to synchronize the country with the continental European calendar (see Old Christmas Day). With the stroke of a pen, the day that would have been Christmas Eve became Epiphany Eve. This maneuver appears to have transferred several English Christmas customs, such as the wassailing of fruit trees and the viewing of the Glastonbury thorn to Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night in Colonial America and the

Early United States

When the British settled in colonial America, they brought their Twelfth Night celebrations with them. In the eighteenth century Twelfth Night parties frequently took place in regions where large numbers of English colonists had settled, such as Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. They were especially popular with members of the Church of England (later the Episcopal Church) and among the wealthy, who celebrated Twelfth Night with formal balls. These balls featured a bountiful buffet table, loaded with such delicacies as Twelfth Night Cake (a kind of fruit cake), roasted meats, candied fruit, cookies, fritters, and New Year's pie. This last item was an elaborate dish prepared by placing a beef tongue into a boned chicken, wedging the chicken into a boned duck, stuffing the duck into a boned turkey, cramming the turkey into a boned goose and then roasting the stuffed goose in an oven. Just as in Europe, colonial and early American cooks placed a bean and a pea inside their Twelfth Night cakes as a means of selecting a Twelfth Night king and queen.

In colonial and early American times the Christmas season, capped by the celebration of Twelfth Night, was associated with romance and served as a favorite time of year for weddings (see also Twelve Days of Christmas). Twelfth Night balls offered young, single people the chance to meet and to interact freely, and thus, hopefully, to find a mate. This goal was facilitated by the fact that the parties usually featured dancing and some form of masking, as well as card and dice games. Indeed, some balls were designed exclusively as affairs for the young. One very famous colonial romance led to a marriage scheduled for Epiphany, the day after Twelfth Night. George Washington (1732-1799) and his bride, Martha Dandridge Custis (17321802), married on January 6, 1759.

Needless to say, those who did not celebrate Christmas deplored the idea of a Twelfth Night ball (see America, Christmas in Colonial; Puritans). One man, Mordecai Noah, who published a book on home economics in the year 1820, had this to say about the wasteful custom of Twelfth Night feasting:

What a sum to be destroyed in one short hour! The substan-tials on this table, consisting of a few turkeys, tongues, hams, fowls, rounds of beef and game, all cold, could have been purchased for fifty dollars; the residue of this immense sum was expended for whips, creams, floating islands, pyramids of kisses, temples of sugarplumbs, ices, blanc manges, macaroons and plumb cake; and ladies of delicacy, of refined habits, of soft and amiable manners, were at midnight, cloying their stomachs, after exercise in dancing, with this trash [Weaver, 1990, 13-14].

Last of the Twelve Days of Christmas

Some Twelfth Night customs appear to have sprung from its position as the last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Old folk customs in France and the German-speaking countries encouraged noisemaking processions on Twelfth Night, designed to drive out the spirits that prowled the dark evenings of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Old German folk beliefs also suggested that Berchta, a frightening figure associated with the Twelve Days, appeared to people most often on Twelfth Night. In fact, the day took on her name in some German-speaking areas, becoming Perchtennacht, or "Berchta Night." Finally, other Twelfth Night customs arose from its status as the evening before Epiphany. On this evening Italian children expect La Befana to arrive bearing their Christmas season gifts. Likewise, children in the Spanish-speaking world await the arrival of the giftbearing Three Kings (see also Epiphany; Mexico, Christmas in; Philippines, Christmas in the; Spain, Christmas in).

Further Reading

Christmas in Colonial and Early America. Chicago: World Book, 1996. Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. Henisch, Bridget Ann. Cakes and Characters: An English Christmas Tradition. London, England: Prospect Books, 1984. Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978. Weaver, William Woys. The Christmas Cook. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

Twelfth Night (Epiphany Eve)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: January 5 or 6
Where Celebrated: Great Britain, Europe, United States
Symbols and Customs: Fire, Lord of Misrule, Twelfth Night Pageants
Related Holidays: Christmas, Epiphany


The celebration of Twelfth Night is part of the Christian tradition. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

As the last of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, Twelfth Night marks the end of the Christmas season. Why twelve days? The custom of extending CHRISTMAS may have derived from the pagan custom of marking the WINTER SOLSTICE for a number of days-a widespread tradition in Europe, particularly England, from the eleventh century onwards. But the exact day on which this seaTwelfth Night

son ends remains ambiguous. To some people, Twelfth Night means the evening before the Twelfth Day, or January 5. To others, it means the evening of the Twelfth Day, or January 6. In any case, it is often observed on the night of EPIPHANY rather than the night before.

Twelfth Night has been observed since the Middle Ages with games, masquerades, and other revelries. Elaborate pageants, processions, and pantomimes, combined with singing, dancing, and feasting, took place under the direction of a LORD OF MISRULE , a mock official assisted by a "fool" or jester. In rural parts of England, Twelfth Night celebrations included bonfires (see FIRE ), masques, and the curious custom of "wassailing" the fruit trees, which meant carrying jugs of cider to the orchards and offering toasts to the apple trees to ensure a good yield. In France, Germany, and the Low Countries, young boys would dress up in exotic costumes and paper crowns. Representing the Three Kings, or Magi, they would go begging from house to house, carrying paper star lanterns on long poles.

By the eighteenth century, the lavish celebrations that had been associated with Twelfth Night began to lose their appeal; by the nineteenth century, they had practically died out, although remnants of the ancient festivities survived in some areas. The King of the Bean (see LORD OF MISRULE ) is still a popular Twelfth Night tradition in Belgium, Portugal, England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. In the United States, TWELFTH NIGHT PAGEANTS are still popular, including masked figures, costumed musicians, and the performance of traditional English dances like the Abbots Bromley Antler Dance or Horn Dance. In New Orleans, Twelfth Night marks the beginning of the CARNIVAL season, which ends on Mardi Gras, the day before ASH WEDNESDAY.

January 5 is also referred to as Old Christmas Eve, because according to the Old Style or Julian Calendar, CHRISTMAS fell on January 6. The inhabitants of some remote areas of Great Britain continue to observe ancient customs associated with Old Christmas Eve.



At one time in England, it was customary to light twelve small fires and one large one in a field sown with wheat as a means of protecting it from disease. In Ireland, a sieve full of oats was set up as high as possible, and twelve lighted candles were set in the grain, with a larger one in the middle. Although the meaning of these customs has been largely forgotten, some say that the fires were intended to symbolize Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles. Others see them as a survival of heathen sun worship. A similar Twelfth Night custom survived in Westmorland. A holly bush or young ash tree would have torches fastened to the branches. The torches were lit and the tree was carried around the village to the accompaniment of music. When the torches had burned out, two rival groups would scramble for the remains of the tree, and the rest of the night would be spent in merrymaking.

In the United States, it is traditional to take down the Christmas tree and other greenery used to decorate the house, pile it up outdoors, and burn it on Twelfth Night. In fact, the custom of lighting bonfires on Twelfth Night seems to be gaining in popularity.

Lord of Misrule

The custom of electing a king to rule over the festivities on Twelfth Night can be traced back to the reign of Edward II in England. The usual custom was to prepare a special cake, known as the Kings' Cake (Gâteau des Rois in France), and to conceal a bean (sometimes a pea or a coin) inside. The cake would be cut into as many pieces as there were guests at the Twelfth Night feast. The youngest member of the family would distribute the pieces, and whoever got the piece with the bean inside was crowned "King of the Bean" or "Lord of Misrule." If a woman got the bean, she would choose a king. A mock court would be assembled by drawing slips of paper from a hat, and these assumed characters would have to be maintained throughout the evening. The custom lasted far into the nineteenth century, but it was eventually discontinued because so many coarse and offensive characters had been introduced. Elaborately decorated Twelfth Cakes remained popular until late Victorian times and are still served in some parts of Europe today.

Twelfth Night Pageants

For hundreds of years, miracle plays about the Three Kings had been staged at this time of year, originally in church sanctuaries and then later, when the performances had become too secular, outside the church. Religious dramas were eventually joined by the staging of popular tragedies, comedies, and historical dramas. William Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night is believed to have been first presented for Queen Elizabeth I at Whitehall Palace in 1601.

The Twelfth Night pageants performed in the United States today are usually far more modest than the elaborate productions of Elizabethan England. But many of the dances and characters incorporated into these modern performances can be traced back to medieval times.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Twelfth Night

Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Crippen, T.G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. 1912. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992.


BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Twelfth Night

January 5-6
The evening before Epiphany is called Epiphany Eve, or Twelfth Night, and it traditionally marks the end of the Christmas season, also called Twelfthtide in England. Since Twelfth Day is January 6, there is some confusion over exactly when Twelfth Night occurs, and it is often observed on the night of Epiphany rather than the night before.
Twelfth Night is an occasion for merrymaking, as reflected in Shakespeare's comedy, Twelfth Night . Celebrations reflect ancient Winter Solstice rites encouraging the rebirth of the New Year and also the Magis' visit to the Christ child.
Pageants held on this night typically include fantastic masked figures, costumed musicians, and traditional dances, such as the Abbots Bromley Antler Dance, or Horn Dance, in England. Customarily, the Twelfth Night cake is sliced and served and the man who gets the hidden bean and the woman the pea are the king ("King of the Bean" or "Lord of Misrule") and queen for the festivities.
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 23
BkDays-1864, vol. I, pp. 55, 58
BkFest-1937, pp. 51, 119
DictDays-1988, p. 123
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 114, 137, 689, 856
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 760
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 14
FestWestEur-1958, p. 123
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 27
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 22
OxYear-1999, pp. 19, 23, 40

Celebrated in: Andorra

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.

Twelfth Night

a. the evening of Jan. 5, the eve of Twelfth Day, formerly observed with various festal celebrations
b. the evening of Twelfth Day itself
c. (as modifier): Twelfth-Night customs
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005