What is Twelfth Night?


In Christianity, Twelfth Night falls on January 5th. It marks the twelfth and final night of the Christmas season. The Twelve Days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day and end with Epiphany on January 6th. They are usually a period of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climax on the Twelfth Night, that marks the traditional end of the Christmas season.

During the Middle Ages, a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels. This ‘lord’ was chosen at the beginning of the Twelfth Night festival, when a cake containing a single bean was eaten. The person who found the bean within the cake would ‘rule’ the Twelfth Night feast. When midnight arrived, the lord’s misrule would be over, and the world would return to normal. This tradition dates back to pre-Christian European festivals such as the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. The Lord of Misrule tradition was particularly popular in Tudor England, when Twelfth Night marked the end of the winter festival that had started on Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve).

Often, throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas, traditional roles were relaxed. During pagan and medieval times, masters waited on their servants, whilst men were allowed to dress as women, and women as men. This tradition still carries on today in pantomimes, where the principal male lead is often played by a woman and the leading older ‘Dame’ by a man.

As well as the eating of cake, feasting and drinking, there have developed many more uniquely local ways to mark Twelfth Night. For example, in parts of Kent, there is a tradition specifying that an edible Christmas decoration should be the last to be taken down, thereafter to be shared and eaten amongst the family. At Drury Lane Theatre in London, it has been a tradition since 1795 to eat a Twelfth Night cake. This began when Robert Baddeley made a bequest in his will of £100 to provide cake and punch, called wassail, every year for the company in residence at the theatre on 6th January. In Ireland it is traditional to place the statues of the Three Kings in the crib on Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night remained a popular celebration until the late 19th century. Antiquarian William Sandys observed that, ‘Twelfth Night … is probably the most popular day throughout the Christmas, thanks to Twelfth Cake and other amusements’. We may not celebrate the same dates anymore, but we will never tire of cakes…

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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