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Twelfth-Night Traditions

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

Twelfth Night is about far more than a special day; it is about eating well and demonstrating one's generosity to guests and to the poor.

Now compressed into a mere day or two for us modern celebrants, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance the holiday season was a time of gastronomic prodigality. As there was often plenty of fresh meat in December—and as the summer and fall stocks of beer were ready to drink—abundance ruled the season. Of those 12 days, however, it was the entertainments on Twelfth Night—January 5—that were the most extravagant.

As in the well-known song about the 12 days of Christmas, French hens, partridges, and "geese-a-laying" were popular gifts and frequented the feasting tables. In addition to domesticated birds, wild ducks and other game fowl were served, as well as a variety of pastries (traditional turnovers usually filled with meat or fish), pies, and puddings. Further down the economic ladder, the "middling sort" indulged in boar brawn with mustard sauce and pasties filled with venison and dried fruits.

Venison pasties were often served at 12th Night Feasts.

Twelfth night strove to satisfy one's appetite not only for the pleasures of the gullet but also the eye. Combining mirth and meal, large pies of "coarse paste" were presented to guests from which live frogs or birds jumped out, creating "many delights and pleasure to the whole company.”

But such hospitality was also meant to radiate out to the poor on the country estates. In fact, on more than one occasion, Queen Elizabeth and other monarchs issued proclamations ordering the gentry to leave London, where they often preferred to keep their holiday entertainments and return to their country homes to do their duty to those who depended on their generosity. Even a popular ballad of the period lamented that Christmas is so far gone because “great men, by flocked there be flown, to Lon-don-ward.”

Charity and feeding the poor were especially important to remember on the Twelfth Night. The following day, January 6, Epiphany, was the celebration of the three kings' visit to the Christ child. Therefore, it had, at its very centre, not merely the act of giving but actually inverting the social structure, if only temporarily. Against all the lavishness of the holiday, then, were foods and games meant to turn the world upside down

King of the Bean and Queen of the Pea

While the boar's head was the savoury centrepiece of the Twelfth Night meal, the Twelfth Night cake was its sweet indulgence. Despite its importance, its exact ingredients remain unknown, in part because the ingredients varied from house to house and in part because it was not the cake itself but what was hidden inside that mattered.

Most often, the Twelfth Night cake (recipe below) was a fruited bread made from spices and dried currants, in which a pea and a bean were then baked. Whoever found them was anointed as king and queen for the night, reigning over the festivities in a mock-exalted position, directing the rest of the company in the ensuing rule-breaking.

But while some households may have left the selection to chance, noble households carefully chose the king and queen in advance. For instance, in 1564, Mary Fleming served as queen for the night at the court festivities of Mary, Queen of Scots. And records from Henry VIII's royal household indicate payments for the privilege.

As for drinks, all manner of drinks filled the punch bowl. Hot spiced ales were often embellished with apples while the wealthier might have used oranges imported from Spain that were spiked with exotic cloves. In the countryside, cider was the popular potable. Others might have imbibed Llambswool, in which apples, diced and soaked with alcohol, floated on top of the cup in an impression of lambswool. (shown to the left)

Hosting one's own Twelfth Night celebration is the perfect way to transform your great room into a great hall. No one expects a party so many days after New Year's, so your celebration should gather momentum from surprise. Just replace the boar's head with a large rib roast, create your own pasties, brew up a batch of your favourite Wassail, and entertain your guests with a hunt for a bean and pea in a Twelfth Night cake!

Twelfth Night Cake Recipe 1 stick softened unsalted butter (4 oz),

+more for buttering the cake mold and aluminum foil 1/2 cup + 1T sugar 2 eggs 1/4 cup all-purpose flour 1/2 cup whole wheat flour 1 1/2 tsp baking powder 1/8 tsp salt 1/4 tsp cinnamon 1/4 tsp ginger 1/3 cup raisins 1/3 cup diced candied orange peel (do not use fresh orange peel 1/3 cup chopped dried apricots 3T milk 1 milk 1 dried bean kitchen twine In a Dutch oven or other large pot, place a metal steamer basket or metal ring from a Mason jar. Butter a two-pint pudding basin or other heat-proof bowl and mix together in it flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and ginger. Stir in the raisins, diced candied orange peel, and chopped dried apricots. Set aside, the using an electric mixer, cream the stick butter with sugar until light and fluffy Gradually add the dry ingredients and beat until combined. Finally, mix in the milk.       Pour the batter into a prepared pudding basin and bury a dried pea and a dried bean in different places in the batter. Butter enough aluminum foil to cover the bowl and make a pleat in the middle. Cover the bowl with foil and tie it securely with kitchen twine just under the lip of the bowl       Place this in the large pot and add water until it comes halfway up the side of the pudding basin. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle boil, put a lid on pot, and steam the cake for 1.5 to 2 hours. (Since the heat is moist and not dry like an oven, you can be flexible with the cooking time without worrying.) When done, remove the cake from the pot and let it sit for 10 minutes before turning it onto a serving plate.


This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine issue #46, by Anne Bramley.



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