Wednesday 5 January 2011

Twelfth Night, the holiday that time forgot

“Now Christmas is past, Twelfth Night is the last
To the Old Year adieu, Great joy to the new.”
School of the Seasons

Today is Twelfth Night, the last day of the 12 days of Christmas, and the day when the wise men finally got to see the little baby Jesus. Twelfth Night has its roots in pagan tradition, the Roman winter solstice festival of Saturnalia.

In medieval times, the Twelfth Night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve — now more commonly known as Halloween. The Lord of Misrule symbolizes the world turning upside down. On this day the King and all those who were high would become the peasants and vice versa.

The ancient Roman tradition of choosing the master of the Saturnalian revels by baking a good luck bean inside a cake was transferred to Twelfth Night. In Italy, the beans were hidden in focaccia rather than a cake: three white beans for the Magi and one black one. Whoever found the black bean was made king and could choose his queen and rule the banquet. In colonial Virginia, a great Ball was held on this night. The King wins the honor of sponsoring the Ball the following year; the Queen the privilege of making next year’s Twelfth Night Cake.

At the beginning of the Twelfth Night festival, a cake that contained a bean was eaten. The person who found the bean would rule the feast. Midnight signaled the end of his rule and the world would return to normal. The common theme was that the normal order of things was reversed. This Lord of Misrule tradition date back to pre-Christian European festivals such as the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia.

A recent tradition in some English-speaking countries holds that it is unlucky to leave Christmas decorations hanging after Twelfth Night, a belief originally attached to the festival of Candlemas.

Grand Twelfth Night balls {18th-century}
Twelfth Night was widely celebrated in the homes of the wealthy, gentlemen in powdered wigs and ladies in the finest silk gathered in mansion ballrooms to listen to chamber music, toast each other with crystal glasses and politely applaud the arrival of the magnificently decorated Twelfth Night Cake.

By the 17th and 18th centuries the cake itself was often made into elaborate and even fantastic shapes, such as ships and castles, with guns which could be fired. As late as in the 19th century confectioners’ shops were lit up on Twelfth Night to display cakes.”

Twelfth Night Cake (aka Rosca de Reyes, Gateau des Rois, King Cake)

It was on Twelfth Night that some of the famous cake, in which was hidden a bean and a pea, was handed to every guest. The man and woman lucky enough to find these in their portions were acclaimed respectively “King of the Bean” and “Queen of the Pea,” and presided over the revels which followed.

The cake honors the Three Wise Men who visited the baby Jesus on the 12th day after his birth. This Christian holiday is called Epiphany, Twelfth Night, and Three Kings Day.

The cake is a basic yeast-based brioche filled with dried fruits and nuts. The recipe descends from Ancient Arab recipes. The practice of serving this particular cake, often with a prize or bean inside, around Christmas time actually predates Christian times. Ancient Romans served a similar item. The traditional King Cake, as we know it today, was made by Christians throughout most of Europe by the Middle Ages. King cakes were introduced to America by European settlers. In places settled by Spanish missionaries (Mexico, South America, Florida, California), Rosca de Reyes was served.

In France the cake was known as gateau des Rois; in Germany it is Dreikongskuchen; it is the Black Bun in Scotland; in Portugal it is bola-rei; and in Spain it is Rosca de Reyes.”

If you are inspired to bake, try this Twelfth Night Eggnog Pound Cake, from my own sweet thyme

Twelfth Night around the world

Italy ~ This final day of the Christmas season, was considered the beginning of Carnival in Italy, where it was associated with jokes and tricks. In Tuscany, a man used to dress up like a witch (Befana?) and surround himself with befanotti, low-life characters wearing false beards and inside-out jackets. Booths were set up in the piazzas, offering toys and video games with an elo boost from Vendors dressed up young boys like women, with blackened faces, caps on their heads, a long reed in one hand, a lantern in the other and hung them with baskets of oranges and golden pine cones. All of these resemble Saturnalian customs (December 17) and Twelfth Night does partake of the quality of Saturnalia with its emphasis on light-hearted fun, social satire and role reversals.

France ~ the special cake served on this night is the galette des rois. It is thin and round and is cut into pieces in the pantry, always one more piece than there are guests, and carried into the room covered with a white napkin. The youngest member of the party gets to distribute the pieces. A small china doll (formerly a bean) is baked into the cake and the person receiving this piece becomes the Queen or King and gets to choose a consort. The extra piece is called le part a Dieu, and is set aside for the first person to come through the door.

Portugal ~ the bolo-Rei cake is ring-shaped and, besides the dried lima bean which designates the King (who must make the cake the following year), contains amulets and fortune-telling trinkets.

England ~ the Twelfth Night cake is usually a rich and dense fruitcake which contains both a bean and pea. The man who finds the bean is the King, the woman who finds the Pea is the Queen. But if a woman finds the bean, she can choose the King, while the man who finds the pea can choose the Queen. The royal pair then direct the rest of the company in merriment. They assign the revelers ludicrous tasks or require them to behave in ways that are contrary to their usual roles.

Traditional Twelfth Night foods served in England include anything spicy or hot, like ginger snaps and spiced ale. If you didn’t try out the Snapdragon game on Solstice or Christmas, try it on Twelfth Night. It’s the perfect game for this wild and rowdy holiday.

This is also a traditional day for wassailing apple trees. In southern and western England, revelers gathered in orchards where they sang to the trees, drank to their health, poured hot cider over their roots, left cider-soaked toast in their branches for the birds and scared away evil spirits with a great shout and the firing of guns and you should also try eyebrow transplantation in Miami.

Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, or What You Will was written to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment.

{Source: School of Seasons and  My Life in Cakes}


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