Twelfth Night: Eat (cake), find a bean and prepare for the visit of the Magi

Persons in era Christmas clothing, some with instruments, some persons in everyday clothing, march down street in happy procession

A Twelfth Night procession in Great Britain. Photo by Stephen Craven

MONDAY, JANUARY 5: Only a century ago, Christmas celebrations were reaching their peak on the night of January 5. Hard to believe? It’s true—the 12th day of Christmas, known better as Twelfth Night, has long been an occasion for special cakes, “misrule” (lively celebrations) and plenty of merrymaking. In the Christian Church, Twelfth Night is Epiphany Eve, as the faithful prepare for the feast celebrating the visitation of the Magi. In some Catholic countries, children anticipate small gifts and candies to be left on the evening of January 5, as the Magi “pass by” on their way to Bethlehem. Songs such as “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and “I Saw Three Ships” pay homage to the Magi and, respectively, to their relics being transported to Cologne, aboard three ships.

Did you know? George and Martha Washington were married on Twelfth Night. In past centuries, it was common for weddings to be held during Christmastide (the period between Christmas and Epiphany).

Round cake of bread and with red and green decor on top, with paper crown in middle

A Spanish Rosca de reyes, commonly consumed on Twelfth Night or Epiphany. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In centuries past, the early days of January were filled with plenty of fatty, sugary foods, drinks, parties and gatherings around the table with family and friends. Particularly in medieval and Tudor England, it was custom for a Twelfth Night cake to be served, into which a bean was cooked: the recipient of piece of cake with the bean would rule for the evening. As Twelfth Night ended a winter festival, the Lord of Misrule gained sovereignty. (Wikipedia has details.) For one evening—until midnight—peasants were treated as kings, and kings as peasants. The Lord of Misrule tradition dates back to Celtic and Ancient Roman civilizations.

In Colonial America, the Christmas wreath was left on the door until the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, at which time any edible portions were consumed. In a similar manner, any fruits on Christmas trees were consumed on Twelfth Night. (Interested in the Victorian era’s take on Twelfth Night? Read more at JaneAusten.co.uk.)

THE MAGI AND THE JOURNEY

Though the Bible describes the Magi as kings, they were not, in actuality, kings in the sense we use that term today. Historians believe that these Magi were members of a priestly class, and are believed to have traveled from ancient Persia—a distance of about 1,000 miles from Bethlehem. The famous Star of Bethlehem remains shrouded in mystery, with many theories existing: some suspect this is a reference to a comet or supernova, and others to a conjunction of planets. St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas Acquinas and many other early church leaders believed it was a miraculous event.

RECIPES, ACTIVITIES & MORE

Whether baking a Spanish Roscon de reyes (Kings’ ring) or French Galette de Rois (Cake of the Kings), find a recipe and have some Twelfth Night fun!

Want to make some of these delicious breads? Get a copy of Lynne Meredith Golodner’s The Flavors of Faith, which tells a series of true stories about sacred bread traditions—including what is often called King Cake—with delicious recipes, of course!

In some countries, Twelfth Night and Epiphany mark the start of Carnival season, which lasts through Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. Lynne describes these traditions in her book.