Twelfth Night (holiday)

Twelfth Night (also known as Epiphany Eve) is a Christian festival on the last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas, marking the coming of the Epiphany.[1] Different traditions mark the date of Twelfth Night as either 5 January or 6 January, depending on whether the counting begins on Christmas Day or 26 December.[2][3]

Twelfth Night
Mervyn Clitheroe's Twelfth Night party,
by "Phiz"
Also calledEpiphany Eve
Observed byChristians
Significanceevening prior to Epiphany
Date5 or 6 January
Related to

A superstition in some English-speaking countries suggests it is unlucky to leave Christmas decorations hanging after Twelfth Night, a tradition also variously attached to the festivals of Candlemas (2 February), Good Friday, Shrove Tuesday, and Septuagesima.[4] Other popular customs include eating king cake, singing Christmas carols, chalking the door, having one's house blessed, merrymaking, and attending church services.[5][6]


In many Western ecclesiastical traditions, Christmas Day is considered the "First Day of Christmas" and the Twelve Days are 25 December  5 January, inclusive, making Twelfth Night on 5 January, which is Epiphany Eve.[1] In some customs, the Twelve Days of Christmas are counted from sundown on the evening of 25 December until the morning of 6 January, meaning that the Twelfth Night falls on the evening 5 January and the Twelfth Day falls on 6 January. However, in some church traditions only full days are counted, so that 5 January is counted as the Eleventh Day, 6 January as the Twelfth Day, and the evening of 6 January is counted as the Twelfth Night.[7] In these traditions, Twelfth Night is the same as Epiphany.[8] However, some such as the Church of England consider Twelfth Night to be the eve of the Twelfth Day (in the same way that Christmas Eve comes before Christmas), and thus consider Twelfth Night to be on 5 January.[9] The difficulty may come from the use of the words "eve" which is defined as "the day or evening before an event", however, especially in antiquated usage could be used to simply mean "evening".[10]

Bruce Forbes writes:

In 567 the Council of Tours proclaimed that the entire period between Christmas and Epiphany should be considered part of the celebration, creating what became known as the twelve days of Christmas, or what the English called Christmastide. On the last of the twelve days, called Twelfth Night, various cultures developed a wide range of additional special festivities. The variation extends even to the issue of how to count the days. If Christmas Day is the first of the twelve days, then Twelfth Night would be on January 5, the eve of Epiphany. If December 26, the day after Christmas, is the first day, then Twelfth Night falls on January 6, the evening of Epiphany itself.[11]

The Church of England, Mother Church of the Anglican Communion, celebrates Twelfth Night on the 5th and "refers to the night before Epiphany, the day when the nativity story tells us that the wise men visited the infant Jesus".[12][13][14]

Origins and history

Wassailing apple trees on the twelfth night to ensure a good harvest, a tradition in Maplehurst, West Sussex
A Spanish Roscón de reyes, or Kings' ring. This size, approx. 50 cm (20 in) diameter, usually serves 8 people. This pastry is just one of the many types baked around the world for celebrations during the Twelve Days of Christmas and Twelfth Night.

In 567 A.D, the Council of Tours "proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast."[15][16][17][18] Christopher Hill, as well as William J. Federer, states that this was done to solve the "administrative problem for the Roman Empire as it tried to coordinate the solar Julian calendar with the lunar calendars of its provinces in the east."[19][20]

In medieval and Tudor England, Candlemas traditionally marked the end of the Christmas season,[21][22] although later, Twelfth Night came to signal the end of Christmastide, with a new but related season of Epiphanytide running until Candlemas.[23] A popular Twelfth Night tradition was to have a bean and pea hidden inside a Twelfth-night cake; the "man who finds the bean in his slice of cake becomes King for the night while the lady who finds a pea in her slice of cake becomes Queen for the night."[24] Following this selection, Twelfth Night parties would continue and would include the singing of Christmas carols, as well as feasting.[24]


Food and drink are the centre of the celebrations in modern times. All of the most traditional ones go back many centuries. The punch called wassail is consumed especially on Twelfth Night and throughout Christmas time, especially in the UK, and door-to-door wassailing (similar to singing Christmas carols) was common up until the 1950s.[25] Around the world, special pastries, such as the tortell and king cake, are baked on Twelfth Night, and eaten the following day for the Feast of the Epiphany celebrations. In English and French custom, the Twelfth-cake was baked to contain a bean and a pea so that those who received the slices containing them should be respectively designated king and queen of the night's festivities.[26]

In parts of Kent, there is a tradition that an edible decoration would be the last part of Christmas to be removed in the Twelfth Night and shared amongst the family.[27]

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London has had a tradition since 1795 of providing a Twelfth Night cake. The will of Robert Baddeley made a bequest of £100 to provide cake and punch every year for the company in residence at the theatre on 6 January. The tradition continues.[28]

In Ireland, it is still the tradition to place the statues of the Three Kings in the crib on the Twelfth Night or, at the latest, the following day, Little Christmas.

In colonial America, a Christmas wreath was always left up on the front door of each home. When taken down at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, any edible portions would be consumed with the other foods of the feast. The same held true in the 19th–20th centuries with fruits adorning Christmas trees. Fresh fruits were hard to come by and were therefore considered fine and proper gifts and decorations for the tree, wreaths, and home. Again, the tree would be taken down on the Twelfth Night, and such fruits, along with nuts and other local produce used, would then be consumed.

Modern American Carnival traditions are seen across former French colonies, most notably in New Orleans and Mobile. In the mid-twentieth century, friends gathered for weekly king cake parties. Whoever got the slice with the "king", usually in the form of a miniature baby doll (symbolic of the Christ Child, "Christ the King"), hosted the next week's party. Traditionally, this was a bean for the king and a pea for the queen.[29] Parties centred around king cakes are no longer common and king cake today is usually brought to the workplace or served at parties, the recipient of the plastic baby being obligated to bring the next king cake to the next function. In some countries, Twelfth Night and Epiphany mark the start of the Carnival season, which lasts through Mardi Gras Day.

In Spain, Twelfth Night is called Cabalgata de Reyes ("Parade of Kings"), and historically the "kings" would go through towns and hand out sweets.[25]

In France, La Galette des Rois ("Kings' Cake") is eaten all month long. The cakes vary depending on the region; in northern France, it is called a galette and is filled with frangipane, fruit, or chocolate. In the south, it is more of a brioche with candied fruit.[25]


Twelfth Night in the Netherlands became so secularised, rowdy, and boisterous that public celebrations were banned by the Church.[30]

Old Twelfth Night

In some places, particularly South West England, Old Twelfth Night is still celebrated on 17 January.[31][32] This continues the custom of the Apple Wassail on the date that corresponded to 6 January on the Julian calendar at the time of the change in calendars enacted by the Calendar Act of 1750.[33]

In literature

William Shakespeare wrote the play Twelfth Night, circa 1601.

It is unknown whether Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night, or What You Will was written to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment, since there is no record of the circumstances of its composition.[34] The earliest known performance took place at Middle Temple Hall, one of the Inns of Court, on Candlemas night, 2 February 1602.[35] The play has many elements that are reversed, in the tradition of Twelfth Night, such as a woman Viola dressing as a man, and a servant Malvolio imagining that he can become a nobleman.

Ben Jonson's The Masque of Blackness was performed on 6 January 1605 at the Banqueting House in Whitehall. It was originally entitled The Twelfth Nights Revells. The accompanying Masque, The Masque of Beauty was performed in the same court the Sunday night after the Twelfth Night in 1608.[36]

Robert Herrick's poem Twelfth-Night, or King and Queene, published in 1648, describes the election of king and queen by bean and pea in a plum cake, and the homage done to them by the draining of wassail bowls of "lamb's-wool", a drink of sugar, nutmeg, ginger, and ale.[37]

Charles Dickens' 1843 A Christmas Carol briefly mentions Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present visiting a children's Twelfth Night party.

In chapter 6 of Harrison Ainsworth's 1858 novel Mervyn Clitheroe, the eponymous hero is elected King of festivities at the Twelfth Night celebrations held in Tom Shakeshaft's barn by receiving the slice of plum cake containing the bean; his companion Cissy obtains the pea and becomes queen, and they are seated together in a high corner to view the proceedings. The distribution has been rigged to prevent another person from gaining the role. The festivities include country dances, the introduction of a "Fool Plough", a plough decked with ribands brought into the barn by a dozen mummers together with a grotesque "Old Bessie" (played by a man), and a Fool dressed in animal skins with a fool's hat. The mummers carry wooden swords and perform revelries. The scene in the novel is illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"). In the course of the evening, the fool's antics cause a fight to break out, but Mervyn restores order. Three bowls of gin punch are disposed of. At eleven o'clock, the young men make the necessary arrangements to see the young ladies safely home across the fields.[38]

The Dead—the final, novella-length story in James Joyce's 1914 collection Dubliners—opens on Twelfth Night, or Epiphany Eve, and extends into the early morning hours of Epiphany itself. Critics and writers consider the story "just about the finest short story in the English language"[39] and "one of the greatest short stories ever written".[40] Its adaptations include a play, a Broadway musical, and two films. The story begins at the bustling and sumptuous annual dance hosted by Kate Morkan and Julia Morkan, aunts to Gabriel Conroy, the main character. Throughout the festivities, a series of minor obligations and awkward encounters leaves Gabriel with a sense of unease, inducing self-doubt, or at least doubt in the person he presents himself as. This unease sharpens during a dinner speech in which Gabriel grandiosely ponders whether because "...we are living in a skeptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age", the generation currently coming of age in Ireland will begin to "lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humor which belonged to an older day." High spirits and singing soon resume. Gabriel and his wife Gretta depart for their hotel in the early morning hours. This destination for Gabriel kindles both erotic possibility and deep love. However, at the hotel, Gretta, moved by a song they had just heard sung at the party, offers a tearful, long-withheld revelation that momentarily shatters Gabriel's feelings of warmth, leaving him shaken and bewildered. After Gretta drifts off to sleep, Gabriel, still rapt in the emotional wake of her revelation, gazes out the window at the falling snow and experiences a profound and unifying epiphany, one that reconciles the fears, doubts, and façades that had haunted him throughout the evening and, he seems to recognise, throughout his life to that point.[41]

See also


  1. Hatch, Jane M. (1978). The American Book of Days. Wilson. ISBN 9780824205935. January 5th: Twelfth Night or Epiphany Eve. Twelfth Night, the last evening of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, has been observed with festive celebration ever since the Middle Ages.
  2. "Epiphany: Should Christmas decorations come down on 6 January?". BBC News. 6 January 2017. Retrieved 9 January 2021.
  3. Carter, Michael. "Why it is time for an epiphany over Christmas decorations". The Tablet. Retrieved 9 January 2021.
  4. William Alexander Barrett (1868). Flowers and Festivals, Or, Directions for the Floral Decoration of Churches. Rivingtons. pp. 170–174.
  5. Mangan, Louise; Wyse, Nancy; Farr, Lori (2001). Rediscovering the Seasons of the Christian Year. Wood Lake Publishing Inc. p. 69. ISBN 9781551454986. Epiphany is often heralded by "Twelfth Night" celebrations (12 days after Christmas), on the evening before the Feast of Epiphany. Some Christian communities prepare Twelfth Night festivities with drama, singing, rituals - and food! ... Sometimes several congregations walk in lines from church to church, carrying candles to symbolize the light of Christ shining and spreading. Other faith communities move from house to house, blessing each home as they search for the Christ child.
  6. Pennick, Nigel (21 May 2015). Pagan Magic of the Northern Tradition: Customs, Rites, and Ceremonies. Inner Traditions – Bear & Company. p. 176. ISBN 9781620553909. On Twelfth Night in German-speaking countries, the Sternsinger ("star singers") go around to houses carrying a paper or wooden star on a pole. They sing an Epiphany carol, then one of them writes in chalk over the door a formula consisting of the initials of the Three Wise Men in the Nativity story, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, with crosses between them and the year date on either side; for example: 20 +M+B 15. This is said to protect the house and its inhabitants until the next Epiphany.
  7. Bratcher, Dennis. "The Season of Epiphany". The Voice. Christian Resource Institute. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  8. Van Wagenberg-Ter Hoeven, Anke A. (1993). "The Celebration of Twelfth Night in Netherlandish Art". Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art. 22 (1/2): 65–96. doi:10.2307/3780806. JSTOR 3780806.
  9. "Epiphany". Christ Lutheran Church of Staunton, Virginia. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  10. "eve noun - Definition, pictures, pronunciation and usage notes | Oxford Advanced American Dictionary at". Retrieved 9 January 2021.
  11. Forbes, Bruce (2008). Christmas: A Candid History. University of California Press. p. 27. ISBN 9780520258020.
  12. Beckford, Martin (6 January 2009). "Christmas ends in confusion over when Twelfth Night falls". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 5 January 2010. Retrieved 26 May 2010.
  13. "Twelve days of Christmas". Full Homely Divinity. Retrieved 2 January 2015. We prefer, like good Anglicans, to go with the logic of the liturgy and regard January 5th as the Twelfth Day of Christmas and the night that ends that day as Twelfth Night. That does make Twelfth Night the Eve of the Epiphany, which means that, liturgically, a new feast has already begun.
  14. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 1993. ...the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking.
  15. Fr. Francis X. Weiser. "Feast of the Nativity". Catholic Culture. The Council of Tours (567) proclaimed the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany as a sacred and festive season, and established the duty of Advent fasting in preparation for the feast. The Council of Braga (563) forbade fasting on Christmas Day.
  16. Fox, Adam (19 December 2003). "'Tis the season". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 December 2014. Around the year 400 the feasts of St Stephen, John the Evangelist and the Holy Innocents were added on succeeding days, and in 567 the Council of Tours ratified the enduring 12-day cycle between the nativity and the epiphany.
  17. Hynes, Mary Ellen (1993). Companion to the Calendar. Liturgy Training Publications. p. 8. ISBN 9781568540115. In the year 567 the church council of Tours called the 13 days between December 25 and January 6 a festival season.
    Martindale, Cyril Charles (1908). "Christmas". The Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent. Retrieved 15 December 2014. The Second Council of Tours (can. xi, xvii) proclaims, in 566 or 567, the sanctity of the "twelve days" from Christmas to Epiphany, and the duty of Advent fast; …and that of Braga (563) forbids fasting on Christmas Day. Popular merry-making, however, so increased that the "Laws of King Cnut", fabricated c. 1110, order a fast from Christmas to Epiphany.
  18. Bunson, Matthew (21 October 2007). "Origins of Christmas and Easter holidays". Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). Retrieved 17 December 2014. The Council of Tours (567) decreed the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany to be sacred and especially joyous, thus setting the stage for the celebration of the Lord's birth...
  19. Hill, Christopher (2003). Holidays and Holy Nights: Celebrating Twelve Seasonal Festivals of the Christian Year. Quest Books. p. 91. ISBN 9780835608107. This arrangement became an administrative problem for the Roman Empire as it tried to coordinate the solar Julian calendar with the lunar calendars of its provinces in the east. While the Romans could roughly match the months in the two systems, the four cardinal points of the solar year—the two equinoxes and solstices—still fell on different dates. By the time of the first century, the calendar date of the winter solstice in Egypt and Palestine was eleven to twelve days later than the date in Italy. As a result, the Incarnation came to be celebrated on different days in different parts of the Empire. The Western Church, in its desire to be universal, eventually took them both—one became Christmas, one Epiphany—with a resulting twelve days in between. Over time this hiatus became invested with specific Christian meaning. The Church gradually filled these days with saints, some connected to the birth narratives in Gospels (Holy Innocents' Day, December 28, in honour of the infants slaughtered by Herod; St. John the Evangelist, "the Beloved", December 27; St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, December 26; the Holy Family, December 31; the Virgin Mary, January 1). In 567, the Council of Tours declared the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany to become one unified festal cycle.
    Federer, William J. (6 January 2014). "On the 12th Day of Christmas". American Minute. Retrieved 25 December 2014. In 567 AD, the Council of Tours ended a dispute. Western Europe celebrated Christmas, December 25, as the holiest day of the season... but Eastern Europe celebrated Epiphany, January 6, recalling the Wise Men's visit and Jesus' baptism. It could not be decided which day was holier, so the Council made all 12 days from December 25 to January 6 "holy days" or "holidays," These became known as "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
  20. Kirk Cameron, William Federer (6 November 2014). Praise the Lord. Trinity Broadcasting Network. Event occurs at 01:15:14. Archived from the original on 25 December 2014. Retrieved 25 December 2014. Western Europe celebrated Christmas December 25 as the holiest day. Eastern Europe celebrated January 6 the Epiphany, the visit of the Wise Men, as the holiest day... and so they had this council and they decided to make all twelve days from December 25 to January 6 the Twelve Days of Christmas.
  22. Miles, Clement A.. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance. Courier Dover Publications, 1976. ISBN 0-486-23354-5. Robert Herrick (1591–1674) in his poem "Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve" writes:
    "Down with the rosemary, and so
    Down with the bays and mistletoe;
    Down with the holly, ivy, all,
    Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall"
    According to the Pelican Shakespeare anthology, It was written for a private performance for Elizabeth I in 1601.
    As Herrick’s poem records, the eve of Candlemas (the day before 2 February) was the day on which Christmas decorations of greenery were removed from people's homes; for any traces of berries, holly and so forth will bring death among the congregation before another year is out.
  23. Davidson, Clifford (5 December 2016). Festivals and Plays in Late Medieval Britain. Taylor & Francis. p. 32. ISBN 9781351936613. Playing seems to have continued after Twelfth Night, in the Epiphany season leading up to Candlemas on February 2, which sometimes was regarded as the last day of the Christmas season. We know that these weeks were an extension of the festive Christmas period.
  24. Macclain, Alexia (4 January 2013). "Twelfth Night Traditions: A Cake, a Bean, and a King –". Smithsonian Libraries. Retrieved 5 January 2017. And what happens at a Twelfth Night party? According to the 1923 Dennison's Christmas Book, "there should be a King and a Queen, chosen by cutting a cake..." The Twelfth Night Cake has a bean and a pea baked into it. The man who finds the bean in his slice of cake becomes King for the night while the lady who finds a pea in her slice of cake becomes Queen for the night. The new King and Queen sit on a throne and "paper crowns, a scepter and, if possible, full regalia are given them." The party continues with games such as charades as well as eating, dancing, and singing carols. For large Twelfth Night celebrations, a costume party is suggested.
  25. Derry, Johanna (4 January 2016). "Let's bring back the glorious food traditions of Twelfth Night (largely, lots of cake)". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 11 January 2022. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  26. Miles & John, Hadfield (1961). The Twelve Days of Christmas. London: Cassell & Company. p. 166.
  27. Mark Esdale. "Main Page @ Bridge Farmers' Market".
  28. "The Baddeley Cake". Drury Lane Theatrical Fund. Retrieved 30 November 2013.
  29. MacClain, Alexia (4 January 2013). "Twelfth Night Traditions: A Cake, a Bean, and a King – Smithsonian Libraries Unbound". Unbound. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  30. Hoeven, Anke A. van Wagenberg-ter (1993). "The Celebration of Twelfth Night in Netherlandish Art". Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art. 22 (1/2): 67. doi:10.2307/3780806. JSTOR 3780806.
  31. Iain Hollingshead, Whatever happened to ... wassailing?, The Guardian, 23 December 2005. Retrieved 23 May 2014
  32. Xanthe Clay, Traditional cider: Here we come a-wassailing!, The Telegraph, 3 February 2011. Retrieved 23 May 2014
  33. Nick Easen, Wassailing the old English apple tree, BBC Travel, 16 January 2012
  34. White, R.S. (2014). "The Critical Backstory" in Twelfth Night: A Critical Reader ed. Findlay and Oakley-Brown. London: Bloomsbury. pp. 27–28. ISBN 9781441128782.
  35. Shakespeare, William; Smith, Bruce R. (2001). Twelfth Night: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford/St Martin's. p. 2. ISBN 0-312-20219-9.
  36. Herford, C. H. (1941). Percy Simpson; Evelyn Simpson (eds.). Ben Jonson. Vol. VII. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 169–201.
  37. Herrick, Robert (1825). The Poetical Works of Robert Herrick. W. Pickering. p. 171.
  38. Ainsworth, William Harrison (1858). Mervyn Clitheroe. G. Routledge & Company. pp. 41–55.
  39. Barry, Dan (26 June 2014). "Singular Collection, Multiple Mysteries". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 June 2018.
  40. "An Exploration of 'The Dead'". Joyce's Dublin. UCD Humanities Institute. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  41. Joyce, James. "Dubliners".

Further reading

  • "Christmas". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22 December 2005. Primarily subhead Popular Merrymaking under Liturgy and Custom.
  • Christmas Trivia edited by Jennie Miller Helderman, Mary Caulkins. Gramercy, 2002
  • Marix-Evans, Martin. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Peter Pauper Press, 2002
  • Bowler, Gerry. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. McClelland & Stewart, 2004
  • Collins, Ace. Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas. Zondervan, 2003
  • Wells, Robin Headlam. Shakespeare's Humanism. Cambridge University Press, 2006
  • Fosbrooke, Thomas Dudley c. 1810, Encyclopaedia of Antiquities (Publisher unknown)
  • J. Brand, 1813, Popular Antiquities, 2 Vols (London)
  • W. Hone, 1830, The Every-Day Book 3 Vols (London), cf Vol I pp 41–61.

Early English sources

(drawn from Hone's Every-Day Book, references as found):

  • Vox Graculi, 4to, 1623: 6 January, Masking in the Strand, Cheapside, Holbourne, or Fleet-street (London), and eating spice-bread.
  • The Popish Kingdom, 'Naogeorgus': Baking of the twelfth-cake with a penny in it, the slices distributed to members of the household to give to the poor: whoever finds the penny is proclaimed king among them.
  • Nichols, Queen Elizabeth's Progresses: An entertainment at Sudley, temp. Elizabeth I, including Melibaeus, king of the bean, and Nisa, queen of the pea.
  • Pinkerton, Ancient Scottish Poems: Letter from Sir Thomas Randolph to Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester dated 15 January 1563, mentioning that Lady Flemyng was Queen of the Beene on Twelfth-Day that year.
  • Ben Jonson, Christmas, His Masque (1616, published 1641): A character 'Baby-cake' is attended by an usher carrying a great cake with a beane and a pease.
  • Samuel Pepys, Diaries (1659/60): Epiphany Eve party, selecting of King and Queen by a cake (see King cake).
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