One of my pet peeves involves the Twelve Days of Christmas and the use of the term to refer to the 12 days prior to December 25th. That would fall under the season of Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, if anything. I’m not a deeply religious person, but it saddens me to see the meaning co-opted and lost in this manner.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
Conventionally on the Western Christian calendar, the twelve days begin the day after Christmas, on Boxing Day. When the tradition began, days were counted from sundown to sundown. So Christmas evening is First Night.
This means that last night, January 5th, is what has been known as Twelfth Night since the Middle Ages. The Twelfth Day of Christmas falls on January 6th and is celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany to commemorate the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem.
The wise men, who came to be known as the Three Kings – Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar – who brought the Christ child gifts of frankincense, gold and myrhh. These gifts were traditional Epiphany gifts for centuries. Kings and queens became traditional representatives of Twelfth Night. And to this day, in predominantly Catholic cultures, Christmas presents are not given out until January 6th — something that would not have happened in England during the Regency.
Christmastide in the Regency
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Twelfth Night parties, or revels, were popular and featured games, charades, drinking punch or wassail and eating. A special Twelfth Cake, the forerunner of today’s Christmas cake, was the centerpiece of the party, and a slice distributed to all members of the household. By tradition, both a dried bean and a dried pea were baked into the cake.
The man receiving the slice with the bean was named King for the night; the pea’s presence identified the Queen. For the rest of the evening, they ruled supreme. Even if they were normally servants, their temporarily exalted position was recognized by all, including their masters.
By the early 19th century, the cakes had become very elaborate creations with sugar frosting, gilded paper trimmings, and sometimes decorated with delicate plaster of Paris or sugar paste figures, but no longer contained the dried beans and peas.
During the Regency period, the guests at the revels were expected to pick a slip of paper and maintain the role of the character written upon it for the evening. Besides the King and Queen, a variety of characters, often pulled from popular literature and plays, were put into the hat. Enterprising stationers even sold sets of characters for Twelfth Night celebrations.
One superstitious tradition that signaled the end of Christmastide was that by the End of Epiphany, all the decorations would be taken down and the greenery burned lest the household invite bad luck for the coming year.
Some now familiar traditions that were not observed during the Regency include, Santa Claus, elaborate kissing balls (although simple mistletoe boughs were popular), and stockings. Queen Charlotte, introduced the German idea of an evergreen being brought indoors and decorated to celebrate the season. Also, during the Regency, many household hearths, especially in the city, would not have had the capacity to hold traditional Yule logs that could burn the entire twelve days, although the custom of a Christmas fire remained popular.
Do the winter holidays hold special traditions for you and your family? Have you ever participated in traditions with friends or extended family from another religion or country that you’ve come to incorporate into your own celebrations?
For more information regarding Regency Celebrations and Christmastide:
BBC’s Ten Ages of Christmas
Jane Austen and Christmas: Celebrating Twelfth Night including a traditional recipe for Twelfth Night Cake
Jo Beverly’s Article on Christmas in the Regency
More Christmas-specific links and more information on a variety of Regency-themed topics can be found on my Regency Resource page.