Adelaide Magnolia Letter 15 - Festive Merry-Making

Letter #15 - Festive Merry-Making 

Twelfth Night Merry-Making in Farmer Shakeshaft’s Barn. C. 1850. From Mervyn Clithroe by William Ainsworth. Public Domain

Twelfth Night is a holiday or festival which commemorates the close of the Christmas Season. This celebration is either recognized on January 5th or 6th, depending on whether local tradition starts counting the twelve days of Christmas on the 25th or the 26th. In medieval times, the Roman Catholic church declared that the entire time between Christmas and Epiphany, or when the wise men visited the baby Jesus, should be part of the celebration. This created what is now known as the twelve days of Christmas, or Christmastide, and also making Twelfth Night January 6th on the day of Epiphany. The Church of England celebrates Twelfth Night on January 5th, the night before Epiphany.

But whether on the 5th or the 6th, the celebration always included a large feast with friends and family and lots of merry-making. Many of these also included balls with masks and costumes where guests were encouraged to play a part of a character. But regardless of whether your festivities required you to play-act, there was always a Queen and King. The King and Queen were chosen via the Twelfth Cake, or sometimes referred to as the King’s Cake. In Medieval and Tudor times, a dried bean and a dried pea were placed into the cake before it was baked. The man who received the piece of cake containing the bean would become the “King of the Bean” for the evening, and the lady with the pea would be his queen. By the early 19th century, the bean and the pea had been replaced with little trinkets, coins, or thimbles.

Another common consumable of the Twelfth Night festivities was wassail. Wassail is a drink made wine, cider, ale, or brandy mulled with warm spices such as cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg and then garnished with apples or oranges. The drink is then put into large bowls intended for shared drinking. The tradition would sometimes include bringing the bowl with you as you go around to your neighbors offering them a drink as you sing carols to them. This is referred to as wassailing.

Once festivities of Twelfth Night were over, it was time to clean up the Christmas season. It was thought that if you left up Christmas decorations past Epiphany, then you would bring bad luck to your household. All the greenery was removed and burned to ward off such dire consequences.

By the end of the 19th century in England, there were two factors that played into dwindling of the Twelfth Night celebrations. First, the rise of the Industrial Revolution created a larger workforce, who’s employers were anxious to have them back to work after the Christmas and New Year holidays. The Second was Queen Victoria. She thought the celebrations of Twelfth night were becoming increasingly more uproarious and unchristian. She then removed Twelfth Night from the official calendars, banning celebrations. Though celebrations dwindled, many traditions remained such as taking down decorations before January 6th, wassailing, and the King Cake.

The Kissing Bough

The Mistletoe Bough. Frances Wheatley 1790. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

A kissing bough is a Christmas decoration tradition in England. The bough is made of greenery, usually evergreen, pine, ivy, mistletoe, berries and sometimes herbs. These were bent and tied together into a spherical shape and hung on walls or doorways to welcome guests into homes. They would be hung from Christmas Eve until Twelfth Night and be removed when all other greenery and decorations were removed to ward off bad luck. By the Georgian period in England, kissing boughs became more elaborate and were decorated with fruit, paper flowers, and colorful ribbons. Some even would have candles adhered to the top to add to their visual appeal.\

The host of a household would greet his guests during the holiday season under the bough and with each welcome kiss a berry would be taken off the bough. Once the berries were gone, no more kisses would be given. By the early and mid 1800s, the kissing bough took on a more romantic bent and offered courting couples more opportunities to flirt when society afforded them very little opportunities to do so. Some even believed that if a girl refused to receive a kiss, she would not be proposed to that coming year, and others believed if she refused it meant she would never marry. Luckily the power of the kissing bough only extended as far as adding to the overall merriment and joy of the season.

Learn the Vernacular:

Boney: popular nickname for Napoleon Bonaparte

By, Jove: used to express surprise or emphasis. Jove, is another name for Jupiter, the principal Roman God. Jove was used as a euphemism for God or Jesus.