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Twelfth Night

On Twelfth Day we were all agreeably surprised with a sort of masquerade, on being dressed into character, and then we were conducted into the library, which was all lighted up and at one end a throne, surrounded by a grove of Orange Trees and other shrubs, and all this was totally unknown to us all! Was it not delightful? I should have liked you very much to have been of the party. Now I will tell you our different characters. Edward and I were the Shepherd King and Queen, Mama a Savoyarde with a Hurdy-Gurdy; Marianne and William her children with a Tambourine and Triangle; Papa and Aunt Louisa– Sir Bertram and Lady Beadmasc, one hundred years old– Aunt L with a great hoop; Aunt H a Pilgrim; Uncle John– a Turk; Elizabeth a flowergirl; Sophia–a fruitgirl; Fanny Cage– a haymaker; George– Harlequin; Henry– Clown; and Charley a Cupid! Was it not a good one for him, sweet fellow! He had a little pair of wings and a bow and arrow! and looked charming.

Besides these great days we had Snapdragon, Bullet Pudding, and Apple in Water, as usual.

Fanny Austen to Miss Dorothy Clapman
January 12, 1806

Twelfth Night is a festival marking the coming of the Epiphany and concluding the Twelve Days of Christmas.

It is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “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”. However, there is currently some confusion as to which night is Twelfth Night: some count the night of Epiphany itself (sixth of January) to be Twelfth Night. One source of this confusion is the medieval custom of starting each new day at sunset, so that Twelfth Night precedes Twelfth Day.

In medieval and Tudor England, 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. 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 can be traced to pre-Christian European festivals such as the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Food and drink are the center of the celebrations in modern times, and all of the most traditional ones go back many centuries. The punch called wassail is consumed especially on Twelfth Night, but throughout Christmas time, especially in the UK. 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 designated king and queen of the night’s festivities.

In colonial America, a Christmas wreath was always left up on the front door of each home, and 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 1800s – 1900s 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 Twelfth Night, and such fruits, along with nuts and other local produce used, would then be consumed.

Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, or What You Will was written to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment. The earliest known performance took place at Middle Temple Hall, one of the Inns of Court, on Candlemas night, 2 February 1602. 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.

Robert Herrick’s poem Twelfe-Night, or King and Queene (published 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.

In Jane Austen’s day, the celebration of Twelfth Night was still in full swing (It would not be toned down until Queen Victoria struck it from “official” calendars in the 1870’s. Her fear that it was too riotous a holiday, and the fact that “new” industrial working conditions did not allow for a full 12 days of celebrating contributed to its demise.) In her book, Jane Austen’s Christmas, Maria Hubert describes just how festive the occasion was.
“In Georgian England, much of the ‘gaieties’ of Christmas seems to revolve around Twelfth Night, the last eve of Christmas, and the feast of the Epiphany, or visit of the Wisemen…It heralded the end of the Christmas season, and was the time for the solemnity of the religious observance to cease, for the guests to go home, for decorations to be taken down. This was effected usually by a grand fancy ball, a masque or fancy dress, either on Twelfth Night itself or within a few days, depending on other big social events in the area. Sometimes these balls were called the Grand Christmas Ball, the Children’s Ball, or Family Ball, and included invitations for the children of the invitees. One such party is referred by Jane in her letter to Cassandra of December 27, 1808:
I was happy to hear, chiefly for Anna’s sake, that a ball at Manydown was once more in agitation; it is called a child’s ball, and given by Mrs. Heathcote to Wm. Such was its beginning at least, but it will probably swell into something more. Edward was invited during his stay at Manydown, and it is to take place between this and Twelfth-day. Mrs. Hulbert has taken Anna a pair of white shoes on the occasion.

The first society hostess to announce her ball actually on the 5th or 6th of January held precedence–but woe betide if a greater hostess decided to claim that precedence by making a later announcement for the same date.

A masque ball was the most popular, as it allowed the participants to indulge in the popular 18th century game of Twelfth Night Characters, a game steeped in antiquity dating back to Roman times and before, when masters changed places with servants.

In the 16th and 17th century Court, excluding the Parliamentary period when all such frivolity was banned, a huge cake was baked with a bean inside. Whoever got the bean in their piece was crowned the King of the Bean and ruled supreme for the night. A card drawing game developed in the 18th century, whereby each lady drew a card from the box held by a footman to the left of the entrance, and each gentleman drew a card from the same to the right. These cards were caricatures of Pairs. Thus Signor Croakthroat might by paired by Madame Topnote. The guests had to find their partner, and depending on the gaiety of the event, the amount of wine and negus consumed, and the inhibitions of the guests, the character roles had to be taken on in varying degrees of ‘spirit’ for the whole evening. Signor Croakthroat might, for example, be always clearing his throat, and singing musical scales, whilst Madame Topnote might enjoy making her fellow guests jump by occasionally emitting a loud high note!

Stationers were employed to create exclusive sheets of character cards which could not be duplicated at another party. Those who made the cheaper sets, which were not exclusive, kept ledgers of who bought which set, so that there were no duplicated embarrassments for customers.

Jane Austen was known to enter such activities with more than a little ‘spirit’ according ot the late Sir William Heathcote, who is said to have remembered being with her at a Twelfth Night party when he was a small boy. He stated that on this occasion she had drawn the character of Mrs Candour, and acted it ‘with great appreciation and spirit’. Mrs Candour would, in fact, have been an ideal character for Jane to portray. The role involved taking people aside and telling them candidly what one thought of them, or of their cap and gown, or making outrageous comments in loud whispers about the other guests!”

In 1835, Leigh Hunt, who was name for Jane Austen’s cousin, published an account of Twelfth Nights past in his London Journal. Such a description surely gives a good idea of what might have been enjoyed by a close circle of friends “ringing out” the Christmas Season.

Christmas Goes out in Fine Style
Christmas goes out in fine style,—with Twelfth Night. It is a finish worthy of the time. Christmas Day was the morning of the season; New Year’s Day the middle of it, or noon ; Twelfth Night is the night, brilliant with innumerable planets of twelfth cakes. The whole island keeps court; nay, all Christendom. All the world are kings and queens. Everybody is somebody else, and learns at once to laugh at, and to tolerate, characters different from his own, by enacting them. Cakes, characters, forfeits, lights, theatres, merry rooms, little holiday faces, and last not least, the painted sugar on the cakes, so bad to eat but so fine to look at, useful because it is perfectly useless except for a sight and a moral,—all conspire to throw a giddy splendor over the last night of the season, and to send it to bed in pomp and colors, like a Prince.

Twelfth-cake and its king and queen are in honor of the crowned heads who are said to have brought presents to Jesus in his cradle—a piece of royal service not necessary to be believed in by good Christians, though very proper to be maintained among the gratuitous decorations with which good and poetical hearts willingly garnish their faith. “The Magi, or Wise Men, are vulgarly called the three kings of Collen (Cologne). The first, named Melchior, an aged man with a long beard, offered gold; the second, Jasper, a beardless youth, offered frankincense; the third, Balthaser, a black or moor, with a large spreading beard, offered myrrh.” This picture is full of color, and has often been painted. The word Epiphany (Eirifaitiat, ivperapparllio, an appearance from above), alludes to the star which is described in the Bible as guiding the Wise Men. In Italy, the word has been corrupted into Beffania, or Beffana, (as in England it used to be called Piffany) ; and Beffana, in some parts of that country, has come to mean an old fairy, or Mother Bunch, whose figure is carried about the streets, and who rewards or punishes children at night by pulting sweetmeats, or stones and dirt, into a stocking hung up for the purpose near the bed’s head. The word Beffa, taken from this, familiarly means a trick or mockery put upon anyone — to such base uses may come the most splendid terms. Twelfth Day, like the other old festivals of the church of old, has had a link of connection found for it with Pagan customs, and has been traced to the Saturnalia of the ancients, when people drew lots for imaginary kingdoms. Its observation is still kept up, with more or less ceremony, all over Christendom. In Paris, they enjoy it with their usual vivacity. The king there is chosen, not by drawing a paper as with us, but by the lot of a bean which falls to him, and which is put into the cake; and great ceremony is observed when the king or the queen ” drinks;” which once gave rise to a jest, that occasioned the damnation of a play of Voltaire’s. The play was performed at this season, and a queen in it having to die by poison, a wag exclaimed with Twelfth Night solemnity, when her Majesty was about to take it, “The queen drinks.” The joke was infectious; and the play died, as well as the poor queen.

Many a pleasant Twelfth-Night have we passed in our time; and such future Twelfth-Nights as may remain to us shall be pleasant, God and good-will permitting; for even if care should be round about them, we have no notion of missing these mountaintops of rest and brightness, on which people may refresh themselves during the stormiest parts of life’s voyage.

We spent a Twelfth Night once, which, by common consent of the parties concerned, was afterwards known by the name of The Twelfth Night. It was doubted among us, not merely whether ourselves, but whether anybody else, ever had such a Twelfth Night;—

The evening began with such tea as is worth mention, for we never knew anybody make it like the maker. Dr Johnson would have given it his placidest growl of approbation. Then, with piano-forte, violin, and violoncello, came Handel, Corelli, and Mozart. Then followed the drawing for king and queen, in order that the “small infantry” might have their due share of the night, without sitting up too too-late (for a reasonable “too-late” is to be allowed once and away). Then games, of all the received kinds, forgetting no branch of Christmas customs. And very good extempore blank verse was spoken by some of the court {for our characters imitated a court), not unworthy of the wit and dignity of Tom Thumb. Then, came supper, and all characters were soon forgotten but the feaster’s own; good and lively souls, and festive all, both male and female,—with a constellation of the brightest eyes that we bad ever seen met together…

The bright eyes, the beauty, the good humor, the wine, the wit, the poetry (for we had celebrated wits and poet’s among us, as well as charming women), fused all hearts together in one unceasing round of fancy and laughter, till breakfast,—to which we adjourned in a room full of books, the authors of which might almost have been waked up and embodied, to come among us. Here, with the bright eyes literally as bright as ever at six o’clock in the morning (we all remarked it), we merged one glorious day into another, as a good omen (for its was also fine weather, though in January) ; and as luck and our good faith would have it, the door was no sooner opened_ to let forth the ever-joyous visitors, than the trumpets of a regiment quartered in the neighborhood struck up into the morning air, seeming to blow forth triumphant approbation, and as if they sounded purely to do us honor, and to say ” You are as early and untired as we.”


Historical information from Wikipedia.com

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