If Christmas seems to have an insane amount of activity rolled into one holiday, it’s because Twelfth Night has disappeared from calendars, with many of its traditions — plays, parties, cake, wassailing and presents — now rolled into Christmas.
Twelfth Night is the evening of the 5th of January. It’s the day on which Christmas decorations come down, and in many parts of the UK, the day to wassail your apple trees (you tromp out to the orchards in the mud, drink a toast of apple cider to the trees, and pour cider over their roots.)
Just as Christmas inherited the traditions of Twelfth Night, Twelfth Night, in turn, had acquired all the fun and role-reversals of the Roman Saturnalia (which was roughly the 17th of December.) The Romans had a tradition of placing a bean inside a cake at Saturnalia, and whoever found it became the master of ceremonies. This tradition was carried directly over into Twelfth Night,
In Britain, the Twelfth Night Cake was like what we now call Christmas Cake. There would be a dried bean and a dried pea in it. The man who found the bean would be the King; the woman who found the pea, Queen. If a woman found the bean, she got to choose the King. If a man found the pea, he got to choose the Queen. They then got to make people at the party do funny things. Servants were included and got pieces of the cake, too. If they got to be Kings or Queens, even their masters had to obey them. By the early 1800s, Twelfth Night Cake was frosted with fancy trimmings and decorated with small figurines made of sugar paste. It died out as a Twelfth Night tradition by the end of the 1800s; being made instead for Christmas and called Christmas Cake.
In Italy and New Orleans, Twelfth Night is still considered the start of Carnival Season. The Italians make foccaia bread instead, hiding in it 4 beans: 3 white ones for the magi, and 1 black one. Whoever finds the black one is the master of ceremonies and can choose his Queen.
Literature & Lore
Now Christmas is past
Twelfth Night is the last
To the Old Year adieu
Great joy to the new!