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Happy Twelfth Night!

Posted By on January 5, 2010

Typical Kings Day roscon

Typical Kings Day roscon

Here in Spain, I have three very excited (read loud!) children. Why? Because here in Spain, and many Catholic countries around the world, it is Twelfth Night or the eve of Epiphany. The Three Kings come tonight!

My Twelfth Night and Epiphany

Tonight we will brave the cold and wait for the Three Kings. Here, they come on the back of a truck, rather than on camels, and they throw sweets out behind the truck as they travel through the winding streets of our village. We go armed with big bags to collect the sweets and we join the crowd who follow the truck, spending most of their time on their hands and knees picking up sweets. Once the sweets have gone, we follow the Three Kings to our local theatre where they give out presents to the children and then it’s back home to bed to see if the Three Kings will come in the night and leave presents. Exciting!

Tomorrow, we will enjoy our Kings’ Day roscon, a cake filled with cream and decorated with candied fruit, and see who can find the King figure and the bean. The bean used to be lucky but now the person who finds the bean has to pay for the cake and the person who finds the King is crowned King of Epiphany – you get a gold cardboard crown with the cake.

It’s funny how this tradition has died out in many countries. Epiphany is just a normal work day in many societies, yet it is the day that celebrates the visit of the Three Kings or magi to the baby Jesus. It has much more of a significance than Santa, if you think about it. Spanish children visit our house to see our Christmas tree, the Santa hanging from our balcony, our cards and decoration, because here Santa or “Papa Noel” is a new phenomenon; here, Christmas Eve and Epiphany are the important celebrations and it’s all about Mary and her precious son, Jesus, not a man dressed in red and sometimes it’s nice to learn from other cultures because they make you think about the real meaning of things. In many countries, we just think of Twelfth Night as a time to take the Christmas decorations down, after all, we don’t want bad luck!

(see slideshow for our photos from tonight’s Twelfth Night Celebrations)

Why am I writing all this on The Anne Boleyn Files? Well, it’s certainly not to preach, because I love Santa, but it’s because these present day Twelfth Night and Epiphany celebrations hearken back to Medieval and Tudor times.

Epiphany in Tudor Times

The eve of Epiphany, Twelfth Night, marked the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and also the winter festival that started at All Hallows Eve (Halloween). If you have read the “Tudor Christmas” page, you will know that the Twelve Days of Christmas were twelve days of celebration and a time where communities would come together to celebrate and bring cheer to this usually miserable time of year.

During these twelve days, a commoner would play the part of the “Lord of Misrule”, turning things on their head, and he, not the King, would be in charge of choosing and organising entertainment and revelry. His reign would end on Twelfth Night, but there would be lots of fun to be had before that! To give you an idea of how outrageous the entertainment could be, Alison Sims (“Pleasures and Pastimes in Tudor England”) writes:-

“At the Inner Temple a fox and a cat were let loose in the hall on St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) and hunted with a pack of hounds until the two were torn to pieces.”

Mad!

One article I read online (http://midrealm.org/scacolumbus/12th%20Night/history.php) states that on Twelfth Night a cake containing a bean would be eaten, just like our present day roscon. The person who found the bean in their slice of cake would be in charge of the Twelfth Night feast which would probably have also been accompanied by a masque or by dancing, and then that person’s reign, and the reign of the Lord of Misrule, would end at midnight. A church service would also be attended by Tudor people. Poet,  Robert Herrick, writes in his poem “Twelfth Night” (or King and Queen) from 1648:-

“Now, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here ;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.”

So, the person who found the bean became “king of sport” and the person who found the pea played Queen. Herrick also writes of how the “King” and “Queen” of the Twelfth Night festivities would be toasted with a drink of “lambswool” as a wassail drink (see “An Elizabethan Christmas” over at The Elizabeth Files for details). Don’t you sometimes wish we had these festivities still today?!

Did you know that William Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night” was actually written to be entertainment for Twelfth Night in Elizabethan times?

Do you celebrate Twelfth Night or Epiphany? If so, what do you do?

Happy Twelfth Night and Kings’ Day!

P.S. Remember to vote for your favourite Anne Boleyn Dress – see Anne Boleyn Dresses.

12 thoughts on “Happy Twelfth Night!”

  1. Molly says:

    Happy 12th Night to you too! My parents live in Denia, and they go mad for it there – I went to the 3 Kings fiesta there one year and it was brilliant! In Denia, the 3 Kings ride on horses.

  2. Claire says:

    Happy 12th Night, Molly! Horses sound much more upmarket than our truck!! It is a great fiesta, we love it.

  3. Kelly says:

    Happy 12th night!! That sounds really fun actually, i wish they did that kind of stuff here! Hope you and your children have a fabulous time!

  4. Avi says:

    Hi!
    Here in mexico, we celebrate this day usually is January 6th. The Day the 3 Kings arrive and see baby Jesus.
    Everybody eats the roscon. It is very delicious 😀 and little children open their presents instead of Santa Claus(the 25th). It depends which celebration you celebrate.

  5. lisaannejane says:

    I never knew what the 12 days of Christmas were until I read about Tudor history. I don’t think it would work in the U.S. where so many religions are celebrated. In my apartment complex, I know people who celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and others who are Buddhists and some who follow Hinduism. Christmas is really a one day holiday here.

  6. Andrea says:

    Happy 12th night!! Here in Venezuela the Kings come the next morning (january 6th) and leave presents for everyone. My mom’s side of the family always have breakfast at my Grandma’s house on King’s Day, lots of fun. Hope you have a great day with your kids!

  7. Claire says:

    Thanks for all the comments! Happy Kings Day!
    Yes, here in Spain they’re a bit greedy really. Traditionally, the Three Kings come during the night of the 5th/6th and the children leave slippers out for them to fill with presents and then the children wake up to presents on the 6th. However, most cities, towns and villages have some kind of Three Kings procession on the night of the 5th and ours culminates with the Kings giving out presents.
    We had a great time and the children have three huge bags of sweets now. As we’re Brits we do our main presents on Christmas Day but the children did get a couple of presents from the Kings last night too.
    Well, have a good day today whatever you’re doing!

  8. julie b says:

    Hi Claire,
    I have never heard of this tradition, it sounds fun. I was surprised to hear that you are from Spain, I guess I assumed you were from England.
    Have a great day!
    Julie B.

  9. CarolBrigid says:

    Happy Twelfth night! I celebrated this event at my church last night. I am Russian Orthodox, and Epiphany is always a favorite service at my church in celebration of Christ’s baptism. Our priest blesses us with Holy water, and sprinkles it all around our church and then we have a small feast after the service. It’s not a festive event such as others shared here, but it is meanngful to me and it is a beautiful service! That’s how I spent my evening celebrating!! I would love to celebrate with some of the festivities listed here!
    Carol

  10. Tudorrose says:

    Happy Twelfth Night All and Happy New Year!
    The twelfth night begins on the evening of the 5th of January then ends on the evening of the 6th of January and this marks the end to the twelve days of christmas.Some people say the epiphany starts and finishes on the 6th of January.I think that were the confusion has come in is where and when the medieval society started their days at sunset which would make the event lapse into another day. So basically the twelfth night would start from the 5th of January and end on the 6th of January.It is a tradition that christians such I myself celebrate.
    Apparently it is bad luck to leave any christmas decorations up after february the 1st.This is the day before candlemass day.Now it is said that all decorations must be removed after the twelfth night,which would be January the 6th.(I think that this is an old wives tale myself)
    Shakespeare the famous elizabethan playwright wrote a play called the twelfth night among many.

  11. Claire says:

    Hi Julie,
    I’m British but moved to a tiny mountain village in southern Spain just 3 and a half years ago. Still English to the core though!!

  12. Anne Barnhill says:

    Happy Twelfth Night! I didn’t know about these modern customs and knew only a little about the TUdor ones. Thanks so much for the info. I really do wish we could celebrate all 12 days of Christmas and not focus so much on the one day. All activities should cease and give 12 days for people to enjoy family and friends and wassailling! Cheers to all!

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