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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Regina

The Twelfth Night

Updated: Jan 7

Twelfth Night – the last day of Christmas – falls on 5th January but was often celebrated on 6th January; it is the day of the Kings, combining the church feast of Epiphany, when the baby Christ was visited by three Magi, showed physical manifestation to the Gentiles and was baptised by John The Baptist, with elements of the subversive and rowdy Roman feast of Saturnalia, in which master and slave swap places. By the end of the nineteenth century, a pincer-movement of Queen Victoria’s disapproval of its riotousness and the Scrooge-like exigencies of commerce and industry squeezed the Twelve Days of Christmas down to three bank holidays. Dickens’s life shows us what we have lost; an opportunity for coming together for a last hurrah before the pinch of winter, for joy, drama, music, wassail and that great icon of Twelfth Night – the Twelfth Cake

On the evening of 4 January 1849, the Royal Family went to the theatre — or, rather, the luminaries of the London stage came to Windsor Castle. The Queen, Prince Albert, the Duchess of Kent, the Duchess of Cambridge, the Princess Mary, Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar, the Princess Amelie, and Elise of Hohenlohe-Schillingsfurst, attended by the royal household, took in an evening's entertainment, consisting of three productions: Dion Boucicault's two-act adaptation from the French of Used Up, starring the incomparable Victorian comedian Charles Matthews; John Maddison Morton's celebrated one-act farce Box and Cox, A Romance of Real Life, starring John Baldwin Buckstone; and Shakespeare's Hamlet, starring the tragedian Charles Kean.

Parlour games were the highlight of the evening, games included choosing a King and Queen for the evening in which paper crowns, a sceptre, and if possible, full regalia are given them. In the early 19th century it was the custom to buy a set of Twelfth Night characters to accompany your cake. From the early 1840s the Illustrated London News could provide a supplement with a sheet of Twelfth Night characters drawn by famous illustrators such as Alfred Henry Forrester (1804–1872), who was also known by the pseudonym Alfred Crowquill. These were meant to be cut out and rolled up, and then put into a hat and passed around party guests. Each guest would draw a character and would have to stay in character until midnight.

The Prince of Wales, Twelfth-Night Characters. Top left, Queen Victoria; top centre, couples dancing during a ball; top right, Prince Albert; below, various characters. Coloured woodcut, 1840.

Another popular parlour game which Queen Victoria was fond of as a young woman was 'Snap Dragon' Queen Victoria in fact mentions the game 16 times in her diary.

Snap dragon is a game which involves brandy or another spirit, a shallow bowl or plater, raisins, and fire! The Book Of Days which was first published in 1832 describes the instructions as: 

“A quantity of raisins are deposited in a large dish or bowl (the broader and shallower it is, the better), and brandy or some other spirit is poured over the fruit and ignited. The bystanders now endeavour, by turns, to grasp a raisin, by plunging their hands through the flames; and as this is somewhat of an arduous feat, requiring both courage and rapidity of action, a considerable amount of laughter and merriment is evoked at the expense of the unsuccessful competitors.” Just remember lighting brandy on fire creates a low-burning, blue flame that is relatively hard to transfer when exposure is kept to a minimum. Although sometimes things didn't go according to plan as mentioned in Victoria's journal in 1847-

'When we left the Drawing room, with all the company, we went into the King's Room & had 'Snap Dragon', which ended with salt being put into the Brando, which made us look quite green, & horrid, but caused great laughter. —' Queen Victoria's journals 6th January 1847

Snap Dragon was often played on Christmas Eve during the 17th and 18th Century but it became more favoured as a Twelfth Night entertainment during the Victorian era. Queen Victoria continued this game as a tradition for her grandchildren into the 1870's.

During the early Victorian era a Twelfth Night cake would feature amongst the merrymaking -

'The Twelfth Night cake, was, as usual, exhibited; a very pretty one, all snow and figures, made by my confectioner. — Ld Waterpark read afterwards. —' - Queen Victoria's journals Tuesday 6th January 1880

A necessary adjunct to the Royal family's celebration of the close of the Christmas holidays was a twelfth cake, an oversized version of which Charles Dickens describes in A Christmas Carol, Stave 3, as part of the fruits, confections, and beverages composing the throne of the Spirit of Christmas Present.

Queen Victoria’s Twelfth Cake, shown in the 'Illustrated London News', 1849. The cake was 30 inches across, gilded around its bowed sides, and displayed an elegant sugar-paste party enjoying a detailed sugar-paste picnic – a scene that provided a genteel antidote to the sort of riotousness the Queen disapproved of Illustrated London News, doubtless playing its part to revive Christmas traditions, described the Royal Family's Twelfth Night festivities by focusing on the command performance at Windsor Castle, and by describing in detail the Queen's Twelfth Cake:

Printed in Illustrated London News, 13 January 1849.

"We give a representation of the Twelfth Cake prepared for her Majesty, which graced the Royal table at Windsor Castle on Saturday last (Twelfth Night)."

This superb Cake was designed and carried out by Her Majesty's confectioner, Mr. Mawditt. The Cake was of regal dimensions, being about 30 inches in diameter, and tall in proportion: round the side the decorations consisted of strips of gilded paper, bowing outwards near the top, issuing from an elegant gold bordering. The figures, of which there were sixteen, on the top of the Cake, represented a party of beaux and belles of the last century enjoying a repast al fresco, under some trees; whilst others, and some children, were dancing to minstrel strains. The repast, spread on the ground, with its full complemens [sic] of comestibles, decanters, and wine-glasses (the latter, by the way, not sugar glasses, but real brittle ware), was admirably modelled, as were also the figures, servants being represented handing refreshments to some of the gentlemen and ladies, whilst some of the companions of the latter were dancing. The violinist and harpist seemed to be thoroughly impressed with the importance of their functions, and their characteristic attitudes were cleverly given. As a specimen of fancy workmanship, the ornaments to the cake do credit to the skill of Mr. Mawditt, the Royal connoisseur.

The Twelfth Cake is a tradition which dates from medieval times. It was a large fruit cake made and eaten to celebrate the Twelfth Night or Epiphany, which was a much bigger feast-day than Christmas at the time. At one time, a large party was held on the night of 5 January at which a slice of this cake would be handed to guests as they arrived. A dried bean (and sometimes also a dried pea) would be baked into the cake; whoever found the dried bean and pea became King and Queen of Twelfth Night.

Elaborate window displays for Twelfth-day cakes in bakeries and confectioneries, like this 1825 image, showed off a huge cake "on large and massy salvers" with many other sizes at the window and on shelves, lit by "argand-lamps and manifold wax-lights."

William Hone reports that urchins would nail together the clothes of people admiring the Twelfth Cakes in front of the pastry cooks windows. ('The Everyday Book', 1825)

The tradition of Twelfth Night entertainment and cake appears to have died out towards the end of the C19th. The decorative cake became the Christmas cake, and the hidden bean and pea transformed into a silver sixpence in the Christmas pudding.

It is often rumoured that Queen Victoria banned or 'outlawed' Twelfth Night celebrations but in fact she carried on Twelfth Night Celebrations well into the 1890's, even playing 'Snap Dragon' with the children. Although Queen Victoria did state the Twelfth Night celebrations encouraged rowdiness and drunkenness ( Not that she complained about this in her earlier years...) Victoria even still had a Twelfth Night cake on her table in 1892. She also recorded the children dressed up for the occasion in 1872.

'Went down at 5 to see Tableaux being rehearsed, of which Mr Yorke has got the entire management. The stage was erected in the Indian room, & is quite a large one. — Jane C., Col: Byng & Major Bigge dined with us 8. The Twelfth Night cake with a hunting scene' - Queen Victoria's journals Wednesday 6th January 1892

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