Category Archives: Twelfth Night

Singing Round the Star

Twelfth Night, Epiphany Eve

We’re coming to the close of Christmastide. Epiphany, tomorrow, is a celebration even older than Christmas itself, marking the day the Magi arrived at the stable to worship the child who was born on Christmas Night, for the Church celebrated Epiphany years and years before it began celebrating the birth of Christ. But tonight brings Twelfth Night. It is the Eve of the Epiphany. It is a cause for celebration that unfortunately doesn’t gather much attention here in the States, but what a lovely custom it is. In some places, Twelfth Night and Epiphany are celebrations that rival Christmas itself. And why shouldn’t it be so? We spend so much time and energy preparing for Christmas. It is right and good to send Christmas off in a grand way. This is the value of Twelfth Night and Epiphany.

We sometimes call it Little Christmas in my family. Convivio Book of Days reader Natalie Kavanagh wrote last year to tell me that where she comes from, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, it’s known as Old Christmas. (Thanks for sharing your story, Natalie!) This is the night that the Three Kings, los tres reyes, deliver presents to children in Latin America. There’s always a big Tres Reyes street celebration here in Miami. In Italy, this is the night la befana, the good witch, makes her rounds on her broom, bringing presents to good girls and boys. The naughty ones get sweet coal, and even that is not so bad. The Three Kings and la befana are the last of the midwinter gift bearers. When the gifts are all delivered, la befana hops off her broom and gets back to her sweeping. She sweeps and sweeps until Christmas is swept away once more.

With Epiphany, tomorrow, Christmas will come to a close. But if you are among those who dearly love the season and can’t bear to part just yet with your tree and your lights, I have good news: there is another old tradition that keeps Christmas going all the way to February 2. More on that, and the reasoning behind it (it’s very good, actually!), tomorrow, if I have it in me to write about it on Twelfth Night.

A merry Twelfth Night to you all.

Image:  Such a fair way to send Father Christmas on his way: “Singing Round the Star on Twelfth Night” by Cornelis Troost. Pastel and brush in gouache on paper, 1740. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, Eve of the Epiphany

The close of the Christmas season begins here, and just as our Christmas celebration began in the nighttime hours of Christmas Eve, so the same comes Twelfth Night. If this is confusing (that Twelfth Night should come on the Eleventh Day), remember that even today, much of the way we celebrate holidays is based on traditional reckoning of time, in which a new day begins at sunset. This is why the nights before holidays are so important: Consider Christmas Eve, of course, but other nighttime events, as well, like Hallowe’en (the Eve of All Hallow’s) and at Easter, Holy Saturday, with its vigil Mass that begins only with the setting sun. And so Epiphany Eve, which is tonight, ushers in Epiphany the next day. The night is best known, though, as Twelfth Night, and it has long been a night of great festivity. When it comes to Twelfth Night, the more raucous the celebration, the better. It is a true vestige of the Roman Saturnalia festival of ancient midwinters, right down to one of the most common Twelfth Night customs: the baking of a cake that contains a hidden bean. In some places, it’s a bean and a pea. He who finds the bean is crowned King of the Bean; she who finds the pea, Queen of the Pea. These folks get places of honor at the revels. In the old engraving above, which pictures a grand old Twelfth Night gathering, you can be sure there is a King of the Bean somewhere amongst those folks, and maybe even a Queen of the Pea.

I am always fascinated by images of rousing old parties like this. I think it’s because I am the most awkward person at parties; and yet I picture the Van Tassels’ Quilting and Merrymaking Frolic in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or the Fezziwiggs’ Christmas Eve party in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and I am pretty confident I’d have a blast at either one. There would be fiddler and a caller and an abundance of food and steaming punch and, well… if you have a party like this, I hope you’ll send me an invitation. I’ll be there with bells on.

There is very little of this Twelfth Night festivity nowadays, especially here in the States where the colonial Puritans did a very good job of setting the pace for work, work, work… not to mention putting the cabbash on Christmas in general. But Christmas survived in this country despite their best efforts. Twelfth Night, however, might be considered a casualty. But I think we need Twelfth Night. Old Father Christmas comes to be with us each year for a visit that lasts but a couple of weeks. It’s only right to send him on his way again in proper fashion, and in our house, that means a celebration––even a small one if that is all we have left in us––is in order. Dinner should be a good one, and a festive Christmas punch is a nice accompaniment, as would be the same wassail we drank on New Year’s Day. Friends and family would be a great addition, as well as good music and an old game or two, like Snapdragon: Fill a shallow bowl with golden raisins and pour a bit of brandy over them. Darken the room (like the darkness of midwinter) and carefully set light to the brandy. Play the game while the brandy is aflame: Each person in the room snatches a raisin from the bowl and makes a wish upon the raisin before popping it into his or her mouth. This old game from Scotland may sound dangerous, but it’s less so than it would seem. Be careful all the same, of course. Each person’s wish should be granted before the next Twelfth Night… or so the story goes.

Christmas ends each year with Epiphany, which will come tomorrow. New things, meanwhile, are just stirring. Twelfth Night and Epiphany usher in the Carnival season. In place like Acadiana, tonight’s revels roll over into the parades and balls hosted by the local krewes that culminate with Mardi Gras, which this year falls on February 9. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself. As for Epiphany, it marks the day the Magi arrived at the stable in Bethlehem after nights of following the star that announced the birth of the Christ child. One of the most endearing figures in the story is an old Italian woman who is known as la befana. She and the Magi are the last of the midwinter gift bearers. Those three kings (los tres reyes) are the ones who bring presents tonight in Spain and Latin America, but in Italy, this is the job of la befana. As the story goes, at that first Christmas oh so long ago, the Magi stopped at la befana’s house and asked her to join them on their journey, but she declined the invitation. “I have so much housework to do!” she told them. And so the Magi left her home and continued on their way.

But as she swept her floors, la befana began to feel a bit remorseful, and once she finished her sweeping, she set out to find the Magi. But she never did find them, nor the child they had told her about. She searched and searched but to no avail. Still, to this day, on each Twelfth Night, la befana sets out upon her broom to seek them. As she makes her rounds, searching high and low for the child and the three kings, la befana leaves small presents for all the sleeping children. Even the ones who were naughty: they get coal, but la befana’s coal is sweet as candy, so even her coal is a nice present to receive.

It is la befana’s job to sweep away Christmas, and so she does this each year. She sweeps and sweeps, and by the time she’s done with her sweeping tomorrow at Epiphany, Christmas will be done. The Magi will return to their distant countries, and Old Father Christmas, whether he was welcome or welcome not, will be on his way back to the Northland. But the wheel of the seasonal round will continue to turn and new days of wonder will be upon us, even as we just begin to miss the Yuletide visitors who came to spend these dark midwinter nights in our company.


Image: “Twelfth Night Merry-Making in Farmer Shakeshaft’s Barn,” an engraving by Hablot Knight Brown (better known as “Phiz”) from the book Mervyn Clitheroe by William Harrison Ainsworth, c.1850. Today’s chapter of the Convivio Book of Days is a slightly moderated version of last year’s chapter for Twelfth Night. Like a visit from an old friend, or from old Father Christmas, slightly older, slightly wiser.


Following that Star


St. Titus’s and St. Gregory’s Day

If you were lucky enough to have time off from work for Christmas, it is probably over by now. Many of us, myself included, are back to work today, this Monday after New Year’s. The immersion into ordinary time begins again. Christmas, however, is not quite over. There are still two more days besides this one. To end it properly, you would do well to mark its close on Tuesday night with Twelfth Night and on Wednesday with Epiphany. For today, this Tenth Day of Christmas, we have one last contemplative day. It is the feast day of a number of saints in the church calendar: St. Titus and St. Gregory, and also St. Rigobert and St. Ramon.

There are no traditional customs for this day. So aside from returning to work, it seems to me a good day (or evening, in our case) to prepare for the festivities to come. For two years now on this day we’ve been sharing with you our recipe for Three Kings Cakes, which we make most years in these waning days of Christmas. Sharing it with you today gives you time to bake the cakes so they are ready for Twelfth Night or Epiphany. The recipe yields three cakes, cakes you will prepare in three loaf pans, so gathering three pans is a good place to begin. You will end up with one cake for each of the Magi, who have traditionally been called Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, though no one knows who they were really. As the story goes, it took the Magi all this time to travel through the desert, and seeing the child lying in the straw was their great epiphany. The cakes we make in their honor are distinctly not modern. Their flavors are flavors of the ancient world, flavors the Magi would have known well: honey and rose water. We happen to sell a wonderful rose water, made at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in Maine. If you’re local and you need some to bake these cakes, let me know and together we’ll find a way to get you a bottle in time.

Come tomorrow night, the last players in our Yuletide tale, all of them gift bearers, will make their entry onto the stage: those three kings, and also la Befana, the good Italian witch who is so busy at her housework each year, just like most of the Italian women I have known in my life, and I have known so very many. Grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, cummaras (cummari, to be proper), all of them busy at their work. And all of us, too: so busy, we don’t take time for what’s truly important. When la Befana realized she really did want to go with the Magi to see the child, it was too late. And still she wanders, searching for the child. Keep in mind we will not be remembered for our efficiency once we are gone. We will, however, be remembered for what kindness and happiness we have bestowed. These cakes proffer both.


makes three cakes

For the Batter
1 cup butter
generous 3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/2 cups currants
3 cups applesauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
4 cups flour

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cream together the butter and the sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla. Beat smooth before adding the remaining ingredients. Grease 3 loaf pans (about 8″ x 4″ x 3″ or so) and divide the batter amongst the pans. Bake for one hour, or until a toothpick poked into the center of each cake comes out dry. Let the cakes cool in their pans on a rack.

For the Syrup
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cinnamon stick
6 whole cloves
2 tablespoons rose water

Once the cakes are baked, combine the syrup ingredients, except for the rose water, in a saucepan over medium heat. Once the sugar dissolves, add the rose water. Remove the cinnamon stick and the cloves and then pour the hot syrup over the cakes in their pans, divided equally amongst the three cakes. The syrup will soak into the cakes. Allow to cool completely before unmolding from the pans. Serving the three cakes on three platters makes for a nice presentation on Epiphany Day or on Twelfth Night.


Image: The star upon our Christmas tree. Seth & I discovered just last night a really lovely illuminated star high above a home near to Lake Avenue on our street, but alas, tonight when I went to photograph it, it was gone. Be that as it may, this star does the job nicely.


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