What in the World is Twelfth Night?: A Visit with the Ghost of Twelfth Night Past

Usually, at this time of year preparations are well underway for our annual Twelfth Night at Kenmore: A Dramatic Performance.  The play takes place in January 1776, during the first Christmas season celebrated at Kenmore. Unfortunately, this year’s celebration of Twelfth Night at Kenmore is canceled due to winter weather.  However, if you are familiar with the performance, or have read some of our past blog posts, you might already know a thing or two about this once popular Christmastide holiday. While traces of Twelfth Night still exist today, the celebration is much diminished, if not entirely eclipsed, by Christmas and New Year’s. Why is this, exactly? When did we stop celebrating Twelfth Night?

There is no single, short answer as to why Twelfth Night celebrations fell out of fashion. Rather, attitudes surrounding the Christmas season changed throughout history, and old traditions were often absorbed or re-imagined into something new. A very brief look into the history of the season sheds some light on why today’s Christmas traditions rose in popularity, while Twelfth Night celebrations became part of Christmas Past.

Historic Kenmore on the eve of Twelfth Night. Credit: GWF Photo

Many Christmas and Twelfth Night traditions are rooted in holidays celebrating the winter solstice. For example, Saturnalia, a holiday honoring the Roman god Saturn, took place in mid-December. During Saturnalia, the normal social order was temporarily overturned. Romans closed schools and businesses, held grand feasts, and in some families, a king or “Lord of Misrule” was chosen to rule over the household’s festivities.[1] In Scandinavia, people celebrated the winter solstice during the Nordic festival, Yule. Festivities included bonfires (or yule logs), evergreen decorations, and feasts. It wasn’t until the 4th century that the Roman church officially observed December 25th as Jesus’s birth date. Historians speculate that church officials chose this date precisely because so many popular winter celebrations occurred around that same time.[2]

Saturnalia by Antoine Callet. Credit: Wikipedia

If we fast forward in time, we see how some of these winter rituals were absorbed into the festivities of Twelfth Night. But first- what exactly is Twelfth Night? Typically celebrated on either January 5th or 6th, Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, is a Christian holiday that marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and commemorates the Magi’s visit to Jesus. During the colonial era, the holiday season kicked off on December 25th and culminated on Twelfth Night. The twelve days after Christmas were full of games, music, dancing, feasts, and visiting with family and friends. Families often celebrated the season with a Twelfth Night Cake. Recipes called for a dried bean and pea to be baked into an elaborately decorated fruit filled cake. The man who found the bean was declared King for the night, while the woman who found the pea was declared Queen.

Illustration of a Twelfth Night party by Robert Seymour. The woman on the far left serves pieces of a large Twelfth Cake. Credit: The Project Gutenberg

Of course, there has always been debate surrounding how the Christmas season should be celebrated, and practices varied from place to place and person to person. In the 17th century, New England Puritans (echoing sentiments from Cromwellian England) viewed Christmastime celebrations as rowdy, excessive, and downright bacchanalian. Massachusetts went as far as to outlaw celebrations between 1659 and 1691.[3]

The Twelfth Night party’s “King” and “Queen” sit on chairs overlooking the crowd. Dancing, drinking, and mumming (costumed acting) are in full swing. Puritans disapproved of these festive antics. Credit: Wikipedia

During the 19th century, Queen Victoria influenced a shift in popular opinion towards a more family-focused Christmas season. In 1850, Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular American magazine, published an image of the royal family gathered around a Christmas tree. While German immigrants had already introduced the Christmas tree tradition to America, this image fascinated the English and American public alike, and it further popularized the practice. In the American version of the print, editors removed Victoria’s tiara and Albert’s royal sash, and the group came to embody the ideal American family at Christmas.[4]

Godey’s Lady’s Book illustration. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

These changing ideals shaped the Christmas season during the Victorian era, and combined with rapid industrialization and commercialization, they sparked the beginning of a number of now familiar traditions. For example, improvements in mass printing technology popularized the practice of sending Christmas cards. In 1843, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, a tale promoting charity, good will, and the virtues of a domestic family Christmas. Thomas Nast, who made popular the modern image of Santa Claus, published his first Santa cartoons in the 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly.

You might be asking, where then, does this leave the Twelve Days of Christmas and our Twelfth Night celebrations? As we’ve seen, changing ideals during the 19th century promoted a holiday season focused on children and family. Modern industry and commercialization further bolstered shopping and gift giving habits, and a twelve day holiday certainly didn’t fit within the parameters of the new industrialized era. The once twelve day celebration now culminated on one, and it was celebrated with visits from Santa and gifts for children, rather than with feasts and parties for adults.

However, some Twelfth Night traditions live on during the modern Christmas season, albeit under new guises. Between Christmas and New Year’s, people may decorate their homes with greenery, raise a toast with a glass of wassail, or host extravagant parties with family and friends. If you visit New Orleans during the carnival season (beginning with Epiphany and ending on Mardi Gras) you might celebrate by eating “King Cake,” where the lucky person who finds the plastic baby figurine inside their piece of cake is crowned “king” for the day! That sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?

Ann Waters

Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

[1]“Saturnalia,” HISTORY, A&E Television Networks, Last modified December 18, 2020, Accessed December 22, 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-rome/saturnalia

[2] Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010), 4.

[3] Bruce David Forbes,“Christmas,” In America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories, 1st ed. (University of California Press, 2015), 28.http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctv1wxrr3.5

[4] Ibid., 34.