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.
Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.
Twelfth Night: Or King and Queen by Robert Herrick
In Tudor England. a King or Lord of Misrule would be appointed to run the Christmas festivities, and the Twelfth Night was the end of his period of rule. The common theme was that the normal order of things was reversed. During the twelve days of Christmas, traditional roles were often relaxed; masters waited on their servants, men were allowed to dress as women, and women as men. Midnight signaled the end of his rule and the world would return to normal.
Twelfth Night is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as "the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking". However, there is currently some confusion as to which night is Twelfth Night: some count the night of Epiphany itself (sixth of January) to be Twelfth Night. In some cases December 25th is the first day of Christmas, so therefore January 5th is the 12th day.
Foods common for this day are wassail and King Cake. The cake is baked on Twelfth Night, but not consumed until January 6. The King cake contained a bean hidden inside. The person who found the bean would rule the feast the next year. Often a pea is placed inside as well, and the woman who finds it is the queen or lady for the feast.
Following such a night of merrymaking is Nollaig na mBan, or Women's Christmas, or Little Christmas Day. Whereas Christmas was marked as a time of heavy foods and whiskey, or Nollaig na bhFear, or Men's Christmas, this day is much more genteel - cake, tea, wine. The tradition, still very strong in Cork and Kerry, is so called because of the Irish men taking on all the household duties for the day.Most women hold parties or go out to celebrate the day with their friends, sisters, mothers, and aunts. Children often buy presents for their mothers and grandmothers.
In the Christian church, the day is Epiphany and it is said, "Oíche na dTrí Rithe Deintear fíon den uisce, Síoda den triopall Agus ór den ghrean." "On the Night of the Three Kings, water becomes wine, clusters of rushes become silk, and the sand becomes gold."
The first known performance of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare was on the 2nd of February 1602, which is in fact Candlemas Day. It was a traditional festival at that time. The Elizabethans allowed time for fun and festivals to break up their long hard winters. The majority of the Elizabethans also believed in the "Lord of Misrule" and they were quite happy to do as they willed at certain times of the year to let misrule preside over the normal state of order. This echoes the very essence of the play as Twelfth Night is certainly about letting misrule appear greater in stature to controlled behaviour and the normal state of order.
Twelfth Night is full of moments that contain a very lighthearted atmosphere and this is expressed through both the main and the subplots. The main source of comedy throughout the main plot is between the complete and utter confusion of the four main characters Olivia, Orsino, Viola and Sebastian. One version you might enjoy is this one.
Another custom common to the day of Epiphany is taking down and putting away all of the Christmas decorations. One way to make this fun is by having a progressive party. Invite friends and family that live nearby, and go from one house to the next undecorating at each home. Agree ahead of time on food, but appetizers at each home would be easy and light enough.
One German tradition is choir boys dressing in white robes, carrying star topped wands and singing Christmas carols. I suspect many by this time have had their fill of Christmas carols, considering they've probably been playing in the stores and shopping malls since before Thanksgiving, but there is some fun that can be had with this. Perhaps the white robes and wands and music can all be a part of the undecorating.
Continuing along the lines of La Befana is Dia de los Tres Reyes - Three Kings Day. In Latin America, children leave straw out for the king's camels. They awaken the morning of Epiphany to find the straw gone and gifts left in its place. They know this is the work of the Magi and their hungry camels.
After Twelfth Night the Carnival season starts, which lasts through Mardi Gras. In some places such as New Orleans, Louisiana, the night of January 6 with the first Carnival celebrations is called Twelfth Night.
Let the partying begin!