Twelfth Night – and twelfth cakes

Twelfth Night these days just means ‘time to take down the Christmas decorations’ – and a Shakespeare play – right? Well perhaps, but it used to mean a lot more.

Twelfth cakes

It is still a tradition in France to celebrate January 6 by eating a ‘galette des rois’. January 6 is the Fête des Rois: the feast of the kings.

The galette is a special cake into which is baked a tiny figurine of a king (or a bean). There’s a paper crown on top.

Whoever gets the slice with the bean in is crowned king or queen for the day (and gets to wear the crown). 

The galette is made of puff pastry, with a frangipane filling. 

January 6 is Epiphany – the feast of the Three Wise Men (the kings) who visited Jesus.

But when is Twelfth Night?

It is a tradition in the UK that we take Christmas decorations down on Twelfth Night. The superstition being that if you don’t, you have to leave them up for the rest of the year.

The confusion being that if you count December 25 as Day One, then Twelfth Night is January 5. If you count Boxing Day (UK name for December 26) as Day One AFTER Christmas, then Twelfth Night = Epiphany.

If music be the food of love…

Twelfth Night is, of course, the title of one of William Shakespeare’s most-famous plays – written probably as post-Christmas entertainment.

And of course we also celebrate in song the Twelve Days of Christmas. Wikipedia reckons: ‘The song, published in England in 1780 without music as a chant or rhyme, is thought to be French in origin’. With the familiar tune a ‘recent’ arrangement, from 1909.

The French version includes eight biting cows, and a partridge without a pear tree – but partridge is ‘perdrix’ in French…

Back to cake

But, in times past, Twelfth Night here was a final knees-up to round off the Christmas celebrations (hence Shakespeare’s play). Complete with a cake with a bean in it. A fruit cake.

And the cake only really died out in late Victorian times, when the focus switched a bit – to Christmas pudding, with silver coins or charms in.

Back in 1850. the Carlisle Patriot reflected on Twelfth Night and Twelfth Cakes.

‘Scarcely a remnant of the joviality and fervid hospitality which characterised the observance of this season of the year amongst our forefathers now remains.’

The January 12 edition is hard to read, but it went on to say that the yule (smudge) and Lord of (smudge) and a host of other customs which followed in the train of old Father Christmas were now almost forgotten.

The article goes on to describe twelfth cakes, containing a bean, coin, or ring.

It says they used to be made of flour, honey, pepper and ginger.

But ‘as everyone knows,’ 1850 twelfth cakes were made of ‘plums and other rich ingredients, frosted over with sugar, and surmounted by the most artistic and beautiful devices, in which confectioners have for some years past vied with each other’.

The article refers to a custom in decline: the giving of twelfth cakes as presents. It also describes how in Carlisle, the window of Mrs Thompson’s shop was filled with tempting confectionery and twelfth cakes, set off by skilfully arranged evergreens.

Mrs Thompson had given a ‘brobdingnagian specimen’ of a twelfth cake to the Infirmary committee, in aid of its funds.

While Mrs Little of Castle Street, ‘though not given to the sweet extravagancies of her neighbour, has been very successful in pleasing her customers with the variety and excellence of her Christmas cakes’.

The Carlisle confectioners

The 1851 census shows John Little, 32, confectioner, at 60 Castle Street, Carlisle. ‘Mrs Little’ is Jane, aged 38. She was born in Brough, Westmorland. Their three infant children were born in Carlisle. They had two house servants, so were doing well for themselves. By 1861, they were employing a nurse for their growing family. Sadly, by 1871, there was a new Mrs Little, Margaret; Jane having died at some point (the name is too common to check).

Jane Thompson, confectioner, was then a widow, aged 50, of St Cuthbert’s Lane. She was born at Alston Moor. Her children ranged from 26 to 12. Bridget, Margaret, Jane and young Martha are also listed as  confectioners, Samuel was a printer – and Jonathan was an artist. We can only surmise whether he had any input into decorating the cakes.

Rewind to 1841, and Jane’s husband James was a printer. The name is also too common to be sure when he died.