You may know that Christmas pudding and Christmas cake are part of a tradition that dates back to at least the early Victorian period, think of Dickens’s references to plum pudding in A Christmas Carol, but you may not have realised that both pudding and cake have a far more ancient ancestor – the Twelfth Night Cake. Twelfth Night is the evening of the 5th of January, the day before Epiphany, the feast celebrating the arrival of the Magi. Traditionally, it is the day on which Christmas decorations are taken down and the day to wassail your apple trees (drink a toast of cider to the trees, and pour cider over their roots).
In Britain, the Twelfth Night Cake was a large rich cake, often with a domed top, iced and decorated with ribbons, paper, tinsel and even sugar figures. A dried bean and a dried pea would be hidden in the cake and the man who found the bean would be the King; the woman who found the pea, Queen. If a woman found the bean, she got to choose the King. If a man found the pea, he got to choose the Queen. Servants were included in the division of the cake and if they got to be Kings or Queens even their masters had to obey. Just as Christmas inherited the traditions of Twelfth Night, Twelfth Night, in turn, had acquired all the role-reversals of the Roman Saturnalia (which was roughly the 17th of December.) The Romans had a tradition of placing a bean inside a cake at Saturnalia, and whoever found it became the master of ceremonies.
In one of his first diary entries Samuel Pepys recorded recorded a party in London on Epiphany night, 6 January 1659/1660: “…to my cousin Stradwick, where, after a good supper, there being there my father, mothers, brothers, and sister, my cousin Scott and his wife, Mr. Drawwater and his wife, and her brother, Mr. Stradwick, we had a brave cake brought us, and in the choosing, Pall was Queen and Mr. Stradwick was King. After that my wife and I bid adieu and came home, it being still a great frost.” (The Diary of Samuel Pepys: a new and complete transcription / edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews. Vol.1, 1660).In the Victorian era the custom was to buy a set of printed Twelfth Night Characters to accompany your cake. These were small humorous illustrations with a few lines of verse beneath printed on cards or on a sheet ready to be cut out. They were sold in small packets and, according to Hone’s Every-Day Book, “Twelfth-night characters sold by the pastry cooks, are either commonplace or gross—when genteel they are inane. When humorous, they are vulgar”. The Illustrations shown here are from a set of Twelfth Night Characters published in The Illustrated London News on 1st January 1848.
Hone explains how the characters were used; each of the characters was folded and put into a hat or ‘reticule’ and passed around the party guests. The guests would draw a character, read out the verse and then have to stay in character until midnight. The verses were meant to be amusing, but prints from the period show some guests taking offence, as if the host had intended some slight on the genuine characters of his guests. (William Hone, The Every-Day Book, 1830 pp. 49-62).
The following recipe for an enormous Twelfth Night Cake comes from Guildhall Library’s copy of John Mollard’s The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined (4th edition 1808). Mollard was proprietor of the London Tavern in Bishopsgate Street. In an age before chemical raising agents, cakes relied on yeast or beaten eggs to give them a lift, which doubtless also gave these cakes their classic domed top.
Twelfth Night Cake
Take seven pounds of flour, make a cavity in the centre, set a sponge with a gill and a half of yeast and a little warm milk; then put round it one pound of fresh butter broke into small lumps, one pound and a quarter of sifted sugar, four pounds and a half of currants washed and picked, half an ounce of sifted cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of pounded cloves, mace, and nutmeg mixed, sliced candied orange or lemon peel and citron. When the sponge is risen, mix all the ingredients together with a little warm milk; let the hoops be well papered and buttered, then fill them with the mixture and bake them, and when nearly cold ice them over with sugar prepared for that purpose as per receipt; or they may be plain.
The tradition of the Twelfth Night cake appears to have virtually died out towards the end of the 19th century. Its decorative role shifted to the Christmas cake, whilst the hidden bean or pea transformed into the silver sixpence in the Christmas pudding. However, in other countries, various cakes are still produced to celebrate Epiphany, King Cake in the southern states of the US, Roscón de Reyes in Spain and some, like the Galette des Rois in France, still contain a ‘fève’ or bean and come with a paper crown for the elected King or Queen.
Peter Ross, Principal Librarian