The Twelve Days of Christmas

To celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, this year we are bringing you some of the most intriguing Christmas items from our collection. We hope you all have a very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

On the first day of Christmas – we wish you a happy Christmas! A more traditional offering from a French published book of hours, 1509. These were devotional books containing prayers and psalms, popular in the Middle Ages.

Book of hours

On the second day of Christmas – enjoy Boxing Day! The tradition of the Christmas box either derived from the opening of alms boxes placed in churches so donations could be collected for the poor, or the practice of giving boxes of gifts to employees on the day after Christmas, which became known as Boxing day.

Mrs Brown's Christmas Box

On the third day of Christmas…have a smashing time! This is the Fortnum & Mason Christmas Catalogue, 1934. ‘Dishes Ready to Serve’ included boar’s head at 5 shillings a pound. If that isn’t to your taste you could try Christmas cakes with the ‘the fattest and richest fruits’ raised pies, special hams, fruits in brandy, paradise cake and chocolate bacchanalia!

Fortnum and Mason catalogue

On the fourth day of Christmas…fun and games. Gamages Xmas Bazaar (1938) showcased a selection of Christmas toys available to buy that year. Hobby horses, pushchairs, typewriters and train sets were all the rage at Gamages.

Gamages Xmas Bazaar

On the fifth day of Christmas…nostalgia. Here are some Christmas specialities from 1936. This graceful representation of King George VI’s Coronation Coach provides a novelty of topical interest. Filled with iced animal and kindergarten biscuits. Each model packed in an attractive carton. All for 1/6.

Christmas Specialities

On the sixth day of Christmas…still cracking on. Film merchandising is nothing new. Walt Disney’s ‘Snow White’ of 1937 may have influenced the toy selection in this brochure from Gamages Xmas Bazaar (1938). On offer inside these pages was a set of all eight characters (for 8 shillings and eleven pence) as well as Snow White jigsaws, games, crackers and books.

Gamages Xmas Bazaar

On the seventh day of Christmas… ‘a stellar Christmas’? The image is from Punch magazine 1954. We particularly like Father Christmas’ space helmet, which accommodates his beard!

Punch magazine

On the eighth day of Christmas, we wish you a Happy New Year! This passage is taken from Charles Dickens’ Christmas story The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In (1844): ‘So may the New Year be a happy one to you, happy to many more whose happiness depends on you! So may each year be happier than the last, and not the meanest of our brethren or sisterhood debarred their rightful share, in what our Great Creator formed them to enjoy.’ This image is of Trotty Veck, a character from the story.

The Chimes

On the ninth day of Christmas…continue with the festivities. This is ‘Bringing in the Boar’s Head’ by J. Gilbert, Illustrated London News, 22 December 1855, page 733. In past centuries, a boar’s head was the meat dish chiefly associated with the festive season. John Aubrey, writing in the 17th century, describes how in gentlemen’s houses at Christmas ‘the first diet that was brought to table was a boar’s head with a lemon in his mouth.’ The Boar’s Head ceremonies held at Queen’s College, Oxford and in London by the Butchers’ Company still preserve this custom.

Boar's Head

On the tenth day of Christmas…still merry.  This image is ‘The Wassail Bowl’, drawn by John Gilbert (Illustrated London News, 22 December 1860, page 579). The beverage of choice for the wassail bowl was lambswool – hot spiced ale with toasted apples bobbing on the surface. Carol singers often went door to door with an empty wassail bowl, in the hope of cadging a drink off wealthier neighbours, but this does not seem to be the case in this particular illustration!

Wassail Bowl

On the eleventh day of Christmas…last dance. Published by the Moore Brothers in the 1800s. The Moore Brothers were tea merchants based in King William Street, City of London, as indicated by the logo in the top right-hand corner.

12 day of xmas

On the twelfth day of Christmas…Christmas goes out in fine style! A festive party two hundred years ago with Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Wordsworth and Keats.

Keats 1815

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Twelfth Night Cake

Twelfth Night by Isaac Cruikshank

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).tn2In 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).

Twelfth Night by Isaac Cruikshank published by Thomas Tegg in 1807

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