From December 25 to January 5 are the Twelve Days of Christmas when gifts are given and other holiday traditions take place. Twelfth Night signifies the end of the Christmas holiday that had begun on Christmas Day. Some cultures also acknowledged Twelfth Night as the end of the winter festival that began on All Hallows Eve, or Halloween as it is known today.
The morning after Twelfth Night is January 6, the Epiphany holiday, also called the adoration of the Magi. This holiday commemorates the arrival of the Magi from the east who brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and presented them to Jesus in Bethlehem. Because Epiphany is an important holiday for many, Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany, is observed with just as much importance as Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve.
Leading up to Twelfth Night is the Twelve Days of Christmas that begins on December 25. This holiday includes many different kinds of traditions that are held around the world. There are feasts, song singing, and other merriment that finally comes to a climax on Twelfth Night. Traditionally, it was on this night that the Christmas tree and decorations were taken down and a kings’ cake was made for Epiphany the following morning.
The kings’ cake is perhaps the most well-known icon of the Twelfth Night celebration. Its exact origin can’t be traced, though many different European countries have had a variation of this holiday food for many generations. Its popularity can be found in France, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Bulgaria. A version of the kings’ cake can be found in the United States, though it is most associated with the Carnival leading up to Mardi Gras.
The kings’ cake has changed a lot over the years, though the tradition is still held just as much as Christmas itself. Similar to a fruitcake, a kings’ cake was typically some form of cake with candied fruit or bread shaped into a ring. Hidden somewhere in the cake was a trinket of some kind. Older versions usually held a bean or a pea. Modern versions have a tiny plastic baby that in some cultures signifies the baby Jesus. Whoever ate the piece that had the bean or the baby was chosen as the king of the party. The “king” was then granted different privileges for the night, with the promise of supplying the next year’s kings’ cake.
Other traditions for Twelfth Night include lighting a candle for each day, giving gifts and lighting the Yule Log each night. And food and drink accompany nearly every celebratory activity throughout the evening.
In America, the celebration of Twelfth Night originated with the colonists who brought their traditions with them from England. Of course, they adapted them to the new country, adding variations throughout each generation. On Christmas Eve, a homemade wreath was made from greenery and fresh fruits, and hung on the front door. Fresh fruits were often difficult to get and were considered fine foods. For this reason, they often were used as decorations prior to consumption. It was then during the Twelfth Night festivities that the wreath as well as the other decorations were taken down to avoid bad luck in the New Year, and all edible decorations were consumed.