Twelfth Night: A Georgian Guide to Partying

Dec 13, 2010 by

Twelfth Night: A Georgian Guide to Partying

After the fun of Christmas festivities, January can often seem like an anticlimax with Twelfth Night (January 5th) playing a particularly melancholy role in 21st-century minds, when we take down our Christmas decorations to avoid bad luck for the coming year. But in Georgian Britain, this date was actually a highlight of the winter season.

Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘The evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking.’ Since the Middle Ages it represented the moment when the three kings were supposed to visit Jesus, and because of this, a custom of exchanging Epiphany gifts survived for centuries. In 1756, for example, The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that: ‘His Majesty, attended by the principal officers at Court … went to the Chapel Royal at St James’ and offered gold, myrrh and frankincense’.

Another custom, popular at parties during the 18th century, was to eat Twelfth Cake (the forerunner of today’s Christmas cake), which would contain a dried bean and a dried pea. Whoever found these in their slices of cake would become king and queen of the feast; those of high birth would become peasants and vice versa, with the Lord of Misrule (as the role reversal was called) ending at midnight when the ‘natural order’ would be restored. The custom of celebrating Twelfth Night with a special cake endured into the late 19th century, though by this time the bean/pea game had been forgotten, and the cake itself had taken centre stage thanks to intricate sugar frosting and gilded paper trimmings (it’s not to difficult to find recipes if you want to make one yourself).

Huge meat pies were also popular. In 1770, a Twelfth Night pie, baked for Sir Henry Grey, was said to be nine feet in circumference, 165 pounds in weight and contained (among other things) 4 geese, 2 rabbits, 2 woodcocks, 6 snipes, 4 partridges, 2 tongues, 6 pigeons and 7 blackbirds.

Stained glass window, 17 Gough Square

Although these traditions have largely been lost, Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square, London, is giving us a chance of reviving them (albeit a day later) on January 6th 2011 (6pm to 9pm), when it will be evoking a riotous 1750s Twelfth Night, complete with wine, punch, generaly jollity and a pie. You can ‘listen to the fashionable music of the day, attend a read-through of the latest work by David Garrick and more’ and costumes are optional. Tickets are £15 each/£12 concessions (to include a glass of punch – cash bar thereafter) and proceeds go to supporting educational work with local children at Dr Johnson’s House. You can buy tickets online here until December 23rd.