“If a satirical prophecy in “Vox Graculi,” 4to. 1623, may be relied on as authority, it bears testimony to the popularity of Twelfth-night at that period. On the 6th of January the author declares, that “this day, about the houres of 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10, yea, in some places till midnight well nigh, will be such a massacre of spice-bread, that, ere the next day at noon, a two-penny browne loafe will set twenty poore folks teeth on edge. Which hungry humour will hold so violent, that a number of good fellowes will not refuse to give a statute-marchant of all the lands and goods they enjoy, for half-a-crown’s worth of two-penny pasties.” He further affirms, that there will be “on this night much masking in the Strand, Cheapside, Holbourne, or Fleet-street.”
Twelfth Day, Epiphany, the last day of the Christmas holiday in some traditions, the day still celebrated as Xmas in some countries… it used to be a festival day associated with cake. Lots of cake. For some reason there was also a fashion for boys to nail the coat-tails of gentlemen checking out cakes at the bakeries. Also Twelfth Day was a time for masking up and partying…
An entry in William Hone’s Everyday Book (1825) recounts some of the old ethos of January 6th:
Such are the scenes, that, at the front and side
Of the Twelfth-cake-shops, scatter wild dismay;
As up the slipp’ry curb, or pavement wide,
We seek the pastrycooks, to keep Twelfth-day;
While ladies stand aghast, in speechless trance,
Look round – dare not go back – and yet dare not advance.
In London, with every pastrycook in the city, and at the west end of the town, it is “high change” on Twelfth-day. From the taking down of the shutters in the morning, he, and his men, with additional assistants, male and female, are fully occupied by attending to the dressing out of the window, executing orders of the day before, receiving fresh ones, or supplying the wants of chance customers. Before dusk the important arrangement of the window is completed. Then the gas is turned on, with supernumerary argand-lamps and manifold wax-lights, to illuminate countless cakes of all prices and dimensions, that stand in rows and piles on the counters and sideboards, and in the windows. The richest in flavour and heaviest in weight and price are placed on large and massy salvers; one, enormously superior to the rest in size, is the chief object of curiosity; and all are decorated with all imaginable images of things animate and inanimate. Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions, milk-maids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms in snow-white confectionary, painted with variegated colours, glitter by “excess of light” from mirrors against the walls festooned with artificial “wonders of Flora.” This “paradise of dainty devices,” is crowded by successive and successful desirers of the seasonable delicacies, while alternate tapping of hammers and peals of laughters, from the throng surrounding the house, excite smiles from the inmates.
The cause of these sounds may be inferred from something like this passing outside.
Constable. Make way, make way! Clear the way! You boys stand aside!
Countryman. What is all this; Is any body ill in the shop?
1st Boy. Nobody, sir; it’s only Twelfth day!
2nd Boy. This is a pastrycook’s, sir; look at the window! There they stand! What cakes!
3d Boy. What pretty ones these are!
4th Boy. Only see that!
5th Boy. Why it’s as large as the hindwheel of a coach, and how thick!
6th Boy. Ah! It’s too big to come out at the door, unless they roll it out.
7th Boy. What elegant figures, and what lots of sweetmeats!
8th Boy. See the flowers; they look almost like real ones.
Countryman. What a crowd inside!
9th Boy. How the people of the house are packing up all the good things!
Countryman. What a beautiful lady that is behind the counter!
10th Boy. Which?
Countryman. Why the young one!
10th Boy. What her? Oh, she’s the pastrycook’s daughter, and the other’s her mother.
Countryman. No, no; not her; I mean her, there.
10th Boy. Oh, her; she’s the shopwoman; all the pastrycooks always try to get handsome ladies to serve in the shop!
11th Boy. I say, I say! Halloo! Here’s a piece of work! Look at this gentlemen – next to me – his coat-tail’s nailed to the window! Look, look!
Countryman. Aye, what?
All the boys. Ah! Ah! Ah! Huzza.
Countryman. Who nailed my coat-tail? Constable!
12th Boy. That’s the boy that’s got the hammer!
2nd Boy. What me? Why that’s the boy – there; and there’s another boy hammering! And there’s a man with a hammer!
1st Boy. Who pinned that woman to the gentleman? Why there’s a dozen pinned together.
Countryman. Constable! Constable!
2nd Boy. Here comes the constable. Hark at him!
Const. Clear away from the doors! Let the customers go in! Make way! Let the cakes come out! Go back, boy!
13th Boy. If you please, Mr. Constable, I’m going to buy a cake!
Const. Go forward, then!
Man with cakes. By your leave! By your leave.
Const. Clear the way!
All the Boys. Huzza! Huzza! More people pinned – and plenty nailed up!
To explain, to those who may be ignorant of the practice. On Twelfth-night in London, boys assemble round the inviting shops of the pastry cooks, and dexterously nail the coat-tails of spectators, who venture near enough, to the bottoms of the window frames; or pin them together strongly by their clothes. Sometimes eight or ten persons find themselves thus connected. The dexterity and force of the nail driving is so quick and sure, that a single blow seldom fails of doing the business effectually. Withdrawal of the nail without a proper instrument is out of the question; and, consequently, the person nailed must either leave part of his coat, as a cognizance of his attachment, or quit the spot with a hole in it. At every nailing and pinning shouts of laughter arise from the perpetrators and the spectators. Yet it often happens to one who turns and smiles at the duress of another, that he also finds himself nailed. Efforts at extraction increase mirth, nor is the presence of a constable, who is usually employed to attend and preserve free “ingress, egress, and regress,” sufficiently awful to deter the offenders.
Scarcely a shop in London that offers a halfpenny plain bun to the purchase of a hungry boy, is without Twelfth-cakes and finery in the windows on Twelfth-day. The gingerbread-bakers – there are not many, compared with their number when the writer was a consumer of their manufactured goods, — even the reduced gingerbread-bakers periwig a few plum-buns with sugar-frost to-day, and coaxingly interpolate them along their new made sixes, bath-cakes, parliament, and ladies’ fingers. Their staple-ware has leaves of untarnished dutch-gilt stuck on; their upright cylinder-shaped show-glasses, containing peppermint-drops, elecampane, sugar-sticks, hard-bake, brandy-balls, and bulls’-eyes, are carefully polished; their lolly-pops are fresh encased, and look as white as the stems of tobacco-pipes; and their candlesticks are ornamented with fillets and bosses of writing paper; or, if the candles rise from the bottom of inverted glass cones, they shine more sparkling for the thorough cleaning of their receivers in the morning.
How to eat Twelfth-cake requires no recipe; but how to provide it, and draw the characters, on the authority of Rachel Revel’s “Winter Evening Pastimes,” may be acceptable. First, buy your cake. Then, before your visitors arrive, buy your characters, each of which should have a pleasant verse beneath. Next look at your invitation list, and count the number of ladies you expect; and afterwards the number of gentlemen. Then, take as many female characters as you invited ladies; fold them up, exactly of the same size, and number each on the back; taking care to make the king No. 1 and the queen No. 2. Then prepare and number the gentlemen’s characters. Cause tea and coffee to be handed to your visitors as they drop in. When all are assembled and tea over, put as many lady characters in a reticule as there are ladies present; next put the gentlemen’s characters in a hat. Then call on a gentleman to carry the reticule to the ladies as they sit, from which each lady is to draw one ticket, and to preserve it unopened. Select a lady to bear the hat to the gentlemen for the same purpose. There will be one ticket left in the reticule, and another in the hat, which the lady and gentlemen who carried each is to interchange as having fallen to each. Next, arrange your visitors according to their numbers; the king No. 1, the queen No. 2, and so on. The king is then to recite the verse on his ticket; and the queen the verse on hers; and so the characters are to proceed in numerical orders. This done, let the cake and refreshments go round, and hey! For merriment!”
Twelfth Day does owe something to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, with its temporary reversal of social hierarchies. As in Saturnalia, a king for the day was set up, though while in the Roman festie the lowest of the household was crowned, the king and queen of twelfth Day were often chosen by chance – beans would be hidden in a cake and the ones who ended up with the slice with the bean in would be raised up as monarchs…
“They come! They come! Each blue-eyed sport,
The Twelfth-night king and all his court –
‘Tis Mirth fresh crown’d with mistletow!
Music with her merry fiddles,
Joy “on light fantastic toe,”
Wit with all his jests and riddles,
Singing and dancing as they go.
And Love, young Love, among the rest,
A welcome – nor unbidden guest.
Twelfth-day is now only commemorated by the custom of choosing king and queen. “I went,” says a correspondent in the Universal Magazine for 1774, “to a friend’s house in the country to partake of some of those innocent pleasures that constitute a merry Christmas. I did not return till I had been present at drawing king and queen, and eaten a slice of the Twelfth-cake, made by the fair hands of my good friend’s consort. After tea yesterday, a noble cake was produced, and two bowls, containing the fortunate chances for the different sexes. Our host filled up the tickets; the whole company, except the king and queen, were to be ministers of state, maids of honour, or ladies of the bed-chamber. Our kind host and hostess, whether by design or accident, became king and queen. According to Twelfth-day law, each party is to support their character till midnight.” The maintenance of character is essential to the drawing. Within the personal observation of the writer of these sheets, character has never been preserved. It must be admitted, however, that the Twelfth-night characters sold by the pastry cooks, are either commonplace or gross – when genteel they are inane; when humorous, they are vulgar.
Young folks anticipate Twelfth-night as a full source of innocent glee to their light little hearts. Where, and what is he who would negative hopes of happiness for a few short hours in the day-spring of life? A gentle spirit in the London Magazine beautifully sketches a scene of juvenile enjoyment this evening: “I love to see an acre of cake spread out – the sweet frost covering the rich earth below – studded all over with glittering flowers, like ice-plants, and red and green knots of sweetmeat, and hollow yellow crusted crowns, and kings and queens, and their paraphernalia. I delight to see a score of happy children sitting huddled all round the dainty fare, eyeing the cake and each other, with faces sunny enough to thaw the white snow. I like to see the gazing silence which is kept so religiously while the large knife goes its round, and the glistening eyes which feed beforehand on the huge slices, dark with citron and plums, and heavy as gold. And then, when the “Characters” are drawn, it is nothing to watch the peeping delight which escapes from their little eyes? One is proud, as king; another stately, as queen; then there are two whispering grotesque secrets which they cannot contain (those are sir Gregory Goose and sir Tunbell Clumsy.) The boys laugh out at their own misfortunes; but the little girls (almost ashamed of their prizes) sit blushing and silent. It is not until the lady of the house goes round, that some of the more extravagant fictions are revealed. And then, what a roar of mirth! Ha, ha! The ceiling shakes, and the air is torn. They bound from their seats like kids, and insist on seing [sic] Miss Thompson’s card. Ah! What merry spite is proclaimed – what ostentatious pity! The little girl is almost in tears; but the large lump of allotted cake is placed seasonably in her hands, and the glass of sweet wine ‘all round’ drowns the shrill urchin laughter, and a gentler delight prevails.”
Th’above was nicked from longer descriptions of Xmas traditions here
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.