January 6th is Twelfth Night, traditionally the Last Day of Christmas, when festivities come to an end, the decorations are taken down and things get back to normal. In Renaissance England, Twelfth Night was marked in the houses of the wealthy by sumptuous feasting, and Henry VIII introduced to his court the Italian custom of celebrating with the performance of masques, elaborate costumed entertainments that combined flowery speeches, song, dance and special scenery, and that were really Mummer’s plays dressed up and polished for the elite.
|Ben Jonson - The Masque of Christmas - 1616|
Ben Jonson raised the literary bar a little with his Masque of Christmas in 1616, but not by much; it is what it should be, a light, frivolous short piece created to raise laughter and provide a colourful spectacle for the court. The other literary work associated with the feast-day is, of course, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a much, much better play that has little to do, per se, with the season but does use the idea of disguise and the overturning of the social order associated with the period to full effect.
|William Shakespeare - Twelfth Night - First Folio|
One custom particular to Twelfth Night was the King of the Bean, whereby a dry bean was baked into a cake and whoever received the portion containing the bean was made King to rule over the night’s revels (a character in Jonson’s Masque was named Baby-Cake, and was attended by an usher bearing a cake containing a bean and a pease).
“Now, now the mirth comesWith the cake full of plums.Where beane's the king of the sport hereBeside, we must know,The pea alsoMust revell, as queene in the court here.”
|The King of the Bean holds court|
Cakes became associated with Twelfth Night and the confectioners’ shops were filled with richly decorated cakes –
“Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions, milk-maids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms”.
In London there was a practice of the boys to gather around the cake shops, waiting for the public to come and admire the wonders on offer in the windows. Then, quickly and with great dexterity, the boys would either nail the hems of coats or dresses to the wooden window frame, or pin two people’s coats together, to the great laughter of the spectators and perpetrators. There were times when up to eight or ten persons might be pinned together in one long line, each struggling to escape the indignity, to the amusement of the boys.
|Pinning clothes together|
“Such are the scenes, that, at the front and sideOf the Twelfth cake-shops, scatter wild dismay;As up the slipp'ry curb, or pavement wide,We seek the pastrycooks, to keep Twelfth-day”
John Brand, in his Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1777), records how the country farmers, with their friends and servants, would gather in the fields at six o’clock in the evening of Twelfth Night and on the highest point of ground would light a large bonfire surrounded with twelve smaller fires, and then would drink to each other with old cider, wassail the apple trees to ensure the next year’s harvest and return home. In the byre, a large cake with a hole in the middle would be placed over the horn of the best bull and a toast drunk to the animal, which would then be tickled until it threw off the cake. If the cake went to the front of the beast, the master wins it but if it falls behind then the mistress claims it; after this, the company goes back to the farmhouse to drink and dance the night away.
The following day was called St Distaff’s Day, when labourers would go into the fields, implements prepared and maybe even the oxen would be harnessed to the plough. In the home, the women would ready their distaffs, preparing them to begin to spin the wool, but after a few hours of this half-hearted business, everything would be laid aside and a sort of half-holiday was declared, as everyone took a rest to get over the Christmas festivities.
|R Herrick - Saint Distaff's Day|
“Partly worke, and partly play,Ye must on S. Distaff's day:From the plough soone free your teame,Then come home and fother them.If the maides a-spinning goe,Burne the flax, and fire the tow.”
The oxen would be unyoked but the following Monday was known as Plough Monday, when the agricultural year began in earnest and everything returned back to normal.
|All hands to the Plough|
Christmas was over for another year.