When I last checked my highly scientific Twitter poll, tomorrow was favourite for taking down the Christmas decorations. But only just. Twelfth Night isn’t exactly a cause for fisticuffs, but when the subject is raised, you’ll find some very strong opinions on when it is. For example, Google says today, 5 January is Twelfth Night, whereas folklorist and ritual year doyen, Steve Roud, and c17th diarist, Samuel Pepys, both edge towards tomorrow.
So which is it? Well, one explanation for the confusion stems from when the twelve days of Christmas start. If you include Christmas Day, then today is Twelfth Night. But if you count from Boxing Day, it’s tomorrow. There’s also the interpretation of the word Night. Some say tomorrow is the Twelfth Day, but tonight is the Twelfth Night, much like Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, except Night is substituted for Eve. And actually, given tomorrow is Old Christmas Day, that does make it Old Christmas Eve tonight (another Julian-Gregorian calendar shenanigan).
Anyhow, whether you consider tonight or tomorrow Twelfth Night, the most recognisable folklore that accompanies the date is removing all vestiges of Christmas to secure your luck for the coming year. And for those who had real trees up, this means hoovering as it’s said that even a solitary needle left behind can spell disaster. Plus for each holly leaf remaining indoors a naughty sprite will spring forth. You have been duly warned.
However, since my decorations were down and repurposed before New Year, I made a Twelfth Night cake. And just for old time’s sake, I cocked the bake up.
There are two usual types of Twelfth Night cake (not counting local variations, and don’t get me started on Mary Berry’s apricot deviation): the yeasted version and the fruity version. The fruity version is more what we’d consider Christmas cake to be, while the yeasted version is more bready. Or as my kitchen smelled like all afternoon, tea-cakey.
Given I’d already made a Christmas pudding, I thought I’d give yeast one last chance. It wasn’t a tricky recipe, I just added everything in stages then mixed thoroughly. I’m guessing it was the yeast, but the dough was decidely squelchy. Slightly reminiscent of the Bog of Eternal Stench, but with less flatulence. The exciting part was leaving it to rest under my desk for 2.5hrs. The radiator wasn’t on, but my heater was, so I worked with the faint smell of clove and cinnamon wafting around my knees.
After an hour in the oven, it came out. Risen. RISEN. A little. Which, I have to admit was a bit of a shock. Finally yeast for the win! As soon as it had cooled down in the tin, I went in for a slice. And it was then I remembered the bean.
An important tradition that goes with a Twelfth Night cake is the bean, and sometimes the pea. They are added to the mixture before baking, and the person who finds the bean in their slice is crowned the Lord of Misrule, and whoever finds the pea is Queen of the Pea. It’s kind of the cake’s raison d’être. And I forgot to add both. In my defence the recipe failed to remind me. But after 365 days I really should have known better.
And as for the cake? Twelfth Night cakes are traditionally covered in elaborate icing, but I found a recipe which recommended a simple honey glaze. Which I regretted immediately as it made everything very sticky. Texture wise, the crust was chewy but inside was a pillowy, bouncy, clove-crunchy delight. And it tasted okay too. Fast forward four hours and it’s gone stale (despite the clingfilm), which made eating a second slice slathered in slightly too cold butter even more acceptable.
I’m making lambs wool tomorrow, a traditional spiced ale with apples, good for wassailing, to toast the end of the project. So if/when you read tomorrow’s entry make sure you have something, alcoholic or not, to raise when you’ve finished.
And if you really can’t bring yourself to take down your decorations, don’t worry, it’s also perfectly acceptable to leave them up until Candlemass.
Cooper, Q. and Sullivan, P. (1994) Maypoles, Martyrs & Mayhem: 366 Days of British Myths, Customs & Eccentricities, London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
Hazlitt, W.C. (1995) The Dictionary of Faiths and Folklore, Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, London, Bracken Books
Jones, J. and Deer, B. (1987) Cattern Cakes and Lace, London, Dorling Kindersley Limited
Kightly, C. (1994) The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, London, Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Roud, S. (2006) The English Year: A Month-By-Month Guide To The Nation’s Customs and Festivals, From May Day to Mischief Night, London, Penguin Books
Simpson, J. and Roud, S. (2001) Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, Oxford University Press