Twelfth Night Revelries: Myrrh, Mirth And Making Merry, 5 – 6 January

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Twelfth Night (The King Drinks) by David Teniers c. 1634–1640 (Public Domain)

Twelfth Night Revelries: Myrrh, Mirth And Making Merry, 5 – 6 January

In the Christian church,  January 6 is commemorated as the feast of Epiphany, the day on which the three wise men, or three kings, arrived at the stable in Bethlehem to visit the newborn baby Jesus. In 1756, during the reign of King George II, 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.’ By the 19th century, however, these religious celebrations on January 6 had become almost forgotten, outside of the church itself. By the time of Charles Dickens’ birth (1812), the celebration of Twelfth Night in Britain was much more closely associated with parties and drinking, than with the original religious holiday. There is often debate about when Twelfth Night should fall, as the 12th evening after Christmas Day is actually January 5.

17th-Century Twelfth Night

For many centuries, it was traditional for leaders of the Twelfth Night revels to be chosen and named as the ‘King’ and ‘Queen; as such, it was in their power to dictate what the rest of the gathered party should do. Traditionally, these monarchs were chosen by chance; everyone present at a party would be given a slice of what was known as Twelfth Cake, inside which had been baked a dried bean and a dried pea. Whoever discovered these in their slice of cake became a monarch: getting the dried bean meant being the King and the dried pea meant being the Queen. This quotation from Robert Herricke’s poem Twelfe Night, or King and Queene (c.1630s) shows that this was common in the 17th century: “Now, now the mirth comes with the cake full of plums, Where Beane’s the King of the sport here; Besides we must know, the Pea also must revell, as Queene, in the Court here.”

Scene from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by Francis Wheatley (1771–72) (Public Domain)

Scene from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by Francis Wheatley (1771–72) (Public Domain)


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