A friend asked me this rather innocuous question when I mentioned that I was planning a Twelfth Night party. I suppose what was running through her head at the moment was Shakespeare's play of the same name (see right); perhaps she envisioned me crowding a few dozen people into my apartment for a dramatic reading, complete with costumes and music. And while I may do that at some later date, that wasn't at all what I had in mind.
Twelfth Night's significance comes from medieval Christendom (that is, Christian Europe during the Middle Ages). The "twelve" may ring a bell for those of you with especially limber minds - remember that song "The Twelve Days of Christmas"? You know, the one with the partridge in the pear tree and the calling birds and leaping lords and FIIIVE GOLLL-DEN RINGS? The Twelve Days of Christmas to which that carol refers begin on the day after Christmas (December 26th - the feast of St. Stephen, which is referenced in the carol "Good King Wenceslas" - bet you didn't know that!), and continue until the twelfth day which, because Christmas is on the 25th of December, falls on the 6th of January. The more religious of my readers will know that January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates the arrival of the Three Kings in Bethlehem. Twelfth Night, then, is the eve of the Epiphany, or the night of January 5th. Hence my party, which will occur on the evening of the 5th.
But wait, you ask. Is Twelfth Night some kind of really obscure medieval Christian religious festival? No, it isn't. Twelfth Night is one of a series of observances built into medieval Christianity whose primary function, it seems, is to serve as an excuse for a party. [Another is Shrove Tuesday, which we know in this country as Mardi Gras, or as Carnival/Carnevale in Europe and South America. If you're wondering about the "Shrove," bit, it has nothing to do with shrews - rather, "shrove" is the past tense of the archaic verb "shrive," which means "to go confess one's sins" - you would do this on Shrove Tuesday (literally Confessed Tuesday) because the following day is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.] Twelfth Night not only marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, it also marks the beginning of the Carnival Season which ends with Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras. In comparison with these important issues, its actual religious significance is fairly minor. So let's party!
I imagine you're tired of the history lecture by now. Congratulations for wading through it! You deserve some cake:
I will explain presently. In the meantime, mind that you don't drool on your keyboard.
There are a couple of traditions associated with Twelfth Night, one of which - and it just happens to be my favorite - involves a cake. To be more precise, it involves what in French is called a galette des Rois, or King Cake. Just to be clear, that which is pictured above is not a galette of any sort. My schedule prevented me from making the galette de Dame Carcas, a lovely orange-flavored cake from the south of France, which I usually make for this occasion. Instead, because I was limited on time, I made a ganache, which actually refers to the frosting (made from cream and chocolate and nothing else) that I used to frost the cake, not the cake itself. Despite the fancy name, this is actually quite a bit easier than the galette for several reasons, included a welcome absence of yeast and all the work that goes with it. The tradition behind the galette des Rois - or ganache des Rois which will have to suffice this year - is that hidden inside it somewhere is a bean (some people prefer a coin or a little china Christ-child, but I'd rather not break a tooth, so a black-eyed pea it is). Whoever gets the bean in their slice of cake is crowned the King or Queen of the Twelfth Night party - and, according to medieval tradition, the Lord or Lady of Misrule. This person rules the party, and once he or she is crowned, the normal order of things is reversed - masters become servants, for example, which was particularly salient during the Middle Ages. I have a crown with which to honor the lucky bean-finder, and universal acclaim and prestige will be his or hers until midnight, when the Lord or Lady's rule ends.
That was a very long paragraph - have some more cake as a reward for making it through:
The question I have not yet answered, which may be perturbing those of you who are not lulled into a diabetic haze by the sight of this magnificent cake (of which I ought to take pictures in daylight so I don't have to use flash, which as you can see has given two pictures of the same cake that look quite different - one is chocolate, the other is butterscotch. Hint: the second one is closer to the real coloring), is why I'm bothering to celebrate Twelfth Night at all, since I was so pressed for time that I couldn't make the traditional galette. The answer is fairly simple. I like spending time with friends, and winter is a particularly good time to be social since the weather is usually at least mildly soul-crushing in this part of the world by the time the New Year rolls around. But people spend Christmas with their families, and New Year's Eve generally turns into debauchery, which I find distasteful. Two years ago I decided I needed something to celebrate around this time of year that people wouldn't be committed for, but that had a fixed date, traditions, and such. Twelfth Night fit the bill exactly. So, starting last year, I officially inaugurated my own holiday tradition - wherever I am, I celebrate Twelfth Night with the friends I have near me. I have my traditions - including the cake and the Lord/Lady of Misrule - and I hope to keep adding bits, like a dinner party or some Shakespeare - as the years progress. It is quite satisfying to have a holiday to call one's own - or in other words, to have my cake and eat it, too.