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On the 12th Day of Christmas

Epiphany, which falls on January 6, celebrates the revelation of Jesus to the Gentile community with the visitation and adoration of the Magi.

Illustration of the Adoration of the Magi from John Day's "Certaine godly rules coneerning Christian practice: fit to be observed daily in the lives of all those that would be saved. Gathered out of the holy scriptures, for the good of all those which have a purpose within themselves to lead a godly life.

The night before Epiphany, Twelfth Night, marks the end of the Christmas season’s revelry.  This poem, from Hesperides, or The works both humane & divine of Robert Herrick, Esq. describes how a King and Queen of Misrule were chosen arbitrarily (by finding a bean or pea in their serving of a special cake) to rule over the celebrations:

Twelfe night, or King and Queene.

NOw, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where Beane’s the King of the sport here;
Beside we must know,
The Pea also
Must revell, as Queene, in the Court here.
Begin then to chuse,
(This night as ye use)
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a King by the lot,
And who shall not
Be Twelfe-day Queene for the night here.
Which knowne, let us make
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drinke
To the base from the brink
A health to the King and the Queene here.
Next crowne the bowle full
With gentle lambs-wooll;
Adde sugar, nutmeg and ginger,
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must doe
To make the wassaile a swinger.
Give then to the King
And Queene wassailing;
And though with ale ye be whet here;
Yet part ye from hence,
As free from offence,
As when ye innocent met here.

Twelfth Night (aso spelled “twelfe night”) isn’t referenced much in the EEBO-TCP corpus: less than thirty times in all, and of those, six come from one author: Ben Jonson’s masques for performance at court as part of the celebration. Three of these are from consecutive years:  Time vindicated to himselfe, and to his honors (1622), Neptunes triumph for the returne of Albion (1623), and The fortunate isles and their vnion (1624). Jonson wrote a number of masques for the court during the reign of King James I, beginning with pageants celebrating the royal entry to the city  in 1604. These three correspond to the later years of James’ reign when, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Jonson had reached the height of his fame but felt increasingly marginalized at court.


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