While popping the cork of a bottle of bubbly, singing Auld Lang Syne, and watching fireworks, is what we associate with British New Year’s – more specifically, New Year’s Eve, that wasn’t always the case. January 1 was officially designated New Year’s Day in Great Britain in 1752.
During the time of the Regency, ushering in the New Year was pretty low-key. New Year’s Day, January 1, fell between what the Regency-era English people considered more important holidays of Christmas and Twelfth Day. Twelfth Day brings an end to the Christmas tide festivities.
Twelfth Day, so called since it is the twelfth day after Christmas, is the festival of Epiphany. This feast of the Christian church was instituted in the fourth century.
The merry bowl – wassail bowl – has been kept brimming throughout the Christmas season and continues on New Year’s Day and tends to run over during Twelfth Day and Night. Especially prevalent during this time, after drinking to the health and good cheer of anyone close by, what remained in the wassail cup was poured on the root of a favorite fruit tree, as a libation to its spirit and vitality. A bit before the Regency, in 1791, in a Gentleman’s magazine in Devonshire, the custom was explained in detail. Here, “the farmer, attended by his workmen, with a large pitcher of cider, goes to the orchard on this evening; and there, encircling one of the best bearing trees, the drink the following toast three times: --
Here’s to the old apple tree
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow!And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!Hat full! caps full!Bushel, bushel-sacks full!And my pockets full too! – Huzza!
After this ritual, they return to the house, where the doors have been bolted by the females within. The men are only able to gain entrance after correctly guessing what is cooking.
While it’s difficult for many of us to imagine, the majority of delectable pastries were not presented at Christmas or New Year, but at Twelfth Day. Pastries and cakes were decorated and formed in a variety of shapes, from castles, dragons and kings, to lions, knights and churches.
Although Twelfth Night was a recognized time of public mischievousness, at home, a large cake is presented. Within the cake are a bean and a pea. Whoever finds the bean is the king, and the pea, is the queen of Twelfth Night. In some parts of society, the selection of a king and queen were much more elaborate. After cake and tea were served, guests were invited to draw different numbered ‘characters.’ Only after the character – slips of papers called tickets, with names and numbers on them – were the king and queen known. Number 1 for the king, and 2 for the queen. Each person, beginning with the king, had to recite the verse on their ticket. Some of the character names, by prominent writers of the day included: Peter Puncheon, Prudence Pumpkin, Judy Juniper and Sally Salamander.
My favorite King’s Cake recipe comes with the warning that the cake is not to be served before Twelfth Day (Jan. 6) or after Mardi Gras. The recipe, by Chef Emeril Lagasse, can be found here...
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Author Tara Manderino loves to create stories and situations for the people running around in her head. She first began writing in third grade when she realized she couldn't afford her reading habit. To date she has written several contemporary and regency historical novels, all available in electronic format and paper. Her Regency historicals can be found at Awe-Struck Publishing or Amazon. They include Whisper My Name, The Heir and Dere’s Demons, and cover a wide variety of social topics of the day, from a deaf heroine, to the industries of Manchester.