The ancestor of the Christmas Cake: Twelfth Night Cake

The Christmas Cake as we know it was actually originally made for Twelfth Night (or Epiphany) on January 6th. This was a time of joyous feasting and ‘misrule’ across Europe with much cross-dressing, feasting, and the election of ‘boy popes’, and ‘Lords of Misrule’ to direct the topsy-turvy events. The cake played a significant role in the festivities from at least the sixteenth century, as it held the token – a bean or a coin – which would select the ‘King of the Bean’. The tradition proliferated in lively fashion, until cakes were stuffed with an array of items denoting both a King and a Queen, as well as all their courtiers. In 1669 the diarist Samuel Pepys recorded a sanitized version in which the roles were drawn from a hat rather than found in the cake. In the Victorian period it was calmed down still further, with tokens which denoted the finder’s future. Cakes made for modern American bridal showers still continue this theme, with small trinkets on ribbons baked into a cake. The records of the Old Bailey court from the eighteenth century abound with references to Twelfth Cakes (usually stolen, or being purchased at the time that a crime was being committed!).

A Spanish King Cake, close relation of the Twelfth Night Cake. Image from wikimedia

The Twelfth Night Cakes were large and elaborate affairs, crowned with sugar work even by the fifteenth century. In 1794, a comedian and one-time pastry cook named Robert Baddeley left a bequest to the Drury Lane Theatre company to provide a cake on Twelfth Night every year. The tradition continues to this day, involving ever more ornate and elaborate cakes which reflect the production being performed at the time. It has only ever been abandoned on thirteen occasions, principally during the World Wars.

Just like the Christmas Cake, Twelfth Night Cakes have their own national flavours. A close relation is the King Cake (or Mexican Rosca de Reyes, Portuguese Bolo Rei or French Galette des Rois) which is traditional in Catholic countries, and especially those of Spanish, Portuguese and French origin. Its name comes from the Three Kings who came to see Jesus on the twelfth night after his birth, so it is really a Twelfth Night Cake under another name, even down to the bean baked inside it. The most famous example is the King Cake made for the Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans every year, although this contains a toy baby rather than a bean, and is brightly frosted with the colours of Mardi Gras: purple, gold and green. Today these cakes have diversified from their fruited origins perhaps reflecting rather different tastes in North America! Just like the Twelfth Night Cake, the bean, trinket (or baby) brings good luck and confers the crown on the person who finds it. The French. Portuguese and Spanish versions have their own flavours too: marzipan and glace cherries in Spain, dried fruit in Portugal, and a rather plainer appearance in France.

Today, Twelfth Night is rarely celebrated outside parts of the Church, except in marking the day that the Christmas decorations come down. It is nice to think though, that its cake has migrated to other occasions, and continues to direct a little misrule.


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