Twelfth Day is so called because it is the twelfth day after the Nativity. It is also termed the Epiphany, or Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, when the eastern magi were guided by the star to pay their homage to the Saviour. The festive rites and gambols of this anniversary were originally intended to commemorate the magi, who were supposed to be kings.
In France, one of the courtiers was formerly chosen king, and waited upon by the real monarch and his nobles in a grand entertainment; in Germany they practise a similar custom among the scholars at the colleges, and the citizens at civic banquets; at our own universities, not many years ago, and in private entertainments still, it is customary to give the name of king to that person whose portion of the divided cake contains the lucky bean, or the royally-inscribed label, and to honour him with a mock homage.
This mode of perpetuating the remembrance of the eastern kings seems to have been partly borrowed from the Roman saturnalia, when the masters made a banquet for their servants, and waited upon them; and partly from the Roman custom of drawing lots or beans for the title of king, when the fortunate party was declared monarch of the festive circle, over which he exercised full authority until they separated.
The festival of kings, as this day is called in an ancient calendar of the Romish church, was continued with feasting for many days. “To what base uses may we not return”
In 1792, during the French Revolution, when kings of all sorts were suffering proscription, la file des rois Was abolished as anti-civic, and Twelfth Day took the name of la fete des sans culottes. To this nominal change the people willingly yielded assent, but they would not resign the festival and the good cheer, and they were quite right.
As a religious memento, the cake and its concomitants may be idle and perhaps irreverent, but it is a pity to let any custom fall into desuetude which promotes social mirth and happiness, and fills every juvenile class with pleasant anticipations and recollections from Christmas to Candlemas.
Source: Festivals, games & amusements,
ancient & modern, 1831