Parley’s Account Of Twelfth Day And Twelfth Night In 1838


Among the holidays of Christmas, there is one greater than all the rest. Among the merry days and nights of this happy season of general festivity, Twelfth day and Twelfth night are the most merry.

No wonder that the last happy day and night that Christmas presents to us should be prized: as the setting sun appears bigger to us just as he is about to leave the skies, so this mirthful season increases, in our estimation, to its very close. At other times the heart is merry, and the wassail bowl is full, but on Twelfth night the heart and the bowl run over.

The Christian festival of the Epiphany is held in commemoration of our Saviour being manifested to the Gentiles. Epiphany means an appearance from above, and, no doubt, you remember that a star in the heavens guided the wise men to the place where our Saviour was born. Epiphany is called Twelfth day, because it is held on the Twelfth day after Christmas.

There are very many circumstances belonging to the observances of Twelfth day, which seem to point out that it had its beginning in the Saturnalia of the Romans; but as my reasonings on this point might not be so amusing to you, as an account of the odd customs still in practice on this day, I will enter on the latter course.

There are in “Hone’s Every Day Book” such excellent Twelfth day and Twelfth night sketches of customs and characters, that I should act an unwise part if I kept them back from you. Whenever Peter Parley finds an account of any thing he wishes to describe, done better by another than he can do it himself, he is always ready to avail himself of the advantage.

There are some country customs that relate to the eve of Epiphany, of a singular kind, which ought not to be omitted.

“In certain parts of Devonshire, the farmer, attended by his workmen, with a large pitcher of cider, goes to the orchard this evening; and there, encircling one of the best bearing trees, they drink.the following toast three times:

“Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Hence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow!
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow!

Hats full! caps full!

Bushel—bushel—sacks full,

And my pockets full too! huzza!”

This done, they return to the house, the doors of which they are sure to find bolted by the females, who, be the weather what it may, are inexorable to all entreaties to open them till some one has guessed at what is on the spit, which is generally some nice little thing, difficult to be hit on, and is the reward of him who first names it. The doors are then thrown open, and the lucky clodpole receives the tit-bit as his recompense. Some are so superstitious as to believe, that if they neglect this custom, the trees will bear no apples that year.

Another account describes the Devonshire people as going “after supper into the orchard, with a large milkpan full of cider, having roasted apples pressed into it. Out of this each person in company takes what is called a clayen cup, that is, an earthenware cup, full of liquor, and standing under each of the more fruitful apple trees, passing by those that are not good bearers, he addresses it in the following words:

“Health to thee, good apple tree,
Well to bear, pockets full, hats full,
Pecks full, bushel bags full!”

And then drinking up part of the contents, he throws the rest, with the fragments of the roasted apples, at the tree. At each cup, the company set up a shout.”

“In Herefordshire, at the approach of evening, on the vigil of the Twelfth day, the farmers, with their friends and servants, meet together, and about six o’clock walk out to a field where wheat is growing.

In the highest part of the ground, twelve small fires and one large one are lighted up. The attendants, headed by the master of the family, pledge the company in old cider, which circulates freely on these occasions. A circle is formed round the large fire, when a general shout and hallooing takes place, which you hear answered from all the adjacent villages and fields. Sometimes fifty or sixty of these fires may be all seen at once.

This being finished, the company return home, where the good housewife, and her maids, are preparing a good supper. A large cake is always provided, with a hole in the middle. After supper, the company all attend the bailiff, (or head of the oxen) to the wain-house, where the following particulars are observed.

The master, at the head of his friends, fills the cup (generally of strong ale or cider,) and stands opposite the first or finest of the oxen. He then pledges him in a curious toast: the company follow his example with all the other oxen, addressing each by his name. This being finished, the large cake is produced, and, with much ceremony, put on the horn of the first ox, through the hole above mentioned.

The ox is then tickled, to make him toss his head: if he throw the cake behind, then it is the mistress’s perquisite; if before (in what is termed the boosy), the bailiff himself claims the prize. The company then return to the house, the doors of which they find locked, nor will they be opened till some joyous songs are sung. On their gaining admittance, a scene of mirth and jollity ensues, which lasts the greatest part of the night.”

The custom of wassailing the cow is still kept up at Basham farm, in this county. I have spoken of Basham farm before, in my Tales about Great Britain and Ireland.

When they wassail the cow, the men stand round with their cider mugs in their hands, and shout aloud,

“Here’s to thee, Violet, and to thy white horn,
May thy master and mistress have good crops of corn,
Both wheat, rye, and barley, and all sorts of grain,
If we live till next year, we will drink to thee again!”

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The men sit down to a capital supper, and farmer Jones is as happy as any man there.

“There sits the farmer all hearty and hale,

With youth in his smile and years on his brow;

His ‘ Old Black Ram,’ is a capital tale,
‘He’s holt o’ me now! he’s holt o’ me now!'”

But I must enter on a description of Twelfth day, as it is observed in London, and must, again, make free with “The Every Day Book,” otherwise you will lose much that is worth knowing.

In London, with every pastry cook in the city, and at the west end of the town, it is ” high change” on Twelfth day. From the taking down of the shutters in the morning, he, and his men, with additional assistants, male and female, are fully occupied by attending to the dressing out of the window, executing orders of the day before, receiving fresh ones, or supplying the wants of chance customers. Before dusk, the important arrangement of the window is completed. Then the gas is turned on, with supernumerary grand lamps and manifold wax lights, to illuminate countless cakes of all prices and dimensions, that stand in rows and piles on the counters and sideboards, and in the windows. The richest in flavour, and heaviest in weight and price, are placed on large and massy salvers; one, enormously superior to the rest in size, is the chief object of curiosity; and all are decorated with all imaginable images of things animate and inanimate. Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions, milk maids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms in snow-white confectionary, painted with variegated colours, glitter, by “excess of light,” from mirrors against the walls, festooned with artificial “wonders of Flora.” This “paradise of dainty devices” is crowded by successive and successful desirers of the seasonable delicacies, while alternate tapping of hammers, and peals of laughter, from the throng surrounding the house, excite smiles from the inmates.

“On Twelfth night, in London, boys assemble round the inviting shops, and dexterously nail the coat-tails of spectators, who venture near enough, to the bottoms of the window frames; or pin them together strongly by their clothes. Sometimes eight or ten persons find themselves thus connected. The dexterity and force of the nail driving is so quick and sure, that a single blow seldom fails of doing the business effectually. Withdrawal of the nail without a proper instrument is out of the question; and, consequently, the person nailed must either leave part of his coat, as a cognizance of his attachment, or quit the spot with a hole in it. At every nailing and pinning, shouts of laughter arise from the perpetrators and the spectators. Yet it often happens to one who turns and smiles at the duress of another, that he also finds himself nailed. Efforts at extrication increase mirth, nor is the presence of a constable, who is usually employed to attend and preserve free ‘ ingress, egress, and regress,’ sufficiently awful to deter the offenders.”

“Such are the scenes, that, at the front and side Of the Twelfth-cake shops, scatter wild dismay,

As up the slippery curb, or pavement rude,

We seek the pastry cooks, to keep Twelfth day;

While ladies stand aghast, in speechless trance

Look round, dare not go back, and yet dare not advance.”

Determined to see as much of Twelfth night as possible, I walked along Cornhill, Cheapside, Ludgate Hill, Fleet Street, and the Strand, and then made the best of my way to Regent Street. What bursts of light! what boundless stores of confectionary met my eyes! and what throngs of happy-hearted, mischief loving young people did I find abroad!

There was a sumptuous cake, in one window, with a beautiful Chinese temple upon it, so I pushed amid the throng to get a sight of it.

People were going in and out; boys and girls were crowding round the windows. Policemen were keeping as clear a road as they could to the door, and jests and laughter were heard on all sides, when suddenly I felt a pull at my coat tail.

“O ho,” thinks I, “you are up to your pranks, are you?” They little thought they had got Peter Parley among them. Well, I turned round, for my coat tail was still pulled very hard, and then I saw that a lady’s muslin gown was made fast to my skirt. O how the lady did rate at me!

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“Madam,” said I, bowing, and was beginning to explain to her, that it was not my fault; but she would not hear a word; her temper was gone, and she flirted and flounced about, calling me an “old simpleton,” but this only furnished amusement for the throng.

Fortunately for me, my black coat was of stronger material than the muslin gown. The lady gave an indignant flourish, the muslin gown gave way, a long strip of it was left dangling to my coat tail, and a roar of laughter burst from the mischievous crowd.

Young people, naturally enough, look forward to Twelfth night within doors as a treat of no ordinary kind, for then the cake is placed upon the table, and they draw characters, which are to be sustained all the evening after. This furnishes abundance of amusement.

In old times a great deal of superstition was mingled with Twelfth day and Twelfth night customs, a cake was made, and among the plums it contained, a pea and a bean were slipped in. When the cake was cut up and given to the assembled party, whoever had the pea was queen, and whoever had the bean was king for the night; but, sometimes, a piece of money was put in, to determine who should be king, and then his majesty had to rub the beams and rafters of the house, to scare away evil spirits, with many other such idle devices. The following old verses will plainly set forth the custom of ancient times.

“Then also every householder,

To his abilitie,
Doth make a mightie cake, that may

Suffice his companie:
Herein a pennie doth he put,

Before it come to fire,
This he divides according as

His householde doth require.’
And every peece distributeth,

As round about they stand,
Which in their names, unto the poore

Is given out of land.
But whoso chaunceth on the peece

Wherein the money lies,
Is counted king amongst them all,

And is with showtes and cries
Exulted to the heavens up.”

I passed a pleasant night at a house where a youthful party was assembled. Every master and miss drew a character, but they were either too happy, or too negligent, to support them well.

The names of some of these characters were a little silly; but I was in too good a humour to knit my brow; so I sat watching the young people, laughing when they laughed, and wishing in my very spirit that they might always be as free from care as they were then. Winter as it was in the season of the year, it was the spring tide of their lives, and I would not willingly have robbed them of one ray of that sunshine that lighted up their faces, and their hearts. Heartily can I join one who has well expressed himself on the subject of Twelfth night gratifications.

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