In the olden days, the festivities of Christmas lasted twelve days, which was the time supposed to have been taken by the three wise men or kings in their journey to Bethlehem.
The final evening (January 5) was called “Twelfth Night” and marked the end of Christmas festivities and, in ancient Celtic tradition, the end of the 12-day winter solstice celebration.
On this night, it was customary for the assembled company to toast each other from the wassail bowl. In Old English, wassail means “Be in good health,” but the term came to be applied to the drink itself (usually spiced ale). See our recipe for wassail on our Web site! It was also traditional to cook the most wonderful pastries, cakes, and pies. Some included practical jokes. The “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” was no myth. Live birds were placed in a cooked pastry crust. When guests cut into the pie, the birds flew about the room which delighted all. A kinder tradition included placing bread soaked with cider in tree branches for the birds to eat.
In the ancient times of the Roman Saturnalia, the “king of the feast” was elected by beans, and the Twelfth Night cakes included a bean—or, later, a ring or coin. Whoever was given the slice with the prize became the queen and king for the night and much parading and merriment followed.
In the church calendar, Twelfth Night is the evening before Epiphany (January 6). Because the three wise men (or kings) arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the infant Jesus, Epiphany is also called Three Kings Day and a traditional time of gift giving. “