Poet Robert Herrick wrote: “Down with the rosemary, and so / Down with the bays and mistletoe; / Down with the holly, ivy, all, / Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall.”
I woke up this morning thinking it was just another Tuesday in January until I read The Writer’s Almanac. According to the Almanac this is a holiday steeped in tradition dating back to the Romans.
It is a Twelfth Night tradition to choose a king and queen for the festivities. Usually, this involves beans and baked goods. In English celebrations, a plum cake is baked with a bean and a pea inside. If a man finds the bean, he is crowned the Twelfth Night King, also known as the Lord of Misrule. The woman who finds the pea is crowned Queen. But if a woman finds the bean instead of the pea, she chooses her own king.
Part of the Twelfth Night tradition involves pranks, role reversals, and general chaos. Servants dressed as masters, men dressed as women, and people roamed the streets in gangs, decked out in costumes and blackened faces. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night features many of the traditional elements of the holiday.
English settlers in the Colonies brought the Twelfth Night tradition with them. In colonial Virginia, it was customary to hold a large and elegant ball. Revelers chose a king and queen using the customary cake method; it was the king’s duty to host the next year’s Twelfth Night ball, and the queen was given the honor of baking the next year’s cake. George and Martha Washington didn’t usually do much for Christmas except attend church, but they often hosted elaborate Twelfth Night celebrations. It was also their anniversary; they’d been married on January 5, 1759. Martha Washington left behind her recipe for an enormous Twelfth Night cake among her papers at Mount Vernon. The recipe called for 40 eggs, four pounds of sugar, and five pounds of dried fruit. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Christmas became the primary holiday of the season in America, and at that point, Twelfth Night celebrations all but disappeared.
It is funny to think how certain traditions fall out of favor and some are held onto, isn’t it?
Well, if you are presented with a plum cake today I hope you find the bean or the pea,