Twelfth Night is a festival in some branches of Christianity marking the coming of the Epiphany (Three Kings’ Day) and concluding the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Twelve Days of Christmas refers to the period between Christmas on December 25 and the Epiphany on January 6. Considered to be the last day of the Christmas season, Twelfth Night is observed as a time of merrymaking.
There is some confusion as to which night is actually Twelfth Night. Modern practice tends to regard the night of Epiphany (January 6) to be Twelfth Night. The older tradition of Twelfth Night being the 5th of January stems from the medieval practice of the day beginning at sunset, rather than at midnight as it does now. Thus Twelfth Night would fall on January 5th, ahead of Twelfth Day on the 6th.
In Medieval and Tudor England, a common theme of Twelfth Night was that on that day the normal order of things would be reversed. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, or What You Will was written to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment. The play features many role reversals, such as a woman Viola dressing as a man, and a servant Malvolio imagining that he can become a nobleman.
Food and drink are traditionally the focus of Twelfth Night celebrations, some of which – such as the hot and spicy punch called wassail – date back many centuries. In English and French custom, a fruit cake called the Twelfth-cake was baked to contain a bean and a pea, and those who received the slices containing them would be designated king and queen of the night’s festivities. Robert Herrick’s poem Twelfe-Night, or King and Queene (published in 1648) describes the election of king and queen by bean and pea in a plum cake, and the homage done to them by the draining of wassail bowls of “lamb’s-wool” – a drink of sugar, nutmeg, ginger and ale.
There is a belief in some English-speaking countries that it is unlucky to leave Christmas decorations hanging after Twelfth Night. In colonial America, the Christmas wreath on the front door was taken down on Twelfth Night, and any edible portions such as fruits, nuts, and berries would be eaten as part of the feast. The same held true in the 19th-20th centuries with any fruits and nuts that were used to decorate Christmas trees.
Twelfth Night and the Twelve Days of Christmas (an article from The Christian Resource Institute)
William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” (web edition published by The University of Adelaide Library)
Twelfe-Night, or King and Queen (poem by Robert Herrick, along with information about Twelfth Night celebrations)