Twelfth Night in Regency England
by Regan Walker, author of the Christmas novella, THE TWELFTH NIGHT WAGER
Christmas in Regency England (1811-1820), when Prince George ruled as Prince Regent, was a more subtle celebration than the one we observe today. Christmastide, as the folks in Regency England called the season, began with Christmas Eve (though Christmas evening was “First Night”) and continued to Twelfth Night, January 5th, followed by the Feast of the Epiphany when the three wise men, the Magi, arrived in Bethlehem to behold the Christ child.
In country homes and estates where Christmas was celebrated, decorations went up on Christmas Eve and stayed up until Epiphany, the official end of the Yule season, when the greens would be taken down and burned in the fireplace.
In additional to all the revelry, there was a Twelfth Night cake, an ornate confection into which a bean, a coin or a tiny carved or cast metal version of the Baby Jesus was placed. During early evening, the cake was cut and its pieces distributed to guests who were advised to chew carefully. The person who found the icon then became the king or “Lord of Misrule,” or the Bean King. His Queen Consort or the Queen of Twelfth Night was the woman who found a dried pea in the cake. The king and queen reigned for the evening, no matter their normal status in society.
By the late 18th century, the selection of Twelfth Night's "royalty" could also be accomplished by the distribution of paper slips with each piece of cake. The slips were opened and the person holding the one with a special mark inside was declared king.
During Jane Austen’s life time, the celebration of Twelfth Night was at the height its of popularity. Sets of “characters” were available to purchase from enterprising stationers. They were cut up into small papers and the slips were chosen from a hat. Whatever character the person drew became their identity for the evening.
Fanny Knight, Edward Austen Knight’s daughter and Jane Austen’s niece, wrote about some of her Twelfth Night Celebrations in Kent. Here’s her report of the Twelfth Night celebration in 1809:
…after Dessert Aunt Louisa who was the only person to know the characters…took one by one out of the room and equipped them, put them into separate rooms and lastly dressed herself. We were al conducted into the library and performed our different parts. Papa and the little ones from Lizzy downwards knew nothing of it and it was so well managed that none of the characters knew one another ..Aunt Louisa and L.Deeds were Dominos; F.Cage, Frederica Flirt (which she did excellently); M.Deeds, Orange Woman; Mama, Shepherdess; Self Fortune Teller; Edward, beau; G, Irish Postboy; Henry Watchman; William, Harlequin; we had such frightful masks that it was enough to kill one with laughing at putting them on and altogether it went off very well and quite answered our expectations.
Though by Jane Austen’s time the cake may not have been used to assist in the choosing of characters, it was still an important part of the proceedings. They were costly and complicated to make and many people bought them from confectioners’ shops if they could afford to do so.
Wassail, the drink of good wishes and holiday cheer, has been associated with Twelfth Night since the 1400s. The then ale-based drink seasoned with spices and honey was served in huge bowls, often made of silver or pewter. It was passed among family members and friends with the greeting "Wassail." The name comes from the old English term "Waes hael," meaning "be well."
In my Christmas novella, The Twelfth Night Wager, two men at White’s club, one of whom is known as the “red headed rake,” make a scandalous wager involving a virtuous widow. The wager, by its terms, must be won or lost by Twelfth Night. The story includes all the fall activities in London and the countryside, as well as the Christmastide celebrations leading up to Twelfth Night.