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Eve Of Twelfth Day

The 5th of January is the eve of the Epiphany, and the Vigil of
Twelfth day, which used to be celebrated by the liberal use of the
customary wassail bowl. In the Gentleman's Magazine for 1791, p.
116, we get a good account of the customs in Herefordshire on that
night. On the eve of Twelfth day, at the approach of evening, the
farmers, their friends, servants, etc., all assemble; and near six
o'clock, all walk together to a field where wheat is growing. The
highest part of the ground is always chosen, where 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 villages and fields near, as I have myself
counted fifty or sixty fires burning at the same time, which are
generally placed on some eminence. This being finished, the company
all return to the house, where the good housewife and her maids are
preparing a good supper, which on this occasion is very plentiful.

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), and stands opposite the first or finest of the oxen (twenty-four
of which I have often seen tied up in their stalls together); he then
pledges him in a curious toast; the company then follow his example
with all the other oxen, addressing each by their name. This being
over, the large cake is produced, and is with much ceremony put on the
horn of the first ox, through the hole in the cake; he is then tickled
to make him toss his head: if he throws the cake behind, it is the
mistress's perquisite; if before (in what is termed the boosy), the
bailiff claims the prize. This ended, the company all return to the
house, the doors of which are in the meantime locked, and not opened
till some joyous songs are sung. On entering, a scene of mirth and
jollity commences, and reigns through the house till a late hour the
next morning. Cards are introduced, and the merry tale goes round. I
have often enjoyed the hospitality, friendship, and harmony I have
been witness to on these occasions.

On p. 403 of the same volume another correspondent writes as to the
custom on Twelfth day eve in Devonshire. On the Eve of the Epiphany
the farmer, attended by his workmen, with a large pitcher of cyder,
goes to the orchard, and there, encircling one of the best-bearing
trees, they drink the following toast three several times:--

Here's to thee, old apple tree,
Whence 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 recompence. Some are so superstitious as to believe
that, if they neglect this custom, the trees will bear no apples that

Referring to these customs, Cuthbert Bede remarks (Notes and
Queries, 2 ser. viii. 448): A farmer's wife told me that where she
had lived in Herefordshire, twenty years ago, they were wont, on
Twelfth Night Eve, to light in a wheat field twelve small fires, and
one large one.... She told me that they were designed to represent the
blessed Saviour and his twelve Apostles. The fire representing Judas
Iscariot, after being allowed to burn for a brief time, was kicked
about, and put out.... The same person also told me that the ceremony
of placing the twelfth cake on the horn of the ox was observed in all
the particulars.... It was twenty years since she had left the farm,
and she had forgotten all the words of the toast used on that
occasion: she could only remember one verse out of three or four:--

Fill your cups, my merry men all!
For here's the best ox in the stall;
Oh! he's the best ox, of that there's no mistake,
And so let us crown him with the Twelfth Cake.

The Derby and Chesterfield Reporter of 7th January 1830 gives the
following notice of the Herefordshire customs: On the eve of Old
Christmas day there are thirteen fires lighted in the cornfields of
many of the farms, twelve of them in a circle, and one round a pole,
much longer and higher than the rest, in the centre. These fires are
dignified by the names of the Virgin Mary and the Twelve Apostles, the
lady being in the middle; and while they are burning, the labourers
retire into some shed or out-house, where they can behold the
brightness of the Apostolic flame. Into this shed they lead a cow, on
whose horn a large plum cake has been stuck, and having assembled
round the animal, the oldest labourer takes a pail of cider, and
addresses the following lines to the cow with great solemnity; after
which the verse is chaunted in chorus by all present:--

Here's to thy pretty face and thy white horn,
God send thy master a good crop of corn,
Both wheat, rye, and barley, and all sorts of grain,
And, next year, if we live, we'll drink to thee again.

He then dashes the cider in the cow's face, when, by a violent toss
of her head, she throws the plum cake on the ground; and if it falls
forward, it is an omen that the next harvest will be good; if
backward, that it will be unfavourable. This is the ceremony at the
commencement of the rural feast, which is generally prolonged to the
following morning.

In Ireland,[88] on Twelve Eve in Christmas, they use to set up, as
high as they can, a sieve of oats, and in it a dozen of candles set
round, and in the centre one larger, all lighted. This is in memory of
our Saviour and His Apostles--lights of the world.

[Footnote 88: Vallancey's Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis, vol. i.
No. 1. p. 124.]

The 6th of January, or twelfth day after Christmas, is a festival of
the Church, called the Epiphany (from a Greek word signifying
appearance), or Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles; and it
arises from the adoration of the Wise Men, or Magi, commonly known
as the Three Kings, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, who were
led by the miraculous star to Bethlehem, and there offered to the
infant Christ gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The following carol is in
the Harl. MSS. British Museum, and is of the time of Henry VII.:--

Now is Christmas i-come,
Father and Son together in One,
Holy Ghost as ye be One,
In fere-a;
God send us a good new year-a.

I would now sing, for and I might,
Of a Child is fair to sight;
His mother bare him this enders[89] night,
So still-a;
And as it was his will-a.

There came three kings from Galilee
To Bethlehem, that fair citie,
To see Him that should ever be
By right-a,
Lord, and King, and Knight-a.

As they came forth with their offering,
They met with Herod, that moody king,
He asked them of their coming
This tide-a;
And thus to them he said-a:

Of whence be ye, you kings three?
Of the East, as you may see,
To seek Him that should ever be
By right-a,
Lord, and King, and Knight-a.

When you to this Child have been,
Come you home this way again,
Tell me the sights that ye have seen,
I pray-a;
Go not another way-a.

They took their leave, both old and young,
Of Herod, that moody king;
They went forth with their offering,
By light-a
Of the Star that shone so bright-a.

Till they came into the place
Where Jesus and his mother was,
There they offered with great solace,
In fere-a,
Gold, incense, and myrrh-a.

When they had their offering made,
As the Holy Ghost them bade,
Then were they both merry and glad,
And light-a;
It was a good fair sight-a.

Anon, as on their way they went,
The Father of Heaven an Angel sent,
To those three kings that made present,
That day-a,
Who thus to them did say-a:

My Lord hath warned you every one,
By Herod King ye go not home,
For, an' you do, he will you slone[90]
And strye-a,[91]
And hurt you wonderly-a.

So forth they went another way,
Through the might of God, His lay,[92]
As the Angel to them did say,
Full right-a,
It was a fair good sight-a.

When they were come to their countree,
Merry and glad they were all three,
Of the sight that they had see
By night-a;
By the Star's shining light-a.

Kneel we now all here adown
To that Lord of great renown,
And pray we in good devotion
For grace-a,
In Heaven to have a place-a.

This festival was held in high honour in England; and up to the reign
of George III. our Kings and Queens, attended by the Knights of the
three great Orders--the Garter, the Thistle, and the Bath--were wont
to go in state to the Chapel Royal, St. James's, and there offer gold,
frankincense, and myrrh, in commemoration of the Magi; but when
George III. was incapacitated, mentally, from performing the functions
of royalty, it was done by proxy, and successive sovereigns have found
it convenient to perform this act of piety vicariously.

It must have been a magnificent function in the time of Henry VII., as
we learn by Le Neve's Royalle Book. As for Twelfth Day, the King
must go crowned, in his royal robes, kirtle, surtout, his furred hood
about his neck, his mantle with a long train, and his cutlas before
him; his armills upon his arms, of gold set full of rich stones; and
no temporal man to touch it but the King himself; and the squire for
the body must bring it to the King in a fair kerchief, and the King
must put them on himself; and he must have his sceptre in his right
hand, and the ball with the cross in his left hand, and the crown upon
his head. And he must offer that day gold, myrrh, and sense; then must
the Dean of the Chapel send unto the Archbishop of Canterbury, by
clerk, or priest, the King's offering that day; and then must the
Archbishop give the next benefice that falleth in his gift to the same
messenger. And then the King must change his mantle when he goeth to
meat, and take off his hood, and lay it about his neck; and clasp it
before with a great rich ouche; and this must be of the same colour
that he offered in. And the Queen in the same form as when she is

Now the ceremonial is as simple as it can be made. In the Chapel
Royal, St. James's, after the reading of the sentence at the
offertory, Let your light so shine before men, etc., while the organ
plays, two members of Her Majesty's household, wearing the royal
livery, descend from the royal pew, and, preceded by the usher,
advance to the altar rails, where they present to one of the two
officiating clergymen a red bag, edged with gold lace or braid, which
is received in an alms dish, and then reverently placed upon the
altar. This bag, or purse, is understood to contain the Queen's
offering of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

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