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.