Twelfth Night Means Cake: The Twelfth Day of Christmas in Colonial America

Happy New Year, everyone! And if you’ve been singing along, today is the day the 12 pipers piping show up in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. That’s right, today is January 6, sometimes known as Twelfth Night or Epiphany. In the 21st century, this day is mostly ignored as a holiday in America, as by now, Christmas sales are over, trees and decorations are coming down, and everyone is getting back to their regularly scheduled school and work hours. Through the 18th and early 19th centuries, however, Twelfth Night was a much bigger deal. Shakespeare even wrote a play about it! So, let’s imagine that it’s 1816 (just like during Christmastide!) and talk about how the Croghan family might have celebrated this holiday.

Like many of our modern holidays, Twelfth Night is descended from the Roman holiday Saturnalia, which fell during the darkest, coldest time of year, just like the Christmas season today. The word “Yuletide” is descended from a Norse word that meant a heathen winter feast. Originally referring to a winder celebration of almost two months, after the widespread adoption of Christianity around the 4th century, the meaning of “Yuletide” began to specifically refer to the time between Christmas Day (December 25) and Twelfth Night (January 6). While wishing someone “Good Yuletide!” has fallen out of use, when we wish someone a “Holly Jolly Christmas!” we’re not far off–“yule” and “jolly” have the same root word!

But enough with the etymology–let’s talk about the party! George Washington married his wife Martha on Twelfth Night in 1759, and he usually had a low-key December 25, but made up for it with a very festive January 6. The day was marked with visits from friends and family and a sumptuous meal, centered around Martha’s Great Cake.The recipe called for three pounds of butter, seven pounds of currants, a peck of flour, three-quarters of a pound of sugar, mace, carraway seeds, nutmeg and cloves, among other things. (I hereby request that our hearth cook Melissa make this for Christmastide next year!)

George and Martha on their wedding day, January 6, 1759. They certainly knew how to party. (Image: Junius Brutus Stears, 1849.)

The idea of a cake is common in many Twelfth Night celebrations. Sometimes called a King Cake, a special cake would be baked with a bean inside. Whoever found the bean was crowned “King of the Bean” for Twelfth Night. The “King of the Bean” then rules over the revels of the day and is responsible for providing the King Cake on the next Twelfth Night. This tradition is still used in many parts of the world that celebrate Carnivale or Mardi Gras in the weeks preceding Lent. The rest of the day would feature games like snapdragon or bobbing for apples, horse races, hunts, strolling through the streets in costumes as “mummers”, plays, and balls. Jane Austen described her Twelfth Night in 1806 in a letter, stating, “On Twelfth Day we were all agreeably surprised with a sort of masquerade, on being dressed into character, and then we were conducted into the library, which was all lighted up and at one end a throne, surrounded by a grove of Orange Trees and other shrubs, and all this was totally unknown to us all!” I don’t know about you, but I want to celebrate with the Austen and Washington families alike! Cake and a masquerade sounds so much fun! Twelfth Night was also the last night the Yule Log would be lit, signifying the end of the Christmas season. The next day, Christmas wreaths were taken down from doors, and life returned to normal. Similar to today, children would not return to school until after the Twelve Days of Christmas were over.

Sadly, Queen Victoria banned Twelfth Night celebrations as rowdy and “unchristian” in the 1870s, so the holiday fell out of use in English-speaking countries. But I think it’s time to revive it! So go make a big, scrumptious cake, brew some wassail, light a fire, and invite your friends over for a masked ball. It’s what George Washington (and surely William Croghan!) would do.

With much jollity,


P.S. Locust Grove is closed in January but I’ll still be blogging! What would you like to read about? Let me know below!

Sources and further reading:

Online Etymology Dictionary

Martha Washington’s Great Cake. 

Williamsburg’s Long Christmas. 

Jane Austen’s Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night during the Regency. 

Understanding Twelfth Night. 

Christmas Cake


One thought on “Twelfth Night Means Cake: The Twelfth Day of Christmas in Colonial America

  1. Pingback: We’re Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastide! | Locust Grove Louisville

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