Twelfth Night, Odin & the King of the Bean

The Bean King (The King Drinks) - Jacob Jordaens

The Bean King (The King Drinks), by Jacob Jordaens (1638)

Today, the 5th January, marks Twelfth Night, a date that, if they think about it at all, most people nowadays associate with two things – the Shakespeare play of the same name, and taking down the Christmas decorations.

But in pre-industrial Britain, the celebrations of Christmas once lasted the full Twelve Days, although there was some disagreement as to whether Christmas Day itself was counted as one of these – if it wasn’t, then the 6th January, Epiphany, became the Twelfth Day, though the 5th January was still called Twelfth Night, confusingly. The introduction of the Gregorian calendar in Britain, in 1752, made matters more complicated still, as many people persisted in marking the old dates rather than the new ones. It is for this reason that many wassailing traditions in England are still held on January 17th – Old Twelfth Night.

What’s certain is that Christmastide was once regarded, across Medieval and Early Modern Europe, as a dangerous time, when Odin’s Wild Hunt rode through the sky, werewolves stalked the woods, and the dead came back to haunt the living. For all that, though, it was still no doubt a welcome break from work before the agricultural year began again on Plough Monday (the first Monday after Epiphany). People would elect an Epiphany King, or “King of the Bean” (in France the equivalent figure was called l’Abbé de la Malgouverné – the Abbot of Unreason), a “Mock King” tradition that goes back to the Roman Saturnalia, a festival held from the 17th to the 24th December, when a slave would be chosen to be King, and the usual order overturned, with men dressing as women, folk wearing animal masks, and feasting and general licentiousness prevailing.

The Mock King’s medieval descendant, the King of the Bean, was chosen by placing a bean and a pea in a cake called the Twelfth Cake. Whoever found the bean in their slice became King, and they were crowned and robed for the duration of the feast, and the woman who found the pea became the Twelfth Day Queen (if a woman found the bean, she had the right to name the King; if a man found the pea, he chose the Queen).

In France, the Twelfth Cake was called the gateau des Rois, and, when it had been cut into slices, a small child hidden under the table was asked whom each should go to. He would randomly nominate people from the assembled company until all pieces of the cake had been accounted for, and the finder of the bean became the Epiphany King.

In England, the King of the Bean ceremony has, to the best of my knowledge, long since disappeared, though Twelfth Cakes continued to be made and sold well into the Nineteenth Century, before the decline of Twelfthtide celebrations, and the increasing popularity of the Christmas cake, finally did for them.

It’s a shame, though – personally, I don’t think one should need much excuse for cake, so I’m all for reviving this particular tradition…