Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night (5 January) and Twelfth Day (6January) are generally considered to be the ending of the Christmas season. Today most people just think of it as the time to take down the Christmas decorations, but in the past it was a major festival, surrounded by its own myths and customs. It was a time for one last fling with games, dressing up and plays, all managed by the Lord of Misrule who held sway during the season of Yule and the Twelve Days that followed it. The Tudor court held huge feasts, while in Victorian England the shops were open late, selling cakes decorated with stars, castles, lions, dragons, kings, knights and serpents, painted onto white icing. The king and queen of the feast were chosen by a concealed ring in the cake, or a pea and bean hidden in the cake. [1] [2]

It was both a propitious and a dangerous time, standing between the holiday period and the return to work, between winter and the coming spring, between the Old and New Year. Any such liminal time is surrounded by taboos and propitiations.  In many places bonfires were lit, sometimes thirteen fires, one for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and a thirteenth called the Judas Fire which was put out during the proceedings to extinguish any negativity that might attach to the coming year. [3]

Many of the customs of Twelfth Night concern the Crone or Hag Goddess, who rules the winter quarter of the year, like the German Perchta, to whom this night is sacred, and who was placated with houses decorated with evergreens and food left out for her on Twelfth Night. [4] If she was pleased, she would leave small presents and treats for the children.

Twelfth Night and Twelfth Day was the time to expel the winter spirits of chaos and bane and send them back to the underworld [5] in a ritual battle between the forces of growth and summer, and the forces of death and winter. The malicious Greek Kallikantzaroi appear during the Twelve Days and the signal for their final departure comes on Twelfth Night with the Kalanda festival, when the ‘Blessing of the Waters’ ceremony takes place. Some holy water is put into vessels and with these and with incense, the priests make a round of the village, sprinkling the people and their houses which makes the winter spirits flee.

Twelfth Night Cake

2 ¼ lb. mixed dried sultanas, raisins and currants

2 oz mixed peel

2 oz glace cherries

2 oz chopped walnuts

¼ pint whisky

¼ pint milk

12 oz muscavado sugar

12 oz butter

4 eggs

1 lb. 4 oz plain flour

1 level tbs. baking powder

2 level tsp. mixed spice


Place the dried fruit and peel in a bowl. Stir in the whisky and milk, cover and leave overnight. Heat the oven to 140oC /gas mark 1. Oil a large tin [approx. 12 inch x 10 inch] and line the base and sides with grease proof paper. Brush the paper with oil. Cream the butter and sugar, add the beaten eggs a little at a time. If the mixture curdles add a little flour. Sift the flour, baking powder and spice and fold into to the creamed mixture. Add the fruit, nuts and whisky. Stir well.  Turn into the tin. Bake in the centre of the oven for 2 ¼ to 2 ½ hours. Leave to cool in the tin. Turn out and remove the paper.  If you really must, you can sprinkle more whisky. The cake can be iced and decorate with stars, ribbons, wheat ears, nuts and glace fruit.

© Anna Franklin

[1] Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Blitz Editions, Leicester, 1990


[3] Steve Roud, The English Year, Penguin Books Ltd., 2006

[4] Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, T. Fisher Unwin, 1912

[5] Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, T. Fisher Unwin, 1912


Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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