For around 16 years in the 17th century, Christmas was cancelled by the authorities. The King was ousted, along with the pomp and ostentation of the Church, and unfortunately that meant Christmas festivities too.
However, in 1660, the monarchy was restored. Charles II’s lifestyle was notoriously un-puritanical, and entertainment was back on the agenda.
The Stuart Christmas was celebrated for twelve days, culminating on the Twelfth Night, which would be an evening of feasting and partying. Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night was first performed in 1602 at the end of Christmas season. The Banqueting House of Whitehall Palace was the Stuart court’s most prestigious theatre hall and masques and plays were invariably performed there on Twelfth Night.
Gifts were exchanged at New Years, and wine and food was brought and shared with friends throughout Christmas. Very often, a Twelfth Cake was the centrepiece of the feast and fun.
Twelfth Cake is a traditional cake that was eaten on the eve of Epiphany, the Twelfth Night. Originally it would have been made with yeast and dried fruit, but, as the price of sugar came down, it came to resemble a fruitcake.
In the 17th century, traditional games that were associated with the Twelfth Night feast were very popular, including the appointment of a King and Queen of Misrule. A dried bean and a dried pea were baked into the cake and the man and woman who found the bean and pea would be King and Queen of the festivities for the evening.
In January 1660, Samuel Pepys records in his diary that he spends Twelfth Night with his cousins, father and friends. He says they had “an excellent cake” in which the pea was split “so there was two Queens” and the bean was lost, so they “chose the Doctor to be King”. Other characters may also have been distributed, and costumes may have been donned.
By the end of the 19th century, the Christmas Day feast had come to overshadow Twelfth Night celebrations, but the practice of hiding a sixpence in the Christmas pudding that is a tradition still upheld today shows the legacy of Twelfth Cake is not so far away.