Twelfth Day, sometimes known as Twelfth Night, gets its name from the fact that it is celebrated twelve days after the 25th of December. Although many people today do not realize that January 6 was once celebrated as a holiday, there are very few who would not have heard the song titled The Twelve Days Of Christmas during which time the singer's 'true love' showers her with extravagant gifts. The twelfth day of those twelve days of Christmas fell on the 6th of January.
This holiday was also known as the Feast of the Epiphany, which marked the beginning of the season preceding Lent. The word Epiphany came from the Greek word for manifestation, signifying the day upon which the Lord made Himself manifest to the Gentiles, i.e. non-Israelite peoples or nations. The epiphany took place in the visitation of the Baby Jesus by the Magi, which was believed to have occurred twelve days after the birth.
The primary object of the Twelfth Day celebrations, therefore, was to honor the event of the three Magi visiting and bringing gifts to the Christ child.
One of the traditions was to light a bonfire on Twelfth Day Eve to mimick the bright star that guided the Magi to Bethlehem.
Another tradition was the choosing of the king (or queen) of the Bean. This tradition was popular throughout Britain and her colonies, France and Germany. A bean (or sometimes a small coin) would be placed into a cake being baked, and the person lucky enough to find it while eating their portion of the cake was named king (or queen) for the festivities. The honor would have been rather dubious, though, because one of the duties of the king of the bean was to pay for the festivities. The king (or queen) of the bean was chosen early in the evening on the Twelfth Night and held that honor until midnight.
The cake that served as the vessel to hold the bean was comprised of flour, honey, ginger and pepper. Certain traditions hold that the cake should be full of plums; it appears that a plum cake was popular throughout Italy for the Twelfth Day celebration.
In certain regions, Twelfth Night was a time to pay homage to fruit trees and to pray for a bountiful harvest of the orchard in the coming year. A farmer and his servants would take a pitcher of cider out into his orchard, where they would encircle one of the fruit trees and, passing the pitcher from one to another, drink toasts to the tree for the purpose of ensuring a favorable harvest. The men would then return to their houses, where the women would have bolted the doors. The men would shout for the women to open the door, but the women would insist that they would open the door only if the men could correctly guess what they had placed on the fireplace spit. Of course the guessing was not easy and would take a while to accomplish, during which time the men would be freezing in the cold weather of January. The man who eventually guessed correctly would be favored with the item that had been roasted.
In place of cider, the drink that was carried out to the orchard and drunk in toasts to the fruit trees might be a punch called a wassail. The name of this punch was derived from the Middle English phrase Waes Haeil, which translates as "good health" or "health be to you". The wassail was basically a hot mulled punch (sometimes ale or beer, but just as often cider) "mulled" with sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, to which would be added pieces of toast and often apples and/or oranges. The descriptive term of "mulled" refers to any drink that is heated and to which spices are added.