I waited with great anticipation for the cake to be cut. Inside, I knew, were all of the members of the nativity story, small wooden figures suspended inside the chocolate cake. I couldn’t wait to get my piece and see who might be inside. If it was baby Jesus, I knew I would get a prize.
I did not find Jesus in my piece of cake that night so many years ago, but it was my first exposure to Twelfth Night cake, which is traditionally served on January 5th, the final day of the season of Christmas.
That nativity-laden cake was part of a celebration practiced by friends of my family, the Orrs. Each Christmas they would celebrate for all twelve days. In the evenings they would have parties, inviting their friends to come and sing Christmas carols, play games, and drink hot chocolate. Some years my family and I would come more than once, enjoying the festive glow, the reason to continue to celebrate. We were far from our extended family, and these parties gave us a chance to belong somewhere for a little while.
All I knew then about the twelve days of Christmas came from the song (which we always sang at least once at each of those parties, racing through it at full speed). Much later, I discovered that my friends were onto something historical and liturgical: a season of Christmas to be savored over time.
Last year I called Stephanie Orr, the family matriarch, to learn more about their twelve days of celebration. When her children were young, she stumbled across a book on the history of Christmas celebrations, and it launched her on a research quest. Inspired by her reading, she and her husband decided to try a new protocol for opening Christmas presents that year. On Christmas Day, they only opened their stockings. On each of the following days of Christmas, they each opened one present. As they did this, Orr noted, something changed. Instead of breezing by a gift before moving on to the next, there was time to linger. “Everybody’s present counted,” said Orr. “Every present was big enough for the day.”
Once they’d started celebrating Christmas that way, she says, the parties quickly followed. Soon they were sending out invitations that read: “If the wreath is on the door, come on in.” People responded with enthusiasm. “So many of our friends would talk about how low they would get right after Christmas,” she said. “We started being the place where they would make plans to come.” In the Orr home, there was plenty of Christmas to go around, long after the 25th.
Stephanie was just a child the first time she found a treasure within a cake—but it was for a birthday party where coins were baked inside, and whoever got one received a prize. When she read about Twelfth Night cake, she made the tradition her own. She used her family birthday cake recipe, passed down from her Volga German grandmother, and added her wooden nativity set to the batter as a way to celebrate Jesus’s birthday.
“The first time I did it, I just threw them in the cake batter,” she said. “That did not work well. They all floated to the same area. The second time I did it I baked it first and then cut little slits in the top and pushed the pieces down into the cake so I could space them. When I put icing on the cake, you couldn’t tell where they were.”
“At first we did it on Christmas Day,” Stephanie said. “But the more I learned about Epiphany, the more it became clear that it was the culmination.” Twelfth Night, and its cake, helped usher in Epiphany the next day.
Twelfth Night is “usually considered to be a day of social subversion,” said Ken Albala, an historian and director of food studies at the University of the Pacific. “Things would normally go a certain way, [but] this is one day that they are turned upside down… it’s one day when the person who’s the lowest gets to be the highest.”
Historians don’t know exactly when the first Twelfth Night cake was baked (or consumed), but the tradition extends back centuries. In 1853, Alexis Soyer, sometimes said to be the first celebrity chef, published a book on the history of food, tracing the “famous” Twelfth Night cake back at least to the Middle Ages “almost all over Europe.”
Early Twelfth Night cakes were fruitcakes, but not the kind we think of today. “When we think of fruitcake as a Christmasy thing soaked with alcohol, that’s really from the nineteenth-century,” Albala said. Instead, “They were usually [made with] a sort of egg-based batter that has fruit in it —something close to panettone—but there are versions all over the place.”
Beyond the standard cake ingredients, Twelfth Night cakes classically included a dried bean and pea. The person who found the bean would be the king, and the pea, the queen. Although these are traditional, now the options are unlimited. “In some places it’s a ceramic baby doll figure, which obviously refers back to the nativity. Sometimes it’s a bean, sometimes it’s a threepenny bit. It can be anything,” says Albala.
The responsibilities of the king and queen vary somewhat by time period and company. Sometimes the king would have to host the Twelfth Night party the following year, and the queen would have to bake the cake. Sometimes they would act their royal roles out more theatrically, ordering their fellow partygoers to do ridiculous things. This was often accompanied by immoderate amounts of drinking and revelry. In nineteenth century England, you could purchase a Twelfth Night cake complete with bean and pea and a deck of cards with a part for each person who didn’t receive a royal role. Early characters were from well-known folklore or stories, but eventually, a whole cast of characters unique to the ritual were created.
In English great houses during the Regency period, according to the Jane Austen Centre, ladies and gentlemen were served from separate sides of the cake to ensure that the king and queen would be of the opposite gender. However, in smaller houses, only a bean was baked into the cake, and the recipient was supposed to be a sort of guardian to the family throughout the year.
If any of this sounds a bit familiar, it could be because of a similar cake baked in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, another season based on revelry and celebration before the penitent season of Lent. The American version is called King Cake, and often comes with a small figure of a baby hidden inside, ready to choose a king.
Last Christmas Stephanie Orr decided to have a party on one of the twelve days of Christmas. She and her husband began to spread the word that the wreath was once again on the door.
I put on my party clothes and stepped into a swirl of childhood memories. This party was in a different house—they had sold the other one after their children had grown and left home. Even though it had been several years since the last party, people filtered into the living room as if no time had passed.
I recognized many familiar faces coming in with pink cheeks, bottles of wine, and plates of cookies. These same people had faithfully attended these parties for years. When I introduced myself, they remembered me, too, as one of the little ones running around, taking in all of the excitement.
We ate and talked, and then it was time to sing, as we always did. In the old days, the Orrs had large songbooks with song titles organized alphabetically for everyone, but this year they had printed out just a few favorites. With a guitar accompaniment, we sang carols of hope and celebration: O Holy Night, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and The Twelve Days of Christmas. When the songs finished, the words hung in the air. No one wanted to stop. I looked around at people eager to connect in the cold darkness of the Northwest winter, thankful that Christmas was not yet over. It was still going on, at least in this warm house.
This year, I’m going to invite people to gather in my home during the Christmas season, perhaps on Twelfth Night. I will use the recipe that Stephanie Orr gave me, the one from her grandmother, and invite one of my baker friends over to prevent culinary disaster.
Though I don’t plan to elect a king and queen this year, or host a drunken gathering, I will think about what it means for the last to be first and the first, last—not just for a single day, once a year, but every day in the Kingdom of God. Twelfth Night was a topsy-turvy day, and it mirrors an upside down Kingdom, however inadequately.
I think my favorite version of Twelfth Night cake is still my very first: chocolate, with the whole nativity scene hidden inside. I don’t need to think about it long to find theology here, along with flour and sugar. Jesus is concealed within chocolate goodness. He is buried, only to be found and rejoiced over, coming into the light once more. He is a reason to gather, to share a meal, to connect.
In her book, Still, Lauren Winner quotes St. Francis of Assisi about the Eucharist: “for our salvation, Jesus hides in a piece of bread.” I think perhaps, on Twelfth Night, Jesus hides within a slice of cake, for the same reason. A
Cara Strickland is a freelance writer based in Washington State. You can find more of her work at carastrickland.com.