In early January, if you lived in colonial Albany in early 1700s what we would think of as December festivities- St Nicholas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s festivities would be winding down. But wait, there’s more – what we have come to know as Twelfth Night. Its origins are in a Roman festival called Saturnalia surrounding the winter solstice. In the Christian era the 12th day after Christmas was designated as the date of the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the Christ child. But over time, and due in large part to the Protestant Reformation, January 6th became more of a secular holiday.. more than a bit of a blowout.. it was off the hook.
Curiously, there’s no documentation of the celebrations in the early New York colony, although there are passing references to the holiday. But many historians think that keeping traditions would have been very important for people who crossed the Atlantic and came to a new world.
So the colonists of Albany, whether Dutch, Walloon (Protestant French emigres) or German or English or Scandinavian would have all whooped it up. The English called it Twelfth Night, the other colonists would have referred to it as variation of “Three Kings Day”. In some cultures the festivities started the eve of Epiphany (January 5) and in others Epiphany Day (January 6).
Whenever the celebrations started it was a rollicking bout of good cheer, with much food and drink ..lots of drink. All sorts of treats piled the tables of Albany homes and taverns (in Dutch homes they would have included doughnuts, cookies, waffles, and pancakes), but the cake was the thing. If you had come from England, a bean might have been inserted into one side of the cake and pea on the other side. The male who got the slice with the bean became king for a day, the female the queen. If you were Dutch there probably was only one bean, and that person became the king. There might be a designated “fool” or jester whose job it was to amuse and entertain. There would have been games and drinking (if only they had known about beer pong) and often music.
Paintings of The Three Kings celebration in the Netherlands in the 17th century, were a favorite subject during the “Golden Age” of Dutch painting. It was wild and crazy.. mischief and mayhem.
There was no single Twelfth Night cake recipe – but most of them were a version of a fruit cake. One food historian has concluded that by the mid-1700s the most often used Twelfth night cake recipe was also used for a “Bride’s Cake” – another cake recipe designed to serve a large crowd. In fact, George and Martha Washington were married on Twelfth Night and her anniversary cake did double duty. (Google “Martha Washington anniversary cake” for updated versions). However the French emigres took a different approach and made a “Gallette des Rois” (cake of the kings”) – a large rough puff pastry filled with almond cream.
The celebration of Twelfth Night died out in America by the 1850s, as Christmas and New Year’s took center stage. (Descriptions of lovely winter scenes in American literature in the early 1800s are often compared to the white icing and sugar decorations of Twelfth Night cakes which tell about the refinement of the cake.) But try as we might, we found no ads for bakeries or bake houses selling Twelfth Night cakes in America in the early 1830s. (We need to do more research.)
The “Godey Lady Book” (America’s most popular woman’s magazine of the 19th century ) described Queen Victoria’s Twelfth Night Cake at Windsor Castle in 1848 – “..a miracle of confectionary skill” – 3’ in diameter and 4’ tall – with lavish sugar decorations that included a working music box and mechanical fish and figures of “Chinese persons” that beat time to the music.