Twelfth Night Traditions

What is the meaning of 12th Night as an event in the calendar around Christmas? How does a knowledge of this event help the reader/listener gain some understanding of what the play might be about as a whole?

Twelfth Night, also known as Epiphany Eve, is the last night of the Christmas season.  It is usually held on 5 January, with the 6th then observed as Epiphany, which commemorates the Wise Men’s discovery of the baby Jesus.

‘Epiphany is a Christian festival commemorating the adoration of the infant, Jesus, by the Three Wise Men who followed the guiding star from the East to Bethlehem. Shepherds had already seen the infant, as it is written in book of Matthew in the Bible, but “The Gifts of the Magi” represents the manifestation of Christ’s birth to the Gentiles and to the entire world’ {Folsom 2000}.

Today, only the more religious among us would celebrate Epiphany, or Twelfth Night.  The rest are too partied out from Christmas Day itself, then New Year’s Eve.  It is as if the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas have become one Big Day, after that people become more interested in cricket, sails and sales.

However there is still more to it than the song 12 Days of Christmas, a memory game that becomes trickier the more Christmas cheer people imbibe.  Like the tradition of leaving your Christmas decoration up until 12th Night, it is considered unlucky to leave them until Epiphany {Barrow 2013}.  One British tradition that the Yule log should be kept burning for all of the twelve days {Barrow 2013}, has understandably not been continued in the Sunburnt Country.

In Shakespeare’s day, Twelfth Night was still considered to be a serious festival.  In medieval and Tudor times, it was considered more important than Christmas Day (Derry 2016).

One tradition was to circulate a cake with a gold or silver bean baked inside.  The man who found this in his slice was christened King of the Bean, and he was in charge during the festivities {Free Dictionary}.  He was also sometimes known as the Lord of Misrule.  ‘This notion — that a commoner could rule, however briefly — was part of the Twelfth Night tradition of turning things upside-down’ (Branley 2016).

Another tradition is wassailing, where people wish each other good health and sing songs together (Derry 2016). Another tradition, going back to the 15th Century was for all to drink punch from a communal bowl, with the greeting Wassail!  This means “be well” (Barrow 2013), but has become just another word for drunkeness.

Perhaps the most significant tradition of Twelfth Night was the mummers’ plays.  These go back at least 1000 years, one of the oldest features of the traditional English Christmas {Barrow 2013}.  These involved heavily disguised and masked characters performing various plays, usually the hero was St George {Barrow 2013}.

Masques were introduced to the celebrations under King Henry VIII, imported from the Italian tradition {Free Dictionary}, involving a more high class version of the acting and entertainment.

Shakespeare may have intended to write the play to be performed on Twelfth Night, for these entertainments.  The first time the play is known to have been performed was on Candlemas, 2 February 1602 (Smith 2001 2).

Samuel  Pepys would cynically write that it was ‘a silly play, and not related at all to the name or day’ (quoted in Shakespeare 2010 376).

However, now that we know a little of the Twelfth Night traditions, we can see just how untrue that is, it is a lot easier to understand what the play is about.  This play is a traditional masque where things are not as they seem: the girl dressed as a boy, the steward Malvolio who dreams of his “better” {in those days the practical jokes would be seen as a fitting payback for this}, the twin brother who is mistaken for her and proves to both a better lover and a fighter, the grieving Countess Olivia, who ends up after years of courtship, with the shipwreck survivor, and finally Duke Orsino, whose romance with his “pageboy” means he remains straight as an arrow:

‘Give me thy hand,
And let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds’ {Shakespeare 2010}.

The message is that things are not as they seem.  We may imagine they will all soon, probably in the morning, or at the end of the play, receive an epiphany – and not in the religious sense of the word.  All will be revealed in the end.

To make this play relevant on the other 364 days of the year, when it may be performed, and to confirm this idea that there is a masquerade on, Shakespeare gave his play the subtitle: What You Will.  This confirms what the play is about as a whole, to those not familiar with the traditions of Twelfth Night.


“Twelfth Night” (2003-2017) Encyclopedia 2.  The Free Dictionary.  Retrieved from:

Barrow, Mandy (2013) Twelfth Night Traditions.  Christmas in Britain.  Retrieved from:

Branley, Edward (2016) NOLA History: Reveling on Twelfth Night.  GoNOLA, New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation.  Retrieved from:

Derry, Johanna (2016) Let’s bring back the glorious food traditions of Twelfth Night (largely, lots of cake).  Telegraph Media Group Limited.  Retrieved from:

Folson, Hervey (2000) Twelfth Night Tradition.  Mississippi Magazine.  Retrieved from:|A67501712&v=2.1&u=acuni&it=r&p=ITOF&sw=w&authCount=1

MacClain, Alexia (2013) TWELFTH NIGHT TRADITIONS: A CAKE, A BEAN, AND A KING.  Smithsonian Libraries.  Retrieved from:

Shakespeare, William (2010) The Complete Works. HarperCollins Publishers: London.

Smith, Bruce R. (2001). Twelfth Night: Texts and Contexts. Bedford/St Martin’s: Boston.


3 thoughts on “Twelfth Night Traditions

  1. Hey Linda, Thanks for sharing the insight behind the twelfth night. I am guessing the epiphany is why the orthodox churches celebrate Christmas on 5th/6th January. I think that in the Shakespeare play there are those who would never want the celebrating to end. I wonder what Epiphany came to the people in the twelfth night. I wonder if the discovery of whom one loves and who loves one which could be an epiphany to some involved. I will reread the play in that light.

    1. Epiphany commemorates the day the 3 Wise Men discovered the baby Jesus. However, when you are talking about a festival featuring masked performances, there is certain to be a non-religious epiphany later on, as Shakespeare well knew.

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