|Twelfth Night (The King Drinks) David Teniers, ca 1634|
Today is the twelfth and final day of Christmas. This day is important among Christians who maintain liturgical traditions: it marks the end of the twelve day festival celebrating the birth of Christ, it is the eve of Epiphany, and it is the beginning of the carnival season ending with Mardi Gras and the beginning of Lent. Those who are reluctant to bid Christmas farewell can take heart knowing that the tradition of Christmastide extends through February 2 or Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.
For some the Twelve Days of Christmas will end with elaborate costumes, masks, feasting, music, dancing, and theater at Twelfth Night festivities where misrule is the only rule. They are indeed topsy-turvy events. Only the Surveyor of Ceremonies will appear without a mask. He will direct the company through a series of games and other activities beginning with the distribution of the Twelfth Cakes. When all the party goers have arrived, each will select a small festival cake or cake slice. Three of those cakes contain a hidden bean or token designating them as the king cake, queen cake and fool cake. The lucky holders of the royal cakes oversee the evening's activities before returning to their normal lives, most likely "below the salt."
These Twelfth Night traditions have been part of western culture for over a thousand years. Some traditions carry over the night into Epiphany, January 6. This is the case in New Orleans where Twelfth Night parties have been popular for centuries due in part to their role as opening events of the Carnival season.