Epiphany (from the Greek word for ‘manifestation’) is the Christian festival that commemorates the revealing of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world, as personified by those “wise men from the east” who came “to worship him” (Matthew 2:1-12).
In Britain it has another, more prosaic name, Twelfth Day, because it falls on 6 January, twelve days after Christmas. Over time, the plain gospel account of this momentous encounter became richly embroidered with learned commentary and loving speculation. The “wise men” stepped from the shadows and were deemed to be three in number, each one a mighty king who knelt in turn to pay homage and present his gift to the greatest king of all. The festival formed the end and climax of the Christmas season, marked by a joyful and elaborate church service and much cheerful celebration, with parties and presents, fine feasting, and a favorite game. In this game, played in many parts of medieval Europe, a mock-king was selected to reign over the party, be toasted by loyal subjects, and, sometimes, enjoy the doubtful privilege of paying for the wine downed in his honor. He was chosen not on merit but by the chance that was hinted at in his official title, “King of the Bean.” A bean had been hidden in a cake, and the lucky man who found it became king of the company. The woman who pulled out the corresponding pea was hailed as his queen.
This traditional game remained popular, but in Britain a variation was developed during the late seventeenth century. Guests still enjoyed their cake, which was dark, dense, packed with dried fruit, and often crowned with almond paste and white icing. However, instead of choosing their king and queen by bean and pea, they drew paper lots. The new custom became a craze, and was elaborated until every slip or card bore the name of some character. Each person present thus had a part to play, and the monarchs mingled with such farcical figures as Sir Tunbelly Clumsy and Miss Flirt, Captain Tearaway, and Lady Racket. The character cards might be homemade or bought at any bakery or toy shop during the Christmas season.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Twelfth Night cake and characters were enormously enjoyed, so much so that the custom found its way to those parts of America, such as Virginia, that were strongly influenced by British taste.
But the fashion that flared so brightly for a while had burned itself out by the end of the nineteenth century. Twelfth Day became just an ordinary date in the British calendar, and its cake was absorbed into the Christmas Day festivities. In France, however, and, incidentally, in Louisiana, where French traditions are strong, the Bean King still reigns. Bakery windows display tempting versions of the “Galette des Rois,” made of sweet brioche or puff pastry, and in each a bean or, alternatively, a tiny porcelain baby Jesus, is concealed, a guarantee of instant pleasure for children.
And of course, there’s Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a comedy, believed to have been written around 1600-01 as a Twelfth Night’s entertainment for the close of the Christmas season. The play expanded on the musical interludes and riotous disorder expected of such an occasion, with plot elements drawn from the short story “Of Apollonius and Silla” by Barnabe Rich based on a story by Matteo Bandello. The first recorded performance was on 2 February 1602, at Candlemas, the formal end of Christmastide in the year’s calendar. The play was not published until its inclusion in the 1623 First Folio.