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( Originally Published 1909 )
As Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, is a day dedicated to the three Wise Men of the New Testament-the three kings of popular legend-it is only natural that one or more kings should be everywhere prominent in the celebration of the holiday.
The full trio are present in many places. Thus in Milan, Italy, three young men dress themselves up in royal robes on Epiphany morning and mounting horses as splendidly attired as themselves appear before the city gates. They are admitted with loud cheers, and a procession is formed. Before the kings marches a man bearing a large gilt star; behind them the citizens fall into line. At every street corner new batches of citizens join the parade. They file through the streets to the cathedral. At its steps the kings dismount, and, with their followers, march up the aisle to the high altar where a figure of the infant Christ lies in a manger. Every one who wishes may leave a present in the manger. Then the procession disbands.
In Madrid a bit of practical joking is still indulged in on Epiphany eve. The peasants from miles around flock into the city at that time. Many of them are very ignorant and very superstitious. The town folk think it funny to gather together in small crowds all playing on noisy horns and thumping discordant drums. The mobs parade up and down the streets. Their great delight is to fall in with some simpleton who is new to city ways. Such a man is easily made to believe that they are on their way to meet the three kings, who are expected to arrive at one of the gates some time that night.
The mob urge the countryman to join them. If he consents they throw over his neck a mule collar with a string of bells attached to it. Then a step ladder is thrust into his hands. To the jingling of his own bells the poor yokel is made to carry the ladder through the streets. At every one of the gates of the city the mob halt and command their victim to climb up the ladder and peer over the walls to see if the kings are anywhere in sight.
Sometimes when he reaches the top the poor wretch is allowed to fall, at the risk of a cracked head or a broken limb. If he escapes all dangers, he is led on from gate to gate until his patience or his faith is exhausted.
In England, as well as in France, a single king survives in the ceremony of the Twelfth Cake. France, which was probably the inventor of this eatable, known there as the King's Cake, cherishes the custom with especial gusto. So let us begin with the Galette du Roi.
The size of the cake is determined by the number of the guests for whom it is to be served. It is usually made of pastry and is baked in a round sheet like a pie. A broad bean was formerly baked into the cake, but in our day a wee little china image is usually substituted for the bean. When ready the cake is cut into slices and the youngest child at the table directs how these slices shall be distributed to the others. There is great excitement as slice after slice is handed out and eaten.
At last some one's teeth come in contact with the image and he spits it out. "He," I say, on the sup position that it is a boy. If it is, indeed, a boy, he is called King of the Bean (le Roi Favette), and chooses a queen from among the girls. If it be a girl she becomes queen and chooses a boy as her consort.
King and queen are now closely watched by their companions. When either of them drinks the whole party has to cry out "The king drinks" or "the queen drinks," as the case may be. Any one who fails to join in the cry has to pay a forfeit.
In England the custom varies in different localities as it has varied at different dates.
What it was in London during the middle of the nineteenth century is best described by Hone in his "Table Book:"
"First buy your cake," says this author. "Next, look at your invitation list, and count the number of ladies you expect, and afterwards the number of gentlemen.
"Then you write down on slips of paper the names of as many famous characters in history, male and female, as will cover the list of guests. Add to each slip some pleasant bit of verse.
"Fold them up exactly of the same size, and number each on the back; taking care to make the king No. 1 and the queen No. 2. Cause tea and coffee to be handed to your visitors as they drop in. When all are assembled and tea is over, put as many ladies' characters in a reticule as there are ladies present; next put the gentlemen's characters in a hat. Then call on a gentleman to carry the reticule to the ladies as they sit; from which each lady is to draw one ticket and to preserve it unopened. Select a lady to bear the hat to the gentlemen, for the same purpose. There will be one ticket left in the reticule, and another in the hat,which the lady and gentleman who carried each is to interchange, as having fallen to each. Next arrange your visitors, according to their numbers; the king No. 1, the queen No. 2 and so on. The king is then to recite the verse on his ticket; then the queen a verse on hers; and so the characters are to proceed in numerical order.
"This done, let the cake and refreshments go round; and hey! for merriment!"
In earlier days, however, we know that the cake played a more important part in the festivities than Hone allows to it. In fact the English here closely followed the French fashion which I have already described, although in England the King's bean was supplemented by a pea for the Queen. This much we may learn from a poem by Robert Herrick, who lived in the seventeenth century:
Now, now, the mirth comes
Begin then to choose