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by Jo A. Hiestand
I love customs. I love knowing how, when and why they started. I like the link going back all these centuries, making me part of the long line of revelers.
One tradition I like is Twelfth Night. January 5. Not to be confused with Epiphany, which is January 6. Twelfth Night marks the last of the twelve days of feasting and merry-making during the Christmas season.
Most of us know the song the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” This is what the song is marking down—the twelve days of the Christmas season, from Christmas Day, Day #1, to Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night, lying between the end of the old year and the new one, was a perfect time for fortune telling, to see what the new year would bring. If an apple peeling was thrown over an unmarried girl’s shoulder, the peeling would supposedly fall into the shape of the initial of the first name of her future husband.
Twelfth Night in England was also a time for wassail, the potent apple-based drink. Wassail comes from the old Saxon word Was Haile! To Your Health! Wassail is made with ale, roasted apples, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, cloves and ginger. It’s drunk hot. Wassail is also known by the name “Lambs Wool” because the apples, after sitting in the hot liquid for so long, tend to soften, lose shape, and appear as little balls of whitish lambs wool. Another version of the name suggests it comes from the Irish ‘la mas nbhal,’ meaning ‘the feast of the apple-gathering.’ La mas nbhal is pronounced ‘Lammas ool’ and evolved into ‘lamb’s wool.’ Each person would scoop an apple out of the wassail bowl and, on eating it, express his wish for future luck to all present.
Apples were important to a farmer’s economy. To ensure a good apple crop the following autumn, the custom of wassailing the apple trees developed. It occurs either on Twelfth Night or New Year’s Eve. A bowl of cider is carried to the apple orchard. Large portions of mulled cider are poured onto the roots of the largest tree there. Slices of toast that have been soaked in the wassail are placed on the tree branches, perhaps to tempt the birds into eating the bread and sparing the apple buds. People blow horns, bang on kettles and fire guns to frighten off malicious spirits.
Toast is very important in the wassailing of the trees and also in the wassail drink itself. Pieces of toast are floated in the wassail bowl as the drink is served; this is where our phrase “to present a toast” or “to toast someone” comes from.
During the Twelfth Night celebration, a traditional cake is eaten. In addition to the usual cake ingredients, the cake uses white rum, raisins, citron, candied orange peel, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemons and almonds. It is iced with a frosting of rum, sugar, butter, egg yolks, and almond extract. Prior to baking, a dried bean and a dried pea are inserted into the batter in the cake pan. When baked and presented at the table, the cake is cut and a slice handed to every guest.
The man getting the bean in his slice becomes Bean King; the woman receiving the dried pea in her slice becomes Queen. They are king and queen for the duration of the night’s festivities and preside over the revels that follow. The King and Queen direct people to go on ludicrous errands or perform funny things, usually outside each person’s character.
The Lord of Misrule presided over this festival, which symbolized the world turned upside down. On Twelfth Night the King and all nobility would take the part of peasants, while they, in turn, played at being the aristocracy. At midnight the merriment of the Bean King and Queen and the evening’s comical commands ended, and the topsy-turvy misrule would reverse to normality. The world was set right again, each person in his or her proper station in life.
It all seems like it was glorious fun. I, for one, offer a toast to it all.
DS Brenna Taylor and DCI Geoffrey Graham are summoned to investigate a drowning in a wintry pond during a family 12th Night party. The case quickly turns personal for the CID team, for one of their own detectives becomes prime suspect, and Brenna finds herself caught between the police investigation and her belief in DS Mark Salt’s innocence. Yet even her faith is strained when Mark’s parody of “The 12 Days of Christmas” hints that he was having an affair with his murdered sister-in-law, Mercedes. It’s easy to believe Mark’s guilt: he attracts women like Christmas presents entice kids. As the investigation progresses, other ‘attractions’ in his past are revealed, and Mark’s guilt intensifies with each one. Had he accidentally killed Mercedes to stop her from leaving the family business–or was the motive personal, perhaps involving the woman with whom he had a brief, passionate affair, the fiancée of Mercedes’ brother? Now that Brenna finally views Mark as a human being, will she lose him if he’s charged with murder?
About the Author: A month-long trip to England during her college years introduced Jo to the joys of Things British. Since then, she has been lured back nearly a dozen times, and lived there during her professional folk singing stint. This intimate knowledge of Britain forms the backbone of both the Taylor & Graham mysteries and the McLaren cold case mystery series.
Jo’s insistence for accuracy, from police methods and location layout to the general feel of the area, has driven her innumerable times to Derbyshire for research. These explorations and conferences with police friends provide the detail filling the books.
In 1999 Jo returned to Webster University to major in English. She graduated in 2001 with a BA degree and departmental honors.
Her cat Tennyson shares her St. Louis home.
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