Custom contrived: Twelfth Night celebrations at Geffrye Museum

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London always has the ability to surprise you and the Geffrye Museum on any day is a surprising find in this the most urban parts of the city. A green oasis in the centre of Hoxton. A museum celebrating the interior. Interesting it must have realised how the demographic would have changed over those years – now with its trendy middle class hipsters abounding – its ‘bang of trend’ as they would say. Similarly it spearheaded another growing trend – celebrating Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night was once a big religious event which begun to lose its popularity after the Reformation slipping into a secular celebration. Celebration of it too largely died out in the 19th century as the joint disappearance of the large estate and the move away from agricultural communities to urban ones desired the need for workers to return earlier and much more sober!  The Geffrye museum’s Farewell to Christmas, as they call their Twelfth Night celebrations have been running for 25 years now.

Cake night!

I arrived as the light was failing and a persistent rain was building up. However, the rather inclement weather had not put off the crowds, who snaked around the edge of the grounds of the museum in an orderly queue. What were they lining up for? Free cake and mulled wine.

The cake was a delicious fruit cake. The uninitiated may have called it Christmas Cake but no, this rich fruit laden confectionary was Twelfth Night cake and as such reviving a tradition which would have been common across the country on this night. In the medieval and Tudor periods the cake was a yeast based one, latterly becoming egg based plum cake which was decorated by almond and sugar pastes. This has many surviving relatives across Europe but died out in the UK or rather was replaced by the Christmas cake and Plum pudding!

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Fire up the party

In the centre of the museum courtyard was a large square box. Warm red and yellow flames lapped around it and the crowd instinctively gathered around it as they consumed their cake and wine. I was amused by a sign on the way in which read:

“Due to health and safety reasons, we regret that we are unable to burn visitors’ Christmas trees and greenery.”

The thought of a large throng of well meaning public dragging their Christmas trees to throw into the pyre amused me…shame sounded like a good idea. However, into this crucible were thrown holy, yew and rosemary – the flames lapped large and a strong smell hit the nostrils – I did notice a few people throw their own things in – despite the notice to some stern telling off from the ground staff!

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After a small period of time the focus changed as the brass band struck up and an actor appeared dressed as the museum’s founder Sir Robert Geffrye who informed us about the history of Twelfth Night and behind the carols sung – proving once and for all if you get a large number of the public together – even then no-one knows the order and numbers of the 12 days of Christmas! The crowd were better with the first Nowell though!

Then a revelation was made that some where in the cake was hidden a bean and a pea. This is explained in the 1923 Dennison’s Christmas Book who states that:

“There should be a King and a Queen, chosen by cutting a cake with a paper crown, a sceptre and if possible full regalia.”

The bean and pea were replaced by silver charms and it is clear that the silver sixpence of the Christmas plum pudding arose from this. Whosoever had the bean or pea became the rulers, the bean the King and the pea the Queen and in the big households of old this was a great opportunity of table turning and considerable hilarity! The custom has also be revived at the Bankside Wassail

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‘Sir Robert Geffrye’ introduced the notion that a chocolate buttons had been hidden in the cake. A hush went around the audience as we awaited two people who would reveal themselves as their finders…but nothing….had someone eaten by mistake? Had they melted? Finally a young girl did reveal herself reluctantly but as the crown was placed upon her head it was clear she wasn’t interested in being a Lady of misrule…and was let back into the audience slightly perplexed by the whole adventure!

The evening ended with some more rousing carols and the crowd once again circled around the flames lapping into the air. It is clear that this is becoming a popular and important event for the Hoxton community and it is great to see that people can return back to celebrating Twelfth Night perhaps it might spearhead a countrywide revival and we’ll all be celebrating twelfth night not begrudgingly removing the decorations and clambering up into the attic! Leave it until the 2nd of February

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