In addition to being the title of one of Shakespeare's comedies, Twelfth Night is the name of a holiday celebrated on January 6. The day coincides with the feast of the Epiphany, which in some Christian traditions marks the day when the magi arrived in Bethlehem to greet the infant Jesus.
In Shakespeare's day, Twelfth Night was the last night of the holiday season and was celebrated with parties, feasting, and singing. Revelers took part in games organized by "the lord of misrule" and role-swapping and disguise were important parts of the tradition. Wassail, a hot punch with spices and fruits, was served and special cakes containing a bean or pea were eaten. The lucky person who found the bean would be the king of the feast, and the person who found the pea would be queen. In the U.S., king cakes in New Orleans and other cities are a modern spin on this tradition.
In Twelfth Night, disguises and revelery play important roles in the plot, from Viola's cross-dressing to the irreverent foolery of Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek.
A Recipe for Wassail
10 small apples
10 teaspoons brown sugar
1 gallon apple cider
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3 allspice berries
1 inch stick cinnamon
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
6 eggs, separated
Core the apples and fill each with a teaspoon of brown sugar. Place in a baking pan and cover the bottom with 1/8-inch of water.
Bake in a 350°F oven for 30 minutes or until tender. Combine the apple cider, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon, sugar and water in a large, heavy saucepan and heat without letting the mixture come to a boil. Leave on very low heat. Beat the egg yolks until light and lemon-colored. Beat the whites until stiff and fold them into the yolks. Strain the mixture and add gradually to the eggs, stirring constantly. Pour into a metal punch bowl, float the apples on top and serve in 8-ounce mugs.
Recipe adapted from epicurious.com