If you’re familiar with the classic Christmas carol “The 12 Days of Christmas,” you likely see it as either a really fun countdown song (see: John Denver & The Muppets’ rendition) or a cute carol featuring a lot of birds that goes on a bit too long.
What you might not know is that “The 12 Days of Christmas” isn’t actually a countdown song leading up to Christmas, but instead is a song celebrating a period of time after Christmas. The 12 days of Christmas, which begins on Christmas Day, is a seasonal celebration leading up to the Epiphany, or the day on which – according to the New Testament – the three Magi (or Wise Men) visited the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem and recognized him as the son of God.
During the Middle Ages, the Advent season leading up to Christmas consisted of fasting, restraint, and quiet anticipation. Christmas Day, then, kicked off a 12-day season of parties, feasts, balls, and other celebrations that continued until the Epiphany (or Three Kings Day) on January 6th.
The night before Epiphany is called Twelfth Night, and it’s generally known in much of Europe as a night of preparation for the end of Christmastide celebrations. In many countries, so-called “king cakes” – dense, rich fruitcakes – are baked on Twelfth Night. In early 19th century England, a bean or a pea was baked into Twelfth Night cakes. When the cake was eaten the next day, whoever discovered the bean was named king or queen for the day.
Twelfth Night is also the night when families finish removing Christmas trees, ornaments, and decorations in their homes. It’s a night of putting away the holidays, which is always a little wistful. But it’s also a joyous, celebratory night that includes the singing of carols, magnificent feasting, and the performance of plays. William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, first performed in 1601, plays into the holiday’s historical association with lighthearted confusion and practical jokes.
In historic England, Twelfth Night and Epiphany feasts leaned heavily into foods and drinks that tasted of ginger, cinnamon, and other rich spices associated with the holiday. And one drink in particular was the star: Wassail. Derived from an Old Norse word, wassail (pronounced WAH-sel) is a drink made with mulled cider, apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and other spices. It’s a warm, delicious drink that exudes all the fragrant sweetness of the holidays. Wassail was mixed in large communal bowl and served during Epiphany feasts, and it was taken from home to home as neighbors wished each other good cheer. This is where the Christmas carol “The Wassail Song” (“Here we come a-wassailing”) comes from!
The holidays are winding down now and many of us have already started to put away our decorations, but there’s still a lot of joy to be shared and experienced. On this Twelfth Night (Epiphany Eve), we’d like to wish you good fortune in the coming year. We’d also like to offer you a wassail recipe that you can enjoy and share with your family tonight or tomorrow. Here in Kansas City, some of us will be mixing up a batch and toasting to good health and happiness in the New Year. Wherever you are tonight, we hope you’ll raise a warm cup of something special and do the same. Cheers, and happy Twelfth Night!
- 3-6 Small Apples
- 2-3 tbs Brown Sugar
- 1½ qts Sweet Apple Cider
- 1 Orange, peeled and juiced
- Cinnamon Sticks
- Fresh Grated Nutmeg (for topping)
- Preheat oven to 375F. Core the apples and stuff with brown sugar. Place on a baking sheet with a little water to help steam them. Roast approximately 45 minutes or until tender.
- While the apples are roasting, add cider, orange juice, orange peel and 2 cinnamon sticks to a pot and heat over low to medium low heat. (For more adventurous flavor or boozy undertones, you could also add cloves, allspice, bitters, and rum.) Once the drink is warm and fragrant, remove the cinnamon sticks and orange peel and skim spices.
- Once the apples are done roasting, carefully peel them and mash them up. Add mashed apples to cider and blend with an immersion blender until smooth. The apples will add some body to the drink and give it extra apple flavor. Alternately, you could carefully add the whole roasted apples to the drink or even slice them in wedges or rings and let them float.
- Pour into mugs, place a cinnamon stick in each mug, sprinkle fresh grated nutmeg on top, and serve.