Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night (The King Drinks) by David Teniers, 1634-1640

Happy Twelfth Night! In Georgian and Regency times, Twelfth Night was a holiday celebrated with lots of merry-making, including feasts, wassail punch, carols, games, parties, and dances. What's more, the festivities were often laced with what we might consider some gender-bending fun.

Twelfth Night is connected to the Feast of the Epiphany in Western Christian liturgy, a religious holiday commemorating the visit of the Magi (also known as the Three Wise Men or Three Kings) to the Christ child. 

And if you’re familiar with the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” you may recall that in the song the nearly 2-week long daily gift frenzy that begins on Christmas Day ends with Twelfth Night.

"King cakes," a traditional treat. If you got the
paper crown you could be king of the party
A popular way to celebrate this final night of Christmastide was with a costume ball. Twelfth Night masquerades were often marked with cross-dressing and role reversals, with women and men, and servants and masters, switching roles for fun.

Often a lucky boy and girl would be chosen to preside as king and queen of the ball. In addition, sometimes a "Lord of Misrule" was chosen to reign over the Christmas revelry. 

In his book Voices from the World of Jane Austen, Malcolm Day describes Twelfth Night celebrations that were popular during Jane Austen's era: 

In the spirit of the Three Kings, a masquerade party was held with everyone wearing fancy dress and mask . . . It was a popular idea to dress as a member of the opposite sex, as in a pantomime.”

Shakespeare also used gender mix-ups as a theme in a Christmas season play he wrote in 1601 titled “Twelfth Night, or What You Will.

Orsino and Viola (dressed as a boy)

In this comedy twin siblings, Viola and Sebastian, are separated by a shipwreck. Viola, thinking her brother is dead, disguises herself as a boy named Cesario and enters the service of Duke Orsino, who is in love with Olivia, a wealthy countess. Orsino uses his new servant as an intermediary to woo his lady love. But Olivia falls in love with the disguised Viola, who in turn has fallen in love with Orsino, who thinks she’s a boy but is nonetheless attracted to her.

There are further complications and role reversals, but it all works out in the end. Sebastian shows up, Viola is outed as a woman, and eventually, when all the confusion has cleared, two happy unions result – Viola and Orsino, and Sebastian and Olivia. But some scholars continue to debate the meaning of the homosexual and transgender themes the story treats so lightly.

Shakespeare’s story has inspired many plays and films, including 2006’s She’s the Man with Channing Tatum and Amanda Bynes. Here’s a trailer:

For more about Twelfth Night, both Shakespeare’s play and the holiday, check out these titles:


  1. This sounds like a fun tradition! I love Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and She’s the Man but I didn’t know they were connected to a Christmas tradition. It was cool to learn more about it!

  2. Thanks! I'm glad you liked the post.

  3. The gender impersonations must have confused a lot of impressionable people. Your novel,
    "Lord Peter's Page," really plays out this theme in a very satisfying way. It's really rather funny when a man sees what purports to be a boy, but is really a girl, and cannot help his feelings of attraction. I think Nature has made it very easy for the opposite sexes to identify each other – even when pretense is used to fool the most discriminating eye.

  4. I agree! But gender impersonations - and the confusion that can result - have been the basis for many entertaining stories!


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