In looking for images to illustrate our last blog, “Christmas and New York,” we kept running across images of Twelfth Night by Dutch master Jan Steen. As we explained in “Christmas and New York,” prior to the 19th century Christmas itself was not a major social celebration. But in many ways, Twelfth Night was.
Twelfth Night takes place on January 6th (or the evening of January 5th, depending on who you ask), twelve days after Christmas Day (December 25th). Also known as Epiphany, or Three Kings' Day, it celebrates the arrival of the three Magi, or Wise Men, who follow the star of Bethlehem to bring gifts to the newborn Jesus. In Western Europe, the celebration was the culmination of the Christmas season. It combined Christian and pagan elements, with feasting, revelry, and sometimes an inversion of the social order accompanying family gatherings and a focus on charity.
Twelfth Night in the 17th century Netherlands was “the most important family gathering of the year.”1 Since the medieval period, celebrations around the arrival of the Magi had involved star processionals, public plays, and household revelry in addition to church-based festivities. Despite its essentially religious nature, Twelfth Night included raucous partying and sometimes violence – to the point that the Utrecht city council banned Magi plays in 1407.2 After the Protestant Reformation, officials of the Dutch Reformed Church – the state-sponsored church of the Netherlands – cracked down on secular public revelries in the 1580s – to little avail.3 Plays shifted indoors to individual households. Star processions, which had previously been church-sponsored events starring the Magi and focused on raising funds for charity, changed to a way for the secular poor to receive donations of food or money as they went door-to-door with star lanterns.4
At the center of Netherlandish Twelfth Night celebrations was a king. This was not uncommon. Electing mock kings was central to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, where the social order was inverted and even a slave could be “king for a day.” Sometimes also called “bean kings,” royalty was bestowed either by election, or by chance – via the discovery of a bean in a slice of what became known in many cultures as “king cake.”5 The “Lord of Misrule,” debuted by Shakespeare in 1602 in his play “Twelfth Night,” became common in the British Isles. And in slave societies in the Caribbean and the American colonies, enslaved “kings” became a common part of holiday celebrations, although more closely associated with Pinkster than Twelfth Night.
In the Netherlands (and France), the king had a more Christian tone: he was bad old King Herod, the jealous ruler who, failing to tempt the Magi into revealing the location of the baby Jesus – his rival in kingship – ordered the Slaughter of the Innocents, killing all of the male children in Bethlehem under 2 years of age. Centuries later, European scholars inflated the number of children killed to as high as 144,000, but in reality, the population of Bethlehem at the time meant that, even if Herod’s proclamation was a true historical event, approximately 6-26 children would have been killed.
In the Magi plays, Herod gives the three Wise Men an audience, drinking copiously throughout the play. He became a comic villain, a drunken tyrant who railed ineffectually at the Magi and failed to prevent Jesus from becoming the King of Kings. In the Medieval period, he was often marked by the wearing of a paper crown. These were sold commercially, but often only as printed paper that had to be cut out. Some, either too lazy to do the work or lacking scissors or a sharp knife, simply tucked the uncut paper into their hats.6
Other participants took on other roles. "King’s letters" allocated various roles by drawing lots, either handwritten or commercially printed.7 Twelfth Night Queens could be chosen by beancake – although their lot was to find a pea, instead of a bean. Jesters, confessors, musicians, and cooks were all common roles assigned by chance, often inverting the normal order of things. Music was provided by fiddles, bagpipes, a droning instrument called a rommelpot, and more improvised instruments like a fireplace gridiron played with a spoon.
While the King wore a paper (or occasionally metal) crown, other figures also had costumes. The Magi themselves sometime wore paper crowns or robes. Jesters often wore multi-pointed caps, or in poorer households, simply silly objects on their heads. Some figures, perhaps jesters, wore necklaces of eggs, sausages, or small fish. Others simply pinned their “king’s letters” to their hats or fronts.
In addition to copious amounts of alcohol, Twelfth Night in the Netherlands was accompanied by special foods, especially waffles and pancakes, which were considered insubstantial “lazy” food highlighting the work-free nature of the holiday.8 The beancake, which contains the bean that conveys kingship upon the lucky eater, was also prominent, as were other treats including roast meat, especially ham, cheese, rice pudding, fruits, and buns and pastries.9
The golden age of Dutch art lasted for most of the 17th century. Some of the most famous Dutch artists come from this time period, including Vermeer and Rembrandt. Genre art, or paintings of everyday life, became popular during this period. Twelfth Night was a common theme for genre painters, and perhaps no painter depicted the subject more frequently than Jan Steen.
Like Rembrandt, Steen was a student at the Latin School in Leiden. He went on to found the artists’ Guild of Saint Luke, with contemporary Gabriël Metsu. Between 1660 and 1671, he painted at least nine different Twelfth Night scenes.
However, Steen cannot claim the earliest depictions of Twelfth Night in Dutch art – those date back to the 16th century, notably with Maarten van Cleve, Pieter Aertsen, and Pieter Bruehgel the Younger.
Many of these paintings carry at least some of the hallmarks of Twelfth Night – the paper-crowned King, a Jester or Fool, musicians, and foods like pancakes or waffles. But there are a few other common allegories you’ll see depicted. One is the triple candle, either as a single candle with three arms, or as three separate candles. This was to represent the three Magi, although Steen also liked to depict a game by which children would jump over the lit candles without getting scorched. Another common theme, especially with Steen, is broken egg shells and empty mussel shells. In Dutch genre painting, broken eggs were an allegory for lost innocence or impotence, empty eggshells were an allegory for vanity, folly, and sin, and both eggs and mussels were a symbol of sex.10 Sex and debauchery were another common theme – illustrated by codpieces, suggestive sausages and/or candles, necklaces of eggs (suggesting male prowess), and women with partially undone bodices.11 Just as often, women nursing young children appeared – likely references to Mary and the baby Jesus, but also highlighting the informality of the event.
Let’s take a look at some of these images and examine the themes they depict. We’ll go in chronological order.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger's piece "The Adoration of the Magi," serves as a good representation of the transition between public and private celebrations that took place in the 17th century. Here, in the midst of a busy town, three Wise Men, including Caspar, depicted as a man of African descent, visit Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus (far lower left), their processional with laden horses stretching out behind them. Citizens all around are busy around are busy going about their daily tasks, collecting firewood, getting water from a hole in the ice on the canal, and hauling goods. A church or castle wall is shored up at right - it is unclear if it is under construction, or a victim of the wars of Reformation in the late 16th century. Soldiers with pikes are numerous.
As the 17th century wore on, depictions of Twelfth Night shifted indoors, alongside their real, historical counterparts. Genre painters captured these everyday events, but included hidden meanings and allegories.
"Peasants at the Hearth" by Pieter Aertsen seems at first glance to be innocent, but suggestive symbolism abounds. Here we have the typical trappings of Twelfth Night celebrations. Waffles, pastries, buns, and cheese adorn the table. A boy kneels by the hearth wearing the paper crown of the king of Twelfth Night, dipping something into a hot cauldron. A woman with a wooden spoon leans forward toward the hearth, perhaps to stir what's in the pot. But one man has his hand on her hip, and her hand is curled suggestively around the dagger of another man who is looking down an empty cup. In the background, two couples enter the room through an arched passageway. One man is cuddled up against one woman, the other has her arm linked with the other man, whose hand is near his crotch. Empty mussel shells, the symbol of female genitalia, are strewn on the floor, along with suggestive sausages. Behind the fireplace hangs a bird in a cage. In Dutch genre paintings, parrots symbolized drunkenness, bird cages were allegories for sex, and an empty birdcage meant lost virginity.12 For Aertsen, Twelfth Night clearly meant debauchery, at least among the peasant class.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger has a more lighthearted, but still suggestive take. In "The King Drinks," we see the Twelfth Night King center right, in a bright red tunic, his uncut paper crown tucked into his hat, drinking deeply while the pourer shouts. A bagpiper in the background provides music for the dancing couple at left - the man dressed as a Fool with bowl hat and broom scepter. He wears a necklace of eggs and one sausage, suggesting sexual prowess. The men all wear prominent codpieces as well. But there are also children present - the baby at the table (who appears to also be wearing a king's crown) grasps a large gingerbread. Next to him, women sing and eat pancakes. In the background, a man in a Jester's hat waves a pancake in the air. Next to him, a man dangles an uncut sheet of king's letters. A child in the foreground tips a bowl, to the interest of a passing cat. Children in the background reach toward the hearth, where a woman makes pancakes. A man at right removes his wooden clog to warm his toes by the fire.
David Teniers the Younger also depicts the peasantry in "Peasants Celebrating Twelfth Night." A man dressed in a jester's hat (complete with bells) sings or recites while a young man in blue wearing a paper crown drinks deeply. There are king's letters on the floor and one man has tucked his into his hat. In the background a woman makes pancakes on a darkened hearth while children wait eagerly for a taste. A dog and a cat grace the foreground, as do a few mussel shells. Perched high above the jester is a small, disgruntled-looking owl. In 17th century Dutch society, owls were associated with foolishness, lewd behavior, and drunkenness.13
Gabriël Metsu's 1654 version of Twelfth Night is more tightly composed. At the far left, we catch a glimpse of an elderly woman making pancakes. An older man, perhaps her husband, wears the paper crown of the king of Twelfth Night and drinks deeply from a very long glass while a child looks, open-mouthed, hat held in outstretched hand. A man in a jester's hat holds, but does not play, a fiddle, perhaps singing. Two women - one looking on fondly, the other more bored, are flanked by a baby in a high-chair, a torn pancake in hand. In the background, a woman holds a three-pronged lit candle, flanked by children, and a shadowy figure listens in on the staircase at right.
David Teniers the Younger also depicts the more humble classes with "Twelfth Night," also known as "The King Drinks." Here we have a much larger party of mostly adults. A jester in a special hat, complete with bells, dances and sings, a pancake in one hand, a drink in the other. The blue-coated man with his paper crown is the king, and he drinks from a large glass. Couples old and young gather around a table laden with meats to sing. In the background, a woman makes pancakes at the hearth for a child, two men behind her. And at the far right, a man appears to urinate against the wall - indoors! Two men peek in a high window from the street above.
Steen's first Twelfth Night painting was likely, "A Twelfth Night Feast: The King Drinks," featuring a middle-class family. At the center of the painting a woman in red nurses a baby. To the right, the king, wearing a fur hat instead of a paper crown, is egged on by two older women, one of them dressed as a fool. Two women appear to have small kings letters pinned to their bodices, and the other two men appear to have them tucked into their hats. The table is laden with waffles, cheese, bread, and pastries. A small girl prepares to jump over the three kings candles while an older boy, holding an early golf club, watches. A dog licks at an unattended cooking pan, and in the background children hurrah or sing from the open doorway and window. This family affair is relatively sedate, but still Steen includes the empty, broken eggshells that represent folly, vanity, and sin that often show up in his Twelfth Night paintings.
In 1662, Steen takes a darker approach to Twelfth Night. In "Twelfth Night Feast," the paper-crowned king is in drunken disarray - his ruffled shirt and pants open, his stocking falling with one leg propped over a barrel of alcohol, eagerly egged on by the others as he drains a large glass. He and the woman holding a pewter flagon appear to be wealthy, judging by the sheen on their satin or velvet clothing. A lone waffle graces the table. Musicians dressed as fools, including one playing the gridiron and spoon, a basket propped on his head, appear to be singing. A shadowy figure in the background holds up a plate of what is likely bread, but which gives the appearance of a skull. The sun sets through the open door and at the far left a shadowy figure broods and smokes, refusing to join in the festivities. This version of Twelfth Night illustrates the destructive tendencies of the holiday.
That same year, Steen also painted "Twelfth-Night Feast," a darker take of a different sort. Here, a large middle-class family is gathered around a table, cleverly illuminated by a single candle which is blocked by the body of the man with his back to the audience - all their white linens glowing. In this scene, the paper-crowned king is the baby of the family, whose mother is helping him to drink. Family members enjoy waffles, and several people have king's letters tucked into hats or pinned to bodices. A fiddler plays while the Jester dangles suggestive pair of eggs and a sausage from a pole at one of the men. In the background, a woman opens the front door to star singers. In the foreground, a dog hopes for a snack while a pair of children play at jumping the three candles representing the Magi. At the far right, a man sits by the fire and appears to be writing, or perhaps those are king's letters in his lap. Steen's signature broken egg shells are strewn across the floor, both depicting the making of waffles and denoting vanity and sin, even at this family affair.
In "Epiphany Feast," or "Fête des rois," Jan Steen portrays an upper-class wealthy family. Instead of a dirt or wooden floor, they have tile. Blue delft dishes take a place of pride over the fireplace, which sports carved marble figures, and they have a whole wall of pewter plates. The guests appear to be dressed in silk and velvet. Although more sedate than other celebrations, we still have a king in his paper crown drinking, and musicians playing the bagpipes, gridiron and spoon, and singing. The jester wears a basket on his head, and the women have pinned their king's letters onto their bodices, while the men have tucked them into their hats. A child approaches the table with a waffle, and a woman fills a pitcher from a tapped barrel at left. At right, in the background, a young couple kiss in the open doorway. Hung high in the window is a bird cage, likely containing a parrot, evokes drunkenness and sex, at this more sedate event.
In "The Bean Feast" by Jan Steen, an upper-class family celebrates in an ornately decorated room. The floor is tiled, the table decked with a Persian rug protected by linen. The painting on the wall is ornately gilded, and the fireplace highly decorated. The central figure is a drunken woman, her bodice completely open, revealing her shift and stays, with one foot propped up on a footwarmer and a flagon dangling from one hand, a precariously gripped wine glass tilting dangerously in the other. She gazes at the Twelfth Night king, a young boy without pants, being helped in his drinking by his nurse. Above her hangs an empty birdcage, symbolizing her lost virginity. A three-pronged Magi candle on the bench at his feet has gone out. Three musicians flank each side of the table - a Jester playing the gridiron and spoon, a fiddler, and a man in the foreground playing a rommelpot.14 Broken egg shells are strewn at the floor by his feet, symbolizing folly, sin, and lost innocence.
In this more homelike scene, Steen portrays light streaming in from an open window, signaling that this family affair is a daytime celebration. A woman in red nurses her baby (who appears to float in midair!) and the rest of the family sings while the paper-crowned king drinks from a very long glass, his nose red with drunkenness. A jester plays the gridiron and spoon, and the other men wear their king's letters on their chests or tucked into a hat. A pile of waffles and a half wheel of cheese deck the table.
This upper-class Twelfth Night scene by Steen is more chaotic. A cuckoo clock and elaborately gilded painting grace the wall by a bed curtained heavily in rich red velvet. Musicians playing a fiddle and rommelpot accompany loudly singing guests, each sporting a king's letter- one woman grimaces and covers her ears at the noise while the paper-crowned king drinks deeply, oblivious to the noise. The musician with the rommelpot is an older man who wears an necklace of eggs, including several broken ones, implying lost potency. The sausages around his waist hang limply. A richly dressed woman looks fondly at a young girl holding a ball (or egg?) and golf club. She in turn watches an older girl prepare to jump over the three Magi candles, only to be thwarted by a cat who is stealing one of the candles! (Likely made of yummy tallow.) The three-pronged Magi candle is repeated in the hand of a woman in the background - perhaps a servant.
In this crowded but jolly affair, a well-fed middle class family gathers for Twelfth Night. The only illumination comes from the setting sun and the weak light of the three-pronged Magi candle. Beneath the outstretched arm of the woman holding the candle, another woman nurses her baby. Three musicians flank the table, one playing the gridiron and spoon, another playing the bagpipes, and a third playing the bladder fiddle. The king at left prepares to drink, and a women (likely his wife) at right feeds her child, who in turn feeds the dog. In the background, a young woman pulls the bell on the Jester's hat, and he leans in for a kiss.
In this version of "Twelfth Night: The King Drinks," Steen has once again made a toddler boy the king, clutching a large pastry, and helped to drink by his nurse. His brother mischievously pulls back his smock, revealing his nakedness (and perhaps to warm his bottom with the Magi candle), and a young woman reaches out as if to pinch him, her king's letter pinned to her hair. The young king is not the only one drinking. His wealthy mother is a picture of drunken stupor - her feet resting comfortably on a footwarmer while she slumps comfortably in her chair, a vacant look on her face and a wine glass held loosely in her fingers. Her king's letter is pinned to her bodice. A large group of musicians in the background play a wooden flute, the bellows, and the gridiron and spoon. That musician also wears a necklace of eggs crookedly. In the foreground, a cat licks a spoon by a tipped crock - likely the waffle batter pot - and a dog looks up from a pan licked clean. A golf club leans against the table, and Steen's signature empty egg shells lay at the feet of the drunken woman.
Jan Steen died in 1679 at age 53 in the same town he had grown up in - Leiden. Other Dutch genre painters continued his legacy, although no other painted Twelfth Night as prolifically as he. Twelfth Night celebrations continued in the Netherlands into the 18th century, alongside English and American traditions. But the tenor of the celebrations changed, especially as the 19th century approached. Celebrations became more family-oriented, and focused on children, rather than on drunken debauchery. Food, drinking, and role playing still occurred, but less frequently.
Cornelis Roost's "Singing Round the Star on Twelfth Night," from 1770, illustrates some of this shift. It focuses on the star singers, representing the three Magi or Wise Men and the Star of Bethlehem. Here, two men and a boy wear paper crowns on their hats - they have become the kings of focus - not drunken King Herod. Wearing costumes, they sing songs and recite stories. The woman holding the paper star lantern also holds a string, so she may turn the star to evoke the journey of the Magi as they followed the star of Bethlehem. The boy holds out a cup for alms to the family at their doorstep - all women and children. The wealthy lady of the house - dressed in brilliant peach satin, holds up her baby to the light, representing the innocence of the Christ Child and the Madonna. Another child hides her face in fear from the alms-asker, while her older brother sits on the step and watches. Gone are the references to vanity, folly, sex, and drunkenness. Instead, family, children, and charity have taken over.
This trend would continue into the 19th century, as people like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens helped make Christmas the focus of the Christian holiday, not Twelfth Night. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas Day became the focus of the season, as St. Nicholas represented charity and gift-giving in addition to rewarding good children.
In the United States, Twelfth Night is all but forgotten - remembered only through Shakespeare and special events at historic sites. But January 6th does live on as Epiphany in churches around the world, as Driekoningen ("The Three Kings") in the Netherlands, and as Día de Los Reyes or Three Kings' Day in the Spanish-speaking world.
In the Netherlands, Driekoningen is usually celebrated with church services, a public parade, and treats like king cake, a type of sweet yeast bread featuring almond paste, dried fruit, and one dark and one light bean, to select the "king" and "queen" of the evening. Although not as widely celebrated today as in the 17th and 18th centuries, Driekoningen is still part of Netherlandish tradition.
Three Kings' Day traditions are similar to St. Nicholas and Twelfth Night. Before Santa Claus made his way south, children in Mexico and Latin American countries would leave grass for the camels of the Three Wise Men and leave out their shoes for gifts. Just like they brought gifts to the baby Jesus, the Magi bring gifts to modern children, too. Three Kings' Day features many special treats, including a cake with a baby Jesus figure baked inside, which symbolizes hiding him from King Herod. The person whose slice contains the baby must host the Día de la Candelaria (Candlemas) party in February.15
Extending the goodwill and cheer of the holiday season seems logical to those who celebrate Three Kings' Day. Perhaps everyone should follow suit.
 Van Wagenberg-ter Hoeven, Anke A. “The Celebration of Twelfth Night in Netherlandish Art.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 22, no. 1/2(1993): 65–96. https://doi.org/10.2307/3780806.
 Van Wagenberg-ter Hoeven, "Celebration," 66.
 Van Wagenberg-ter Hoeven, "Celebration," 67.
 Van Wagenberg-ter Hoeven, "Celebration," 68.
 Jacobs, Marc. “King for a Day. Games of Inversion, Representation, and Appropriation in Ancient Regime Europe.” In Mystifying the Monarch: Studies on Discourse, Power, and History, edited by Jeroen Deploige and Gita Deneckere, 117–38.Amsterdam University Press, 2006. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46mz50.11.
 Van Wagenberg-ter Hoeven, "Celebration," 70.
 Van Wagenberg-Ter Hoeven, Anke A. “King’s Letter Prints and Paper Crowns.” Print Quarterly 24, no. 4 (2007): 380–99. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41826757.
 Van Wagenberg-ter Hoeven, "Celebration," 80.
 Van Wagenberg-ter Hoeven, "Celebration," 80.
 Meagher, Jennifer, “Food and Drink in European Painting, 1400–1800,” published May, 2009, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Helbrunn Timeline of Art History. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/food/hd_food.htm
 Meager, "Food and Drink in European Painting.”
 Maslov, Vlad. "The secret life in Dutch Golden Age paintings: the real world behind the looking glass" for Arthive, October 15, 2017.
 The rommelpot was an improvised instrument and a suggestive one, both in the way it was played, and the noises it made. For a more serious take, see this YouTube video of music featuring a rommelpot. For a less serious take, but probably more accurate to the tenor of the music depicted by Steen, see this YouTube video. The rommelpot is also related to the Brazilian cuica drum, except the cuica puts the handle and sponge inside the drum.
 Marquez, Yvette and Alani Vargas, "What Is Día de Los Reyes (Three Kings' Day)? And How Do You Celebrate It?" for Parade Magazine, December 17, 2023.
Sarah Wassberg Johnson is the programs and education manager at Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site. She has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and has worked in museum education since. 2007.