Having your cake and (not) eating it: constructing the Charles Dickens Museum twelfth-cake

Louisa Price is the curator at the Charles Dickens Museum

As December approaches, the Museum swings into ‘Christmas mode’. This involves decorating 48 Doughty Street as Catherine and Charles would have in their time here, and preparing special events and displays to show the Dickens’s Christmastime traditions – from Turkey meals to New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night celebrations.

In Dickens’s day, Twelfth Night celebrations were widely practiced and he and Catherine held parties to mark the occasion. Their son Charley was born on 6 January 1837 and the family often celebrated the two events in one large party.

A diary fragment from Dickens’s time at Doughty Street reads:

Saturday January 6 1838. Our boy’s birth day – one year old. A few people at night – only Foster, the Degex’s, John Ross, Mitton, and the Beards beside our families – to twelfth cake and forfeits.

It is fitting that we should have a twelfth cake in the house at Christmastime but with strict rules about food near our precious collections we needed a creative solution. Enter Ed Haslam – our talented technician who after some research on Victorian twelfth-cakes, constructed one out of a cake tin, plaster-of-paris and some special decoration moulds.

Getting the shape right

Layering on the pink plaster

The finished product!

In medieval and Tudor England, the Twelfth Night festival marked the end of the winter festival which started on All Hallows Eve (today transformed into Halloween) where the Lord of Misrule symbolically turned the world upside-down. A cake containing a bean would be eaten and the person who found the bean would rule the feast. We know the Dickens family held their Twelfth night celebrations in the nursery of their later home on Devonshire Terrace so we have chosen to put our cake in the nursery of 48 Doughty Street this Christmas.

Museum Blog

This blog takes you behind the scenes at the Charles Dickens Museum, giving fresh insight on everything from discoveries new and old in our collection, to exhibitions, events and learning initiatives.

You’ll be hearing from a variety of Museum staff and volunteers, as well as guest curators, academics, artists and Dickens enthusiasts. Why not join the debate and let us know you thoughts on the latest blog by using our hashtag #CDMBlog

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