Wishing you a joyous Epiphany (and Twelfth Night, if you celebrate it). Some parts of Europe celebrate it on the night of the 5th of January but the feast itself falls on the 6th in the Church of England’s calendar, which, coincidentally, is also National Shortbread Day, so here are a few epiphanies about this wonderful biscuit…
Around the fifth Day of Christmas, we uncovered a box of shortbread. To quote my sister, “I don’t know where they came from or who brought them; I just started eating them,” but the packet did say these were baked in Scotland which was promising. I’ve read somewhere you aren’t allowed to sell shortbread with less than 50% of butter in the shortening (an archaic term for the fat content) north of the border and still call it that, “All-Butter” being the gold standard. Like gingerbread, shortbread comes with a medieval history: there’s evidence this quintessentially Scottish biscuit was produced as early as the twelfth century although Mary Queen of Scots and her French cooks were thought to have developed the recipe to its current state of perfection in the sixteenth. According to Walkers of Speyside, it “was originally reserved for celebrations such as weddings, christenings and for family gatherings at Christmas and Hogmanay.” Not that this packet made it that far as my brother-in-law nabbed the last one early on NYE…
It also sounds a suitable biscuit for consumption on Twelfth Night, which in Britain used to be celebrated more than now. Kings and queens, or ‘lords of misrule’ were appointed to preside over the festivities, a special kind of fruit cake was eaten, wassailing (ale-drinking and carolling) undertaken, and entertainments like plays and mummings were popular. I’m afraid we have Queen Victoria to blame at least in part for those traditions disappearing after the 1800s, but the earlier pattern was for an abstemious Advent in December followed by a January that was… joyful. Now the twelve days of Christmas are rarely marked in full and our Januarys can feel so somber it often seems like the calendar has been turned on its head.
The most brilliant of the Makars, whose flowering of poetic creativity coincides with the development of shortbread in late medieval and early modern Scotland (no coincidence, surely?) understood all too well how tough the dark winter days can be. I’m particularly fond of the mercurial, melancholic William Dunbar: a cleric attached to the household of James IV. Amusing the court with dramatic entertainments on occasions like Twelfth Night was one of Dunbar’s lighter duties and one he excelled at, but despite being the cause of great laughter in others he wrote feelingly about his own low spirits in winter:
“Into thir dirk and drublie dayis
Quhone sabill all the hevin arrayis
With mystie vapouris, cluddis, and skyis,
Nature all curage me denyis
Of sangis, ballattis, and of playis…”
In these “dark and cloudy days”, even “songs, ballads and plays” can’t cheer him up, he says, vexed as he is with “heavy thought” on every side. “Yit quhone the nycht begynnis to schort / It dois my spreit sum pairt confort.” (Yet when the night begins to shorten, it brings my spirit some comfort.)
I hadn’t realised until I came to research it that the word ‘short’ in shortbread refers not to their size or fat content but their crumbliness: a short biscuit (or cake, or pastry) is one that is friable – i.e. something that breaks easily. I’ll admit I hesitated to write about this as a desirable quality in a biscuit until I looked beyond the breaking to connect it to the bread part. Bread in the bible is a symbol of spiritual as well as bodily nourishment and in the breaking of it we are reminded of the fellowship of the early Christians, who had all things in common, but most of all perhaps of the body of Christ broken for us.
God never promises us that this breaking wouldn’t be unsettling, but to quote Leonard Cohen, the cracks may be how the light gets in (or sometimes how it gets out). To the weary and wary alike, the stories we celebrate in Epiphany speak of a heavenly reality breaking into our world like a light does: in the story of the wise men who discovered a king worthy of all other kings’ worship, and of that same king, now a grown man living a humble life in the backwaters of Nazareth, rising up from the waters of baptism to hear a voice from heaven telling us this is God’s beloved son.
The curious semantics of the shortbread reminds me of another moment of revelation which feels both familiar and mysterious somehow. Two puzzled and grieving disciples journeying along the road to Emmaus fall in with a stranger who helps them make sense of what had happened to a loved, lost friend. Stopping for a meal together, they finally recognise the same friend in the person of the stranger teaching them about the role of the Messiah, but their eyes are only opened to see him at the breaking of bread.
After everything 2021 threw at us, you may not expect much joy from your January – or 2022 as a whole – this year, but I hope and pray that however distant joy seems you are surprised by it. And whatever kind of news is breaking, whatever burdens you may be carrying (or still carrying) in the days to come, may you find that king-friend-stranger walking with you on the journey and know him in the breaking of bread.
Apparently Twelfth Night still survives in the West Country, God bless it. With all that excellent cider it had to be the home of wassailing… Click the link above to read more about Old Twelfth Night on the 17th of January. (If you’re especially keen, it also has a Wassail recipe here.)
A blog post on the history of shortbread with yummy recipes from the British Food blog written by Dr Neil Buttery (yes, that is his name, I kid you not…)
A beautiful reflection on Epiphany from the Digital Nun, whose wisdom I have much appreciated over the years.
Not specifically about Twelfth Night, Epiphany or shortbread, but my friend Olivia alerted me to this post on Bread, Cake and Biscuits by the gentle author of the Spitalfield’s Life blog which is well worth a read if you have the time.
Looking for some quality Twelfth Night entertainment? This fun clip of Mark Rylance (as Olivia) and Stephen Fry (Malvolio) in the Globe’s 2013 production of Shakespeare’s play for the Inns of Court might add a little levity to your evening (performed in early modern fashion with men taking women’s roles):
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