For Twelfth Night in Regency England, the custom of choosing a king and queen from whomever got the bean and pea in the twelfth-cake evolved into choosing characters out of a hat to pretend to be for the evening, a sort of masquerade. In some cases, they wore masks and the person was required to remain in character the entire night. Sounds like fun to me.
One Mardi Gras custom that New Orleanians have in common with the people of Regency England is that of the King Cake. In the Regency it was served on Twelfth Night (January 5th), the night before Epiphany (January 6th), but in New Orleans it’s served on Epiphany/Kings’ Day (or as it’s called in some Catholic countries, Three Kings’ Day, for the Three Wise Men). In both Regency England and modern-day New Orleans, the cakes have something hidden inside—a bean or a coin for Twelfth Night cakes and a plastic baby for King Cakes. If you get the slice of a Twelfth Night cake containing the bean or coin, you’re designated king for the party. If you get the baby in a New Orleans King Cake, you have to bring King Cake to the next party (in offices, someone generally brings a King Cake every Friday, and sometimes every day, beginning on January 6th and going until Mardi Gras!). After Mardi Gras comes Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. As you might imagine, after living in New Orleans for years, I felt quite at home with Regency England’s celebration of Twelfth Night and Epiphany!
The term “Boxing Day” actually shows up during our period, but the concept of giving a “box” to the poor or to those in service began much earlier, at least as far back as the Middle Ages. I read an account from the mid-18th century that described a man with a comfortable income giving anywhere from a shilling to a half-a-crown to servants and several merchants he had dealings with. On a large estate, the owner might give boxes of food and other gifts to each tenant and servant. It mirrors the American practice of offering Christmas gifts to public servants or business associates, except that in countries which practice it, it occurs the day AFTER Christmas.