Saturday, January 5, 2013


Today is Twelfth Night, that most curious of all winter holidays and one that is consigned to the mists of time.  In my last post I mentioned how Christmas in colonial times was a quiet, understated event and that Christmas celebrations as we know them really became popular in the early to mid 19th century. So...were our founding fathers and mothers a bunch of stiffs? On the contrary, the holiday they celebrated most raucously (especially in Virginia, Maryland and around Philadelphia) was Twelfth Night - the night of the twelfth day of Christmas and the day before the Epiphany. During the American Revolution it was the major winter celebration.

Twelfth Night is the really the trifecta of holidays as it sits at the convergence of Christmas, the Epiphany and the Winter Solstice. Though originally rooted in pagan fertility rites, the annual practice of an extended Winter Solstice festival of feasting, family gatherings and public gaiety was later grafted into the emerging Christian culture of Europe. Burning the Yule Log during the twelve days was a part of this and continued in colonial times. Clearly a throwback to the pagan holidays of the Roman Saturnalia and the Celtic pagan traditions, I believe Twelfth Night manifests the human condition - one which necessarily embraces the new (Christianity) while holding onto nostalgic vestiges of the old (pagan and Celtic).

Colonial era Twelfth Night cake

The Twelfth Night was celebrated hugely in colonial Williamsburg, Philadelphia, and the Delaware Valley. George and Martha Washington celebrated Twelfth Night as a day long event with lots of friends and family in attendance. Some of the events that took place variously were the famed costume ball where the high born dressed low and low born dressed high and where men could dress as women and women dress as men. In Philadelphia the upper classes (mostly staid Quakers) simply dressed in finery and listened to chamber music while feasting, but in many places the more raucous aspects of the old pagan traditions included all kinds of drinking and carrying on.  Sometimes special cakes or breads were baked with a hidden bean or  a metal cast figure of the infant Jesus. Whoever was served the piece of cake or bread with the hidden token became the King of Queen of the Twelfth Night Ball.

Twelfth Night Reenacted at Colonial Williamsburg

The Wassail Bowl
Twelfth Night involved the baking of all sorts of tasty winter treats such as cakes and pies and tarts. Presentation of the food was key form of entertainment.  In the days before most foods could not be preserved this was no mean feat. Did I mention raucous drinking (at least with non-Quakers) was a big part of Twelfth Night? In earlier times in England and Ireland the drink of Twelfth Night was Wassail - a mix of mead and ale and spices that would give even Captain Morgan a headache.  In some traditions the Wassail was spread over the cold winter fields to signify a fertile harvest in the spring. It was poured onto trees, another connection to the pagan and Celtic traditions.

Typical Twelfth Night spread
during colonial times
In colonial and early American times the Christmas season, capped by the celebration of Twelfth Night, was associated with romance and served as a favorite time of year for weddings. Twelfth Night balls offered young, single people the chance to meet and to interact freely, and thus, hopefully, to find a mate. This goal was facilitated by the fact that the parties usually featured dancing and some form of masking, as well as card and dice games. Indeed, some balls were designed exclusively as affairs for the young. One very famous colonial romance led to a marriage scheduled for Epiphany the day after Twelfth Night. George Washington  and his bride, Martha Dandridge Custis , married on January 6,1759.
George and Martha years after their nuptials

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