Holly Johnson: Celebrating Twelfth Night

Published 6:30 am Saturday, January 9, 2021

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Since I am sure you’ve always wondered how the ladies of the YWCA in the 1930s celebrated Twelfth Night, I am sharing with you an excerpt from a newspaper column dated Jan. 12, 1938, describing their festivities.

“Thirty-nine members of the Who’s New Club met for a combination Twelfth Night and New Year’s party. Six new girls were welcomed into the club. Miss Frieda Maas explained the old English tradition of the Twelfth night after Christmas when elaborate masked balls and parties were held.  Twelfth night Festival was also known as the ‘Feast of Cakes’ and a large cake was always a part of the festivities. From it were drawn objects which determined who should be King and Queen for the gala evening. The Misses Esther Mohn and Bernice Schaefer were crowned King and Queen last night and from an improvised throne received due homage.

“Another Twelfth night custom was carried out at the party last night- that of burning the Christmas greens – a peace offering to evil spirits and to assure good luck to the household.”

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Now, I know that you have never actually spent time thinking about the activities that the ladies of the YWCA engaged in, but I did think that maybe you’d find the customs of Twelfth Night parties interesting. And, once I figured out how to spell the word for 12th (you have to admit it’s a weird spelling), I researched more information about the custom.

In Christian terms, Twelfth Night signifies the 12 days between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the three kings or Magi. The feast of Epiphany in the church calendar is on Jan. 6 – 12 days after Christmas – but some view Twelfth Night as a reason to celebrate on the eve of Epiphany (Jan. 5).

Some people consider it bad luck to leave Christmas decorations up past Jan. 5 or 6 at the latest.  According to a recent article in the Yorkshire Post, “This belief is considered to have been decided by the Victorians, who thought Christmas decorations should be taken down on the Twelfth Night so everyone could go back to work.”

Other features of Twelfth Night activities from around the world include the playing of bagpipes and people playing games and pranks on their friends. In the U.K., wassailing is still sometimes enjoyed, which includes sharing an ale-based drink which is seasoned with spices and honey and wishing each other well.

I don’t hear of Twelfth Night parties in this era. We wouldn’t have been able to have them this year anyway…  Maybe we’ll put one on the 2022 calendar. Will you come?