Tuesday, January 5, 2016

12th Night - Early America



When the British settled in colonial America, many brought their Twelfth Night celebrations with them. In the 18C colonies, Twelfth Night parties frequently took place in regions where large numbers of English colonists had settled, such as Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, & Pennsylvania. These celebrations were especially popular with members of the Church of England (later the Episcopal Church) but not among the New England Puritans, who found them too frivolous & not at all religious. 


Twelfth Night by Isaac Cruikshank 1756-1811, London  Pub 1794 by Laurie & Whittle, No. 53 Fleet Street, London

Among the wealthy in the middle & southern colonies, many celebrated Twelfth Night with formal balls. These balls usually featured a bountiful buffet table of such delicacies as Twelfth Night Cake, roasted meats, root vegetables, candied fruit, cookies, fritters, & New Year's pie. This last item was an elaborate dish prepared by placing a beef tongue into a boned chicken, wedging the chicken into a boned duck, stuffing the duck into a boned turkey, cramming the turkey into a boned goose; & then roasting the stuffed goose in an oven. 

Just as in Europe, colonial & early American cooks often placed a bean & a pea inside their Twelfth Night cakes as a means of selecting a Twelfth Night king & queen. If there was only a bean in the cake & a woman found it in her piece, she got to chose the king of the evening.

In colonial & early America, the Christmas season, capped by the celebration of Twelfth Night, served as a favorite time of year for weddings. Twelfth Nightballs offered young, single people the chance to meet & to interact freely, & hopefully, to find a mate. This goal was facilitated by the fact that the parties usually featured dancing & some form of masking, as well as card & 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 (1732-1799) and his bride,Martha Dandridge Custis (17321802), married on January 6, 1759.


The importance of Twelfth Night celebrations in the American colonies is illustrated in the papers of George Washington. On Christmas Day, Washington usually attended a church service, after which he would spend the day sorting through other year-end business matters of his plantation.  But, George & Martha Washington were married on Twelfth Night in 1759 in Williamsburg. Washington's records indicate that he & his wife Martha often entertained groups of relatives and friends throughout that day.  Martha Washington's papers, preserved at Mt. Vernon, include her recipe for a huge Twelfth Night cake that included 40 eggs, four pounds of sugar, & five pounds of dried fruits.

Nicholas Cresswell,  who was an Englishman who spent years in Virginia and kept a journal, wrote while in Alexandria on December 25, 1774: “Christmas Day but little regarded here.”   Cresswell did, however, attend a ball on Twelfth Night: "There was about 37 Ladys Dressed and Powdered to the like, some of them very handsom, and as much Vanity as is necessary. All of them fond of Dancing. But I do not think they perform it with the greatest elleganse. Betwixt the Country Dances they have What I call everlasting Jiggs. A Couple gets up, and begins to dance a Jig (to some Negro tune) others comes and cuts them out, these dances allways last as long as the Fiddler can play. This is social but I think it looks more like a Bacchanalian dance then one in a polite Assembly. Old Women, Young Wifes with young Children on the Laps, Widows, Maids, and Girls come promsciously to these Assemblys which generally continue til morning. A Cold supper, Punch, Wine, Coffee, and Chocolate, But no Tea. This is a forbidden herb. The men chiefly Scotch and Irish. I went home about Two Oclock, but part of the Company stayd got Drunk and had a fight."

Famously weathy Robert Carter of Nomini Hall had hired New England tutor Philp Fithian to teach his children.  Fithian's journal entry of December 29 of that same year he wrote “we had a large Pye cut today to signify the conclusion of the Holidays.”


Those who did not celebrate Christmas deplored the idea of a Twelfth Night ball.  Mordecai Noah, who published a book on home economics in the year 1820, decried the wasteful custom of Twelfth Night feasting:  "What a sum to be destroyed in one short hour! The substan-tials on this table, consisting of a few turkeys, tongues, hams, fowls, rounds of beef and game, all cold, could have been purchased for fifty dollars; the residue of this immense sum was expended for whips, creams, floating islands, pyramids of kisses, temples of sugarplumbs, ices, blanc manges, macaroons and plumb cake; and ladies of delicacy, of refined habits, of soft and amiable manners, were at midnight, cloying their stomachs, after exercise in dancing, with this trash." 


For further Twelfth Night & Epiphany information see:

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. 

Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. 

Christmas in Colonial and Early America. Chicago: World Book, 1996. 

Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. 

Crippen, T.G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003.

Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. 

Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. 

Henisch, Bridget Ann. Cakes and Characters: An English Christmas Tradition. London, England: Prospect Books, 1984. 

Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. London, England: Hutchinson and Company, 1976. 

MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. 

Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978. 

Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992. 

Weaver, William Woys. The Christmas Cook. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.


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