The historic holiday of Twelfth Night has been abandoned and forgotten by almost all the rest of the country. The twelve-day, mid-winter festival, Twelfth Night, once ended with great public fanfare has receded to leave behind our truncated modern holiday season that views December 25 and January 1 as its high points, and January 2 as the day life goes back to normal.
But it wasn’t always so for the people who inhabited the Delaware Valley and other parts of the colonies in the 18th century. In some ways, the historical record of 18th-century life portrays a Christmas far more drab and low-key than ours today. But in other ways, the same record illuminates a set of traditions — including that of Twelfth Night — that invoked the bonds of close community in ways not matched by our own 21st century high-tech lifestyle.
From its earliest days, the Twelve Days of Christmas festival involved masked dancers and play actors who cavorted through the streets and visited homes unannounced to beg for holiday treats and drink. In England they were called “Mummers,” from the French term “momer,” which means to wear a mask. Some historians suggest that when the Christian church initially subsumed the pagan Saturnalia, it may have encouraged or tolerated demonstrations by the newly faithful mocking the old Roman gods. Those early revelers donned grotesque masks satirizing the Roman deities but their masked street antics ultimately became a popular and unstoppable part of the Christian Christmas festival.
In fact, the 18th-century importance of Twelfth Night — rather than Christmas Day — is nowhere better documented than in the papers of George Washington. He paid scant attention to Christmas Day, usually attending a church service after which he would spend the day sorting through other year-end business matters of his plantation. Twelfth Night, however, was a different matter. Washington’s records indicate that he and his wife Martha often entertained groups of relatives and friends throughout that day. Further illustrating how Twelfth Night holiday gatherings provided convenient opportunities for conducting other large family events, George and Martha Washington were married on Twelfth Night in 1759 in Williamsburg. 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 and five pounds of dried fruits.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that American society broadly broke out of the twelve-day Yuletide. The increasingly industrialized economy that rose out of that war fostered the concept of a Dec. 25 that pivoted around the buying and giving of consumer goods rather than the joys of dancing in the street or celebrating fellowship and good wishes with an ornate cake whose flavor, some said, lingered in the soul for the whole of the coming year.