New twist on an old holiday > Twelfth Night celebration is tomorrow

Posted On January 5, 2007

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Some people connect it to one of Shakespeare’s plays. Others think it has something to do with the “Twelve Days of Christmas”.

But Bethany Groff believes that for the most part, people don’t have a real clue about Twelfth Night. For five years, Groff, northern regional site manager for Historic New England, has tried to ensure that the holiday, also known as the Feast of Epiphany, gets its due. She’ll host this year’s celebration on the Eve of the Epiphany tomorrow night at St. John’s Hall in West Newbury.

Traditionally celebrated 12 days after the birth of Christ, Twelfth Night was the last celebration of the holiday season in England. It was marked throughout Europe with rich, regional traditions. The first settlers, Groff said, brought the Twelfth Night celebrations with them to America. And that’s where Groff comes in. As site manager for the 17th-century Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury and other historical properties in the Newburyport area, Groff spends her days focused on preserving and remembering the past. That passion for history led her to start the movement to reinstitute Twelfth Night on the holiday calendar.

“I’m always pleasantly surprised at how after the holidays, people are really looking for something different to do” she said. “It’s such a pleasant, warm event that people are drawn to it.” Groff’s research has found that while many cultural traditions accept December 25 as the appropriate day to celebrate Christ’s birthday, the January 6 celebration has equal and sometimes greater importance.

The Western church considers January 6 the day the three wise men visited the baby Jesus. Eastern Church denominations, such as the Greek Orthodox Church, observe it as the baptism of Christ.

In Spain, Argentina, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and most areas of Mexico, January 6 is celebrated as Three Kings Day. Children leave food for the camels of the wise men in shoes outside a window on the eve of the Epiphany. In return, the three wise men leave presents to be opened the next morning.

“I don’t think people realize how important it is in other cultures,” Groff said. Groff’s Twelfth Night Eve celebration draws on the Regency period (1790-1830) for its inspiration. Known for its tight trousers, high-waisted gowns and elaborate parties, the period turned the traditional celebration of holidays into a high art. She’ll transform the circa-1910, Tudor-style hall with exposed timbers at All Saints Church into the setting for tomorrow’s formal dinner and dance. Guests will enjoy a traditional dinner of roast chicken, sweetmeats and winter vegetables, and sip ratafia, a brandy cordial infused with cherries.

Dinner will segue into dancing, with guests learning the steps of English country dances. A traditional English folk quartet led by Michael Hamill playing a German violin that dates from 1775 will perform. Groff will offer some background on the music, dance and customs of the period, and explain how Twelfth Night celebrations continue in many cultures today. The traditional cutting of the Twelfth Night cake and crowning of this year’s king and queen caps off the evening.

Guests are asked to dress the part. White gloves are required for women, and gloves and cravats (neckties) are suggested attire for men. Extra gloves and cravats will be available at the event.

“There’s some debate on whether to celebrate the holiday on the 6th or not.” Groff said. “I think it’s a nice tradition to continue.”

If you go > What: Twelfth Night Eve Regency-period dinner and dance. When: Tomorrow, 6:30 to 9 p.m. Where: St. John’s Hall of All Saints Church, 928 Main St. (Route 113), West Newbury. How: Tickets are $34 for the general public, $26 for Historic New England members. The event is not appropriate for young children. Reservations required. Call 978-462-2634.

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