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  • Writer's pictureNorfolk Towne Assembly

Celebrating Twelfth Night

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

As we discussed in our last posting, the Twelve Days of Christmas, beginning on Christmas Day and ending on January 5, is the festive Christian season that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, as the Son of God. They are followed, on January 6th by the Christian feast day known as Epiphany or “Three Kings Day”, commemorating the visit of the magi, which brings an end to the celebration of the Christmas season. Some legends hold that the celebrations of the twelve days of Christmas began as a way to celebrate and let off some steam after the solemnity of the Advent season.

While we don’t know exactly when the church began to celebrate Christmas, the first written reference to Christmas is in 336 AD, when the Roman Church began to celebrate a Feast of the Nativity on December 25th. By celebrating Jesus' birthday on that day, pagan traditions associated with the winter solstice—wassail bowls and the use of holly and other evergreens for decoration—were incorporated into the celebration. The Christmas custom spread to England by the end of the 6th century and later reached Scandinavia where it became fused with the pagan Norse mid-winter feast season known as Yule. During the reign of Alfred the Great in England, the Christmas celebration was extended by 12 days, ending on Epiphany. Although it bothered church officials, who prayed that “the sacred would overtake profane”, the pagan traditions stuck and merry-making and feasting remained the most popular ways to celebrate Christmas in England.

Many Pagan Traditions Carried Over to Christian Christmas
Many Pagan Traditions Carried Over to Christian Christmas


By the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Twelve Days of Christmas had become a period of parties, balls, gift giving, visiting friends and neighbors, culminating with the biggest parties of the season on Twelfth Night. As the climax of the Christmastide season, this was a time for putting aside social norms, forgetting the cares of everyday life, and really letting go. Revels (noisy and wild celebrations), masks (celebrations or balls where people wear masks) and Grand Balls were the order of the day and night.

Twelfth Night Balls

Frequently there was a “Twelfth Night Ball” to mark the end of the Christmas season. The Englishman Nicholas Cresswell went to such a ball in Alexandria in 1775. Ever the critic of America, Cresswell was not much impressed.

“Last night I went to the Ball. It seems this is one of their annual Balls supported in the following manner: A large rich cake is provided and cut into small pieces and handed round to the company, 53 who at the same time draws a ticket out of a Hat with something merry wrote on it. He that draws the King has the Honor of treating the company with a Ball the next year, which generally costs him Six or Seven Pounds. The Lady that draws the Queen has the trouble of making the Cake. Here was about 37 ladies dressed and powdered to the life, some of them very handsome and as much vanity as is necessary. All of them fond of dancing, but I do not think they perform it with the greatest elegance.

Betwixt the Country dances they have what I call everlasting jigs. A couple gets up and begins to dance a jig (to some Negro tune) others comes and cuts them out, and these dances always last as long as the Fiddler can play. This is sociable, but I think it looks more like a Bacchanalian dance than one in a polite assembly. Old Women, Young wives with young children in the lap, widows, maids and girls come promiscuously to these assemblies which generally continue till morning. A cold supper, Punch, Wines, Coffee and Chocolate, but no Tea. This is a forbidden herb.” (Due to the non-importation rules during the Revolution – Editor)

For those who not fortunate enough to be invited to balls, revels filled the evening. These might include drinking, feasting, card playing, and other games. One of the more popular activities at these revels was Parlor Games.

Parlor Games

Parlor games were almost obligatory at early-19th century Twelfth Night Revels, and often involved overstepping the strict bounds of propriety. Losers often paid a forfeit, which could be an elaborate penalty or dare, but more often, were nothing more than a thinly disguised excuse for getting a kiss. Often, forfeits accumulated all evening, until the hostess would ‘cry the forfeits’ and they would all be redeemed. Some of the more popular parlor games from the early-19th century included:

Blind Man’s Bluff

Many of us played this when we were young, but there were many versions of this in the period and some sources suggest that the game could be a bit more risqué than the game we played as children. The illustration below, printed in Le Bon Genre, Paris in the early 1800s, shows the gentleman in the blindfold getting perhaps a bit too intimate with a young lady.

Blind Man's Bluff
Getting Too Intimate?

A description of how to play this game in period, follows:

“One of the party, having the eyes bandaged with a handkerchief, endeavours to catch one of the players and guess his name; while all the rest, who occasionally buffet the person blinded, thence called Buffy, endeavour to escape from him. If, during Buffy’s endeavour to catch some one, he goes too close to anything that may hurt him, he is warned by the cry of table, fire, &c. If, on catching any one, he does not guess their identity, they clap their hands three times, to inform him that he is mistaken. If, by skill or accident, he names the person correctly, the party caught becomes the Blindman in turn.”

Unfortunately, as shown by the print below, this could sometime become a bit rough on the furnishings, depending on how “energetic” the players were.

A Game of Blind Man's Bluff Gone Wrong
A Game of Blind Man's Bluff Gone Wrong

Shadow Bluff

This is a quite different variation of Blind Man’s Bluff, and no variation requires more full use of the eyes and mind. In this game, Buffy, seated on a stool sufficiently low to prevent his shadow falling on the screen, is not blinded but rather seated facing a large white sheet or tablecloth, which is hung like a screen for showing a movie. At some distance behind him, a lamp or a single candle is placed upon a stand, and the other lights extinguished.

“These preparations being completed, the parties who join in the game, form a kind of procession, and pass round one by one in succession, between Buffy (who is not allowed to turn his head in the slightest degree,) and the table on which the lamp of candle stands. This produces the requisite effect: the light of the candle, being intercepted as each person passes before it, naturally throws a succession of well marked shadows on the sheet; and Buffy has to guess from the shade thrown on the curtain, who is passing, and to name the person aloud, making but one guess as to each.”

While this would seem easy, the players can try to disguise themselves by various stratagems, such as adopting limps, unusual gaits, men putting on women’s bonnets, shawls, cloaks, etc. When Buffy guesses correctly, the person named takes Buffy’s place. If Buffy guesses wrong three times in a row, he must pay a forfeit.

Bullet pudding

Flour was piled into a high mound and a bullet placed on the top. Players cut slices out of the flour pile with a knife without dislodging the bullet. If the bullet fell, the player had to retrieve the bullet from the flour with their teeth.

Playing at Bullet Pudding
Playing at Bullet Pudding


Earlier in this article, we mentioned paying a forfeit when a mistake was made. These forfeits are recorded on small slips of paper and as they are paid, they are placed in covered basket in the keeping of the host or hostess. At the end of the game, the drawing of the forfeits commences. To prevent cheating, the forfeit basket is covered with a shawl or napkin and the person drawing the forfeit reaches under the covering, without raising it more than necessary. Once a forfeit is drawn, the forfeit keeper prescribes the necessary punishment for the drawn forfeit.

The forfeit keeper, hearing who the forfeit involves, will decide the punishment for the forfeit, usually by saying something like, “If it belongs to a lady, I award this punishment; if to a gentleman then they must do that punishment." Once this penalty is pronounced, the person who drew the forfeit will show to the company whose forfeit it is. The person to whom it belongs is then obliged to execute the inflicted punishment. He then draws the next forfeit.

Some examples of penances for one’s forfeits include:

To Be at the Discretion of the Company

To be required to do whatever the company or a portion of those named beforehand may require. A lady is placed at the discretion of the gentlemen and a gentleman at the discretion of the ladies. These should be short, easy penances and not too far outside of the bounds of propriety.

To Be a Statue

A stool or chair is placed in the middle of the circle, and the person who is to play the part of the statue stands on it. Each player then requests him to assume any attitude he chooses. One may ask him to place his hand upon his heart, another to bend the arm or knee, to look up to the ceiling, to recline the head to the right or left. When anyone wishes to end the penance, he says, “I order you to come down.” This is a penance chiefly for ladies.

To Turn Any Letters into a Compliment to Your Mistress

The penitent is given a series of letters which he must turn into a compliment using each letter as the first letter of a word. This is best shown by examples.

H, I, H, W, G, O, G, F, Y

Happy Is He Who Gains One Glance From You

I, F, Y, C, M, T, D

I Fear Your Cruelty More Than Death


The person doing the penance proposes an emblem for each person in the company; and he forfeits if he hesitates, repeats himself, or gives an emblem that the company thinks unsuitable. The following are examples:

A tuberose may be selected as the emblem for a young lady; as, like the flower, she affects the head. The vine for another; as like the grape, she pleases to intoxication. And finally, a pin for another, as like it, she pierces, but attaches.

Kissing Forfeits

In the parlor games played by the French, the kissing forfeits were extremely common. In England, they could only be assigned as punishments to ladies. I leave the decision as to whether to follow the French or English customs to the discretion of our readers

Le Baiser À La Capucine

The lady and gentleman are placed on their knees, back to back. They both turn their heads at the same time, one to the right and the other to the left, and endeavor to bring their lips together for the required salute.

A drawing of Le Baiser À La Capucine

Le Baiser À La Religieuse

The application of this forfeit is obvious from the illustration below. This is remarkable because of how difficult it is to perform successfully. How unpleasant to be able to salute the lady of your choice, only through the close bars of the back of a chair.

A drawing of Le Baiser À La Religieuse
Le Baiser À La Religieuse

Of course, agreeable penances, such as these last two, can often motivate players to try to lose. In those cases, the penance really becomes the game doesn’t it?

As we have seen, in the Colonial and early-19th century period, the celebrations and revelries of the 12 Days of Christmas is a long and winding one, ultimately ending in the Twelfth Night Celebration, the biggest and most elaborate party of the Christmas season. Why not plan to celebrate the Christmas season next year in the Georgian way, by planning your parties and other entertainments for the time between Christmas Day and Epiphany? Let me know how you think this might work out and what you are planning. If you live in the Southeastern Virginia region, send me an invitation and I might even show up!


Bach, Volker. The Kitchen, Food, and Cooking in Reformation Germany. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Breck, S. Discourse Before the Society of the Sons of New England of the City and County of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: John C. Clark, 1845.

Coffin, T. P. The Book of Christmas Folklore. New York: Seabury Press, 1973.

Cresswell, Nicholas. The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774 - 1777. New York: The Dial Press, 1924.

Fithian, Philip Vickers. Journal & Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian 1773-1774: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1957.

Howe, D. W. The Puritan Republic of Massachussetts Bay in New England. Indianapolis: The Bowen-Merrill Company, 1879.

Restad, Penne L. Christmas in America: A history. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Revel, Rachel. Winter Pastimes; or, The Merry-Maker's Companion. London: A Mensard, 1825.

Walker, Donald. Games and Sports; Being an Appendix to "Manly Exercises" and "Exercises for Ladies". London: Thomas Hurst, 1837.


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