Twelfth Night Party

Today’s post is the last installment for Christmas Season 2014.  It is not about celebrating the New Year, but rather about the traditional celebrations of Twelfth Night, the last big party of the holiday season in the Georgian Era.  Before we go into the period traditions of the celebrations of this holiday, let us begin by talking about what Twelfth Night is, and how Christmas season celebrations have changed over the years.

The origins of the Twelfth Night celebration go back to pre-Christian traditions in Europe.  The Roman winter celebrations of Saturnalia and the Celtic Yule feasts continued even after Christianity began to dominate in the region.  Many Celts believed in the  “Sacred King” who would be sacrificed to the land.  His spilled blood anointed and fertilized the land.  Catholic priests preaching the Gospels to the Celts discouraged such sacrifices, but allowed the people to continue their celebrations.  The “Sacred King” to be sacrificed became the “Lord of Misrule,” who ruled over the village/tribe for the celebration.  This notion, that one of the commoners could rule, was part of the Twelfth Night tradition of turning things upside-down.

As we have previously discussed here, in the 18th and early 19th Centuries the Advent season leading up to Christmas, as well as Christmas Eve, was a solemn period of religious observance.  Unlike today, where many of us spend that period attending various holiday parties, our ancestors spent this period as a time of fasting and penance to prepare for Christ’s birth.  The Christmas celebration as we think of it today did not begin until Christmas Day and, as previously discussed here, stretched through January 5 (the twelve days of Christmas).  This period was one of parties, balls, gift giving, and visiting friends and neighbors, culminating with the biggest parties of the season on Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night Revelry

Twelfth Night was the exciting climax of the Christmastide season, a time for putting away social norms.  Revels, masks, and balls were the order of the day and night.  On Twelfth Night, one common entertainment was role-playing.

“The festivity of Twelfth Night, when the actors skillfully support their parts, may be rendered not a whit less entertaining than the humours of a masquerade.  When the characters are drawn, the King and Queen go to the head of the room, and, seated in elevated chairs, proceed to hold their court.  On receiving the homage of their people, something appropriate should be addressed to each individual by their majesties; while the subjects are, in turn, indulged with opportunities of putting up eccentric petitions, or making humorous complaints.  Each individual is expected, for the rest of the night, to conform in speech and manners to the character, which Fortune has assigned him.  If persons address each other by any but their newly-assumed title, it may be made the subject of a forfeit.”  (Revel)

4 Twelfth Night Character Cards

4 Twelfth Night Character Cards

A random drawing determined the character assigned to each person as follows:

“Two lists should be made, containing the names of the visitors expected, one for the males, the other for the females; prepare a corresponding number of tickets, containing characters, to which are affixed some doggerel rhymes or Hudibrastic lines appropriate to the subject: the slips of paper on which these are written must be numbered on the back, and all folded in one form.  The ladies’ characters, must be put in a reticule or bag; and those for the gentlemen into a hat… a lady carries the hat for the men to draw, and a gentleman carries round the reticule for the females; the two tickets which remain after the general distribution, are to be appropriated by those who handed round the bag and the hat.  The conductor of the games next arranges the drawers precisely in the numerical order of their tickets, either in two opposite lines, or in a great circle; this being done, the King, who is always No.1, commences to read his lines: No. 2, Queen, replies by reciting those on her ticket; then follow the rest…..the (numerical) order contrived to elicit a reply, or contain pertinent allusions.”  (Revel)

Parlor Games

Parlor games were de rigueur for a Twelfth Night Party 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, they were a thinly disguised machination 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 included:

Blind Man’s Bluff

Many of us played this when we were young, but there were many version of this in the period and some sources suggest that the game could be a bit more risqué than the game we played as kids.  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.

Playing Blind Man's Bluff

An “Intimate” Game of Blind Man’s Bluff

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

“One of the party, having the eyes bandaged with a handkerchief, endeavors to catch one of the players and guess his name; while all the rest, who occasionally buffet the person blinded, thence called Buffy, endeavor to escape from him.  If, during Buffy’s endeavor to catch someone, 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 right, 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 Blind Man in turn.”  (Walker)

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

Blind Man's Bluff Game Gone Wrong

Blind Man’s Bluff Game Gone Wrong

Shadow Bluff

This is a quite different variation of Blind Man’s Bluff, and in fact, no variation requires more full use of the eyes.  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.”  (Walker)

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 and 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.


Earlier in this article, we mentioned paying a forfeit when a mistake was made.  These forfeits, recorded on small slips of paper, and placed in a covered basket in the keeping of the host or hostess.  At the end of the games, the drawing of the forfeits commences.  To prevent fraud, 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, decides 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 ones forfeits include:

To Be at the Discretion of the Company

To be required to do whatever the company, or the group 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.

 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 pose 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 any one 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

This is best demonstrated 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.

A pin for another, as like it, she pierces, but attaches.

Forfeits for Ladies

In France, kisses are too much multiplied.  In England and her colonies, kisses may only be assigned as punishments for ladies.

 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 attempt to bring their lips together for the required salute.

Couples playing Le Baiser À La Capucine

Le Baiser À La Capucine

Le Baiser à la Religieuse

This is remarkable for the difficulty of performance.  How unpleasant to be able to salute the lady of your choice, only through the close bars of the back of a chair.

Couple kissing through the back of a chair

Le Baiser à la Religieuse


Of course, Walker points out that 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?


Works Cited

Revel, Rachel.  Winter Evening 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.





  1. Eugene Hough says:

    Wonderful !


  2. Chuck H. says:

    Thank you, Sir! I wonder if any of our readers have stories about their family or friends 12th Night Celebrations or traditions that they would share with us?


  3. Ed Townes says:


    As I am sure you are aware, the French tradition still observed in Gulf Coastal regions of our country acknowledge 12th night not only as the end of the Christmas season, but also as the beginning of the Mardi Gras season. In our home the Christmas tree, nativity scenes, and the expressions of Christmas do not come down on the New Year, but rather on 12th Night.

    Ed T.


  4. Chuck H. says:


    Yes, in my home the debate goes on every year. My wife wants to take down all the Christmas decorations on New Year’s Day, while I argue for leaving them up until 12th night (or actually Epiphany – on Jan 6. Unfortunately, my wife usually wins by pointing out that I am home on New Years day to help her take them down but most years I am at work on January 6.

    C’est la vie, eh?



  5. Lynda Whiston says:

    Fantastic! I too am always eager to point out to those who lament that Christmas is over on boxing day that indeed Christmas has 12 days! We have continued many of these traditions in a watered down format and incorporated them into New Year’s Eve celebrations and parties. For example we do a treasure hunt where the ladies draw a gentleman’s name from a hat as partner for solving the riddles. We sometimes do charades and will often place the youngest of the party at the head of the table. It’s interesting to learn how some of these traditions survive in some regions more conspicuously than others!


  6. Chuck H. says:

    That’s great Linda, and thanks so much for your comments. Putting the youngest at the head of the table is a wonderful example of the 12th night tradition of “turning things upside-down.”

    Here where I live in Virginia, I know of at least 2 social clubs I am involved with (both admittedly oriented toward things British/Scottish/Irish) that have 12th night parties, although the are generally held on the weekend closest to 12th night since no one wants to go partying and have to get up and go to work the next day.


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