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A Twelfth Night Tradition 

Hoop skirts, satin finery, bonfires, and knowledge of the order in which we shall die

Wednesday, Jan 8 2003
In South Philadelphia, it is a New Year's Eve tradition to shoot guns in the air at the stroke of midnight. The custom, I'm told, began with muskets that were fired 300 years ago by Swedish immigrants wearing clown suits, if I am to believe the man in a clown suit who calls his meatball sandwich a "grinder." Over the years, a number of Philadelphia celebrants have been struck by the indubitable nature of gravity, but such are the risks of revelry, and the risks, I am told, are far outweighed by the revelry. On the First of January, having survived the long night of projectile vomit and hot lead, proud Philadelphians rise with the hair of the dog, bandage their wounds, and limp down to Two Street for the Mummers Parade, where thousands of "fools" gather in greasepaint, clown garb, sequins, and feathers, armed with bells, washboards, clackers, and banjos, to act as silly as they can for as long as their oversize feet can hold up. It's an Old World custom sadly omitted from our local holiday fare. Its roots spring from the early Twelfth Night traditions of Europe, which grew out of the wild feasts held in Rome 12 days after the winter solstice. During those bacchanals, each Roman family elected an Emperor of Fools to trick evil spirits and provide guests with ribald delights. It was not a custom happily abandoned by the people. Starting in the fifth century, French and English churches adopted the practice, calling it the Feast of Fools and sanctioning a season of trickery and mayhem to be misconducted by the King of Fools, Lord of Misrule, and Abbot of Unreason from Halloween until Twelfth Night. Sadly, Puritans revolted against the traditional drunkenness, moral abandon, and ingenious vulgarity precipitated by such royalty. Under pressure, the holiday blanched, but it did not vanish.

In Britain, the passions and tremors of Twelfth Night are embodied in Mummer Plays -- comedic vignettes involving morris dancers, Robin Hood- and Maid Marian-styled characters, and a horse-demon with a big hoop skirt that traps young girls under its petticoats; in Ireland, similar romps symbolize the Wild Hunts during which a Faery Host rides through the countryside, gathering souls on the night of Jan. 5. To guard against such faery horrors, parades of fantastic costumed characters wind through the streets of Austria, blowing horns and cracking whips. In the Netherlands, the blare of the midwinterhoornblazen still frightens off the demons every year, allowing the townspeople to take pleasure in seasonably strong ale and King's Cake. Bonfires burn throughout the Alps to similar ends, and in Belgium, entire towns set their Christmas trees ablaze, as everyone knows Christmas decorations are terribly unlucky after Jan. 6.

"Give me Twelfth Night over New Year's Eve any day," says an elegantly attired woman as she unclips two of the hooks in her corset and cools her flushed cheeks with a breeze from her feather fan. "All the dancing, all the laughter, none of the idiots."

"Mmmm ... Twelfth Night is all about idiots," clarifies Curio the Clown, who's from Philadelphia.

"Um, well, you know what I mean," stammers the damoiselle.

"Of course," nods Curio, entering the Masonic Hall of San Mateo.

The ballroom is far too brightly lit, but the dance floor is a rustling sea of hoop skirts and satin finery, as is suitable for a 12th Night Ball hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig. Onstage Bangers and Mash, a 19th-century country-dance ensemble, ends the "Elevenths at Fezziwig's Waltz" and calls for the "Supper at Fezziwig's Schottische." Most of the floor clears but for a dozen high-spirited pairs who commence to hopping and skipping through the schottische.

"Oooh, how delightful," pants a woman in a ball gown of green velvet as a lady in a burgundy Victorian riding dress prances by. The Prince of Wales, a gentleman in a red kilt, proffers his handkerchief to the woman in green, and she demurely pats the sweat from her brow.

"I shall never wash it," says the Prince with a bow.

"Oooh, how delightful," coos the woman.

"Please find a partner for the 'Congress of Vienna,'" bellows the set caller. The floor fills again with twirling gowns and straight-backed gents for Fezziwig's most popular Swedish step, but only the most indomitable remain for the "Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba Berserker Waltz."

"If I'd known it was this kind of affair, I'd've worn something more ladylike," says Rose, whose bells on her toes have a habit of snagging other women's skirts, in spite of her expert dance skills.

"They said 'come as you are,' that's what they said," she explains with a frown, fluffing her pink satin dress, which is representative of a, ahem, lower class in Victorian society. Someone asks if we might be cousins.

"A Twelfth Night prank?" suggests Curio as Reginald Foghorn takes the stage to sing the "Boozin' Waltz." Stepping out into the night, I can hear the whole room join in the chorus: "Boozin' boozin' just you and I/ Boozin' boozin' when you are dry/ Some do it openly, some on the sly/ But we all are bloody well boozing.'"

The procession of Christmas trees gliding down Sloat Boulevard is unmistakable even in the dark. There are hundreds of them, thrown over shoulders and lashed to bicycles, carried by men in tinsel hats and women in long, snow-white beards. By the time we arrive at Ocean Beach, the blaze is already higher than the dunes, sparks licking at the moon. The roar of dry timber utterly engulfed by flame is like nothing else, a sinister crackling with the deep bass notes of implosion. The crowd whoops and hollers as more trees arrive and the stockpile of greenery rises against the sand cliffs, sacrifices to the new year. Several people edge toward the inferno with marshmallows but are quickly pushed back by the heat. Someone throws in a Christmas tree with lights still flickering in its boughs -- the whole thing is gone with a whoosh and a snap. Even after the 30th tree, it's breathtaking. The police arrive, but there is little they can do.

"Bring those trees back up here," commands one cop impotently as shadows to her left drag trees through the sand.

A man in a flame-retardant silver suit and helmet approaches the blaze like a space walker, slowly exploring the wall of fire, allowing it to run through his fingers. Feeling powerful and, perhaps, victorious, he twirls a branch over his head, and the police descend, handcuffing him as firetruck sirens scream through the night.

The crowd rushes the woodpile, hurling trees, one after the other, into the fire until the sound of the sea itself is obliterated by the combustion. People dance along the ghostly line of high tide. The firetrucks wait. And slowly, the crowd begins to disperse, faces flushed with excitement and heat and lawlessness.

Back at the house, Curio lights one candle on top of the King's Cake for each person in the room. We eat and drink and tell stories as the candles flicker in the breeze, pretending not to care, but as each burns down or is snuffed out by wind, we fall quiet. According to family custom at Curio's house, the order in which each candle expires will be the order in which we each die.

"It's a Twelfth Night tradition," he says with a grin, cutting up the King's Cake, "so you'll live each year as if it were your last." He passes out the pieces. As is still tradition in Mexico and Spain, whoever gets the bean baked inside will be named King of Fools and expected to throw a wonderful party for the rest of us in the following days. I cross my fingers and take a soft, mouthwatering bite of the new year.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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