Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night

Holiday celebrations culminate with Twelfth Night revelries.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

New Year's marks the end of the holiday season, a final celebration before winter's austerity. Not so in the 18th century. Then, New Year's was a modest pause on the way to Twelfth Night revelries. Colonial Williamsburg historian Lou Powers joins us now to talk about a season of balls and banquets.

Why Twelfth Night?

Lou Powers: Twelfth Night is the end of the Christmas season, the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas. On January the 5th, the final evening of the Christmas season, this was the time for a get-together of whatever means one could afford. Dancing, of course, which could only require a few couples and one musician -- maybe one lone fiddler. And, as good a drink and food as you could provide for your friends and family. Then the next day marks a different church calendar season, the season of Epiphany. Epiphany, we use the term now to mean "aha," or "I get it," a sudden realization of what's going on. But biblically, it means the manifestation of Christ to humans. So, the Magi reached Bethlehem and this was the Epiphany because it was the presentation of Christ to the Gentiles.

Lloyd: Didn't know that.

Lou: Yeah, but there was notice taken of January the first. People mentioned in letters or diaries the beginning of a year, the end of a year, what they had accomplished, what they had failed to accomplish, hopes for the new year.

Lloyd: And resolutions of one type or another.

Lou: Actually, I'm glad you asked that. I happened to check in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the first use of the term "New Year's resolution" dates from – any guesses? 1850.

Lloyd: Actually, that would have been later than I would have guessed.

Lou: Me, too. For most of the colonial period, actually until 1752, the legal New Year's Day was March 25th.

Lloyd: Why?

Lou: March 25th is nine months before Christmas, so it's the conception. It was called "Lady Day." You often read that leases began on Lady Day, rents are due, contracts are from Lady Day to the next March 24th. It all has to do with the difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendar. The Julian calendar was the older, less accurate one. The Continent began using the updated Gregorian in 1582. England and her colonies didn't catch up officially until 1752, almost 200 years later.

Lloyd: I read somewhere in reading about Jamestown that for a period in early Jamestown history, people would date things with two years. They would date things with both the Julian and the Gregorian calendar dates.

Lou: That's right. Between January the 1st and March 25th, there would be two years. That didn't mean they didn't know what year it was, or historians are not smart enough to figure it out now. It was simply the acknowledgement of the old Gregorian calendar in use in England, and her colonies and the new year having started on the updated Gregorian calendar.

Lloyd: Oh, well.

Lou: It's peculiar to England and her colonies, because the continent changed immediately in that date, 1582. The local newspaper here, the Virginia Gazette, had quite a few articles in 1752 before the calendar actually officially changed. Folks went to sleep on Wednesday the 2nd of February 1752, and when they woke up it was Thursday, September the 14th. The weekly newspaper made no reference to it having happened. The August 28th issue for '52 was numbered 87, and was followed by number 88 – dated September the 15th, without comment.

Lloyd: (Laughs.) I love it. We said it's September the 15th, so it's September the 15th. Just take it. 1772 – how did people celebrate New Year's, or did they?

Lou: They didn't, really. There was, as I said, the acknowledgment of the year ending, but it was still a part of the season of Christmas. In an agricultural society, wintertime is the best time for farmers, planters, and others to have an extended visit away or have people visit them. Even townspeople were involved in agricultural interests, and so this calendar of seasonality applied to townsfolk, too.

It's a time when people could get together. There were often marriages taking place, so you have to attend weddings. There are lots of church services that you go to through the Anglican calendar of the Christmas season. And, lots of visiting back and forth if you're able to do that. We know that field hands expected three to five days off of their work sometime during the Twelve Days of Christmas. So, New Year's itself was not a big deal. They'd wait until that January the 5th party and hope you got invited to the best one in town.

Lloyd: Was that the one that solidified your social status? If you gave a good party for January 5th, you were higher in the social ladder?

Lou: Actually, there seems to be less vying for this social cachet among the gentry than among the middling classes. The gentry lived great all the time anyway. It was another day for them, with another great meal and plenty of claret and fine Barbados rum punches and whatever.  The middling classes would try harder. This was more of a season when they celebrated and tried to have more and better things to eat and drink.

Lloyd: I have read somewhere that the gentry made up roughly 5 percent of the population. How much was the middling class?

Lou: It's very, very fluid, especially by the 1770s. What I can tell you about Virginia, pre-Revolutionary War period, is that 40 percent of Virginia's population were enslaved. There were poor people, black and white. There was a very fluid middling class, and that can change with an accident, a failure in business, a death. A fortuitous marriage can move – especially girls – from middling class into the gentry. It's very hard to calculate. The people who are middling and poor rarely show up in the records. All the records are skewed to the gentry class, because of surviving letters and diaries and so on. We have so much more information about the Thomas Jeffersons, the George Washingtons, and so on.
Lloyd: I would imagine the war years would have changed the way people celebrated. Men might not be home, goods might not be available. Your celebration in January might suddenly not be very celebratory.

Lou: The convention had said absolutely no frivolity. No theater, no billiards, no games of chance of any sort. We're not to spend any money on mourning attire or funeral practices of any sort of visible exterior outward display. So, it wasn't just Christmas season that was affected by this, but it was every aspect of life. There were no imports, no exports.

Lloyd: I should think that people would be looking for a little bit of frivolity in the middle of a war.

Lou: Well that was the law, but it doesn't mean it was totally enforceable. The billiards table at the Raleigh Tavern was in use. He paid for a license. I guess for the gentry, it wasn't considered frivolous. The men who made the law needed the billiard table.

Lloyd: Of course. In the year, what do you think would be the night, the evening, the event that people would most look forward to? Was it January 5th, Twelfth Night?

Lou: Probably. It's not clear how many of the middling sort were involved in these parties that we have the records of. It also depends on one's geographical location and religious bent. There are many important dates in the church calendar for those Anglicans or dissenters who are paying attention to that. Easter would be the most important date to a very devout Christian.

December the 25th was a holy day, but the 12 days were a good time to have a good time. It is a season, and it stretches from the 25th to the 5th. It doesn't start November 1st, as our Christmas seems to start – right after Halloween, or even earlier sometimes. It's that extended period that makes a big difference. But New Year's was also mentioned occasionally as a time for gifts. One of the advertisements in the Virginia Gazette in 1738 advertised one of its newest publications, and said it was very suitable as a New Year's gift to children. Want to take a guess what the title was?

Lloyd: No.

Lou: "The Church Catechism Explained."

Lloyd: I can see every kid looking forward to that.

Lloyd: Let us know what you think about the show. Leave your feedback at That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check back often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.


  1. I love these interviews!
    Very interesting this one. This explains why Martha always celebrated George’s birthday on February 11, rather than February 22 since he was actually born on the 11th according to the old calendar!
    I wonder if there might be a typo on the seventh comment by Lou Powers; she said,” Folks went to sleep on Wednesday, the 2nd of February, 1752 and when they woke up, it was Thursday, September, the 14th.” I imagine both of those dates would be in the same month, not more than 7 months apart.

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