The City That Was: On the Twelfth Day of Christmas
In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.
Starting my college years, when the holidays rolled around, I always found myself conflicted. There was no choice about what to do: my friends and I always found ourselves scattered at home, with families, instead of celebrating with our families of choice, which was always more fun. We decided to stretch out the holiday season by celebrating the actual holiday with families and the twelfth day of Christmas, January 6, with our friends.
It really made sense. After the holidays, all the Christmas crap was a quarter of the price. Beautiful Christmas trees were thrown out on the street. Everything was on sale everywhere. We could do Christmas extravagantly on the twelfth day and hardly spend anything. At 1907, this celebration became epic.
In our wanderings around the neighborhood, we all scoped out the best discarded trees, and after recovering from New Year’s, we’d start bringing in the best ones. One year, in a fit of enthusiasm, people dragged in a dozen huge trees. Even though1907 was a massive flat, it looked suspiciously like a forest with all that desiccated pine in every room. We decided that having a dozen dry trees in a house full of smoking, of various sorts, was what you’d call a definite fire hazard. So late that night, we took ten of them out again and had a quick conflagration in the intersection outside our windows. Then, of course, we cleaned it up, to leave no trace.
When we’d found the perfect trees, we would pull out all the decorations and pick up more lights, more ornaments, more stuff. While the rest of the city was boxing up the holiday red and green, we were taking advantage of post-holiday clearances. Someone showed up one year with a nearly life-sized plastic Santa that could be filled with lights and glow in the dark of some corner of the house. It stayed in the corner all year, being too big to store anywhere.
The 12th Night ritual was simple. Everyone who came brought one present, marked male, female, or either. There was always a broad range of presents: white elephants, beautiful hand-made objects, gag gifts, or things selected at the last minute from items around the house. When 1907 reached maximum capacity, Santa, always played by the inimitable Flash Hopkins, would decide who got which wrapped present. After that, people would walk around with their gifts and trade them with others. (“Wow, you got a padlock? I actually needed to get one of those. Trade for this harmonica?”)
The next day, as we dragged our exhausted asses out of bed to clean up, and slogged through the debris with garbage bags to return 1907 to its usual state of comfortable disarray, we’d find dozens of abandoned presents under piles of wadded wrapping, or shoved under the furniture, along with dirty glasses. Some of the abandoned gifts were wonderful, hidden for safekeeping, but then totally forgotten after one drink too many. Some of them were abandoned on purpose, like the rubber poop and the Barney bank we found one year; or people would sneak weird objects into some arty tableau or another around the house, where they wouldn’t be found until I did the annual dusting.
Almost everyone said that of all the parties at 1907, 12th Night was the one they loved most—even more than Halloween, the early Burning Man Decompression parties, or my favorite, the first Proust wakes. I think there’s a good reason for that, besides all the 75% off mistletoe hung everywhere. The holidays are too much pressure, too expensive, and too much of a good thing at once. When you celebrate Christmas in the dull early days of the new year, and all the pressure is off, the social calendar is light, and everything is on sale, you can finally enjoy it.
In a lot of European countries, children get their presents on January 6. So it was only fitting that we, in our very extended adolescence, should be gifting on this day. I recommend 12th Night as a practical holiday alternative, and want to resume hosting it in the future, when my true love gives me another place like 1907.