The Grand Poobah of Parties

I read a lot of historical fiction.

On purpose.

I like historical fiction and I write historical fiction, but the way to become a decent writer of the genre, and for others to become fervent followers of your writing in that genre, is to immerse yourself in the times as much as possible.

Alas, time travel isn’t feasible, although having toured the physics department in the United Kingdom’s Birmingham University last year (read about the unfathomable physics), I’m pretty sure it will be soon. So, until those clever clods figure it out, I’m left with reading. And reading leads to imagery. And imagery leads to sensation. And sensation leads to … well it doesn’t matter, but if we were Amish, this whole thing could lead to dancing and you know that’s one come hither look closer to hell than anyone’s comfortable having in their living room.

Call me a mutineer if you must (and likely only if you’re Amish), but I find that apart from joining a traveling band of reenactors, the only way to thoroughly taste the joie de vive of the past is to immerse yourself within the time period’s literature.

Or to make a pot of joie de vive, which I’m pretty sure includes a lot of entrails and a few copper francs.

One holiday not entirely gone and buried from memory, but not widely celebrated anymore, and one I think would be enormously fun to resurrect from the graveyard, is Twelfth Night.

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Taking place the night of January 5th, it heralds the beginning of the Epiphany and the end of the gluttonous Twelve Days of Christmas. Back in Tudor times, I’m guessing a dozen days wasn’t nearly enough, as Twelfth Night signified it was time to pack up and head home following all the debauchery that began waaay back on All Hallows Eve.

Yeah, these people knew how to party.

And “part-aay” was the name of the game. And the game was lead by the Lord of Misrule. Misrule as in total anarchy. But before we get to the more well-known versions, let’s take a quick tour of how things were done in a few other lands.

Yes, there’s a religious component to Twelfth Night, as some folks used to celebrate it in remembrance of the Three Kings’ arrival to the birthplace of Christ. It might have simply been a round of “Hallelujah” chorus because the three fellahs were wandering about in the desert for an unduly long period of time and refused to ask for directions. Wise men, eh?

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In Austria, there was a boatload of smoking that took place during the twelve days of Christmas, all poetically named … Smoke Nights. Apparently, Austria had a rather large problem with unwelcomed evil spirits hanging about the country, but soon discovered that the simple combination of great clouds of choking incense and a good solid drenching of holy water took care of the pesky so n’ sos for another three hundred fifty-some days.


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In the Netherlands, Twelfth Night officials allow folks to drive away all their unwelcome demonic shades by blowing out their eardrums with a festive little activity they call midwinterhoornblazen. Of course, there is the common misconception among foreigners who catch a glimpse of the Netherlandian wraiths that the reason they are sporting ear muffs is that they are chilly. In fact, they are simply bracing for the upcoming festival.


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In medieval times, the Norse (and now the English) would dedicate the evening to Apple Wassailing. Traditionally sent out into the apple orchards, a group of men would locate the oldest tree, encircle it, tie bread and toast to its branches and pour the last of their evening’s alcoholic winter punch over its roots. I’m going to guess they may have relieved themselves over the roots of the tree to boot, but likely it was just an earlier version of the evening’s punch. This, surprise surprise, was done in order to scare away any ghosts and goblins and encourage a bountiful surplus next season.


The thing we glean from looking at these past celebrations is that Europe was plagued with malignant spirits.

Later on, Twelfth Night improved a little in that folks went from driving out the dead to nearly joining them as they drank themselves perilously close to the edge of their lives. There are a plethora of opinions as to the correct form of celebrations, but I’ll give you the general gist.

A cake was cooked.

A reversal of fortune followed.

Lewd behavior ensued.

The Church found out.

Everyone grabbed their coats and went home swearing next year no one was going to invite The Church.

Still today, there are communities that make a grand go at keeping the traditions alive, but in my opinion, there’s clearly a lot of work to be done to convince the rest of the world that the holidays are not quite over.

So back to the books I go, immersing myself in the times of yore. But one thing remains certain: I read about the past to plan a better future.

I hope yours will be brilliant. Happy New Year!


Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here). And to see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone–click here.

27 thoughts on “The Grand Poobah of Parties

  1. I really like a bit of historical fiction to!

    I’m a big Simon Scarrow fan, he writes about ancient Rome from the view point of two reasonably high ranked soldiers. I bloody love it.

  2. You have put me to shame! I grew up in the Netherlands and I had never ever heard of Midwinterhoornblazen…but I googled it and sure enough, it’s a thing.
    Thanks for that! Is there any historical fiction you ever published or intend to publish, if I may so bold to ask?

    • What? You mean you don’t have your golden horn at the ready for easy access of evil spirit slaughter? This might have to be reported. Actually, it might help to keep your unruly writing brood in order if things get out of hand this year. 😉
      And yes, my historical fiction is in line for publication. First up is a commercial middle grade novel. I shall keep you posted.
      Happy New Year!

  3. Fantastic post! I just saw Rylance in both Twelfth Night and Richard III over New Year’s, and I was wondering about the meaning of the title. Misrule indeed! Thanks for the link to the Rylance interview as well. He is an exceptional talent.
    As to historical fiction, I agree with your observations, having found that writing a historical book requires far more serious research than contemporary fiction (where all one needs is the internet). I’m a stickler for accuracy, so will spend a week tracking down one small detail. And yet there has to be compromise in order for the work to be intelligible to modern readers, and (conversely) in order to avoid turning it into a dry dissertation. Some writers hold readers to a very high standard (Dorothy Dunnett comes to mind) while others kindly explain things, but at the risk of patronizing the reader… all very interesting to ponder!

    • Thanks, Linnet. What an exceptionally scholarly holiday you had! Well done you. I played a lot of gin rummy, but apart from looking at the kings and queens in my hand, that was about as close to viewing royalty as it got. 😉
      And if anyone would realize the depth of research needed in some genres of writing, I’d have to take my hat off to you. Your books are a feast for those who hunger for all things historical (and beyond!). Happy New Year!

      • Many thanks, and the Happiest of New Years to you and yours. I didn’t play any gin rummy over the holiday, –though that sounds like fun– but I drank a fair amount of gin. No rum, though I confess to a hankering for those chocolatey rum balls. Perhaps Christmas cookie season is not over quite yet…

  4. My dear Shelley,

    You may simply be able to find your joie de vevre on a table set with a plate of ris de veau you could make. If hesitant, call me and we’ll make it together for dinner. As far as the Smoke Nights… well, Colorado has got that one down and I’m qutie sure that most of the evil spirts will be leaving that state as the reaction time to “scary” things will most likely mellow out. (I can only imagine a mass increase of fast food joints (no pun intended) to quickly amass in the area.

    As for Apple Wassailing… well, here in the north woods one would NEVER consider pouring out any droplet of alcohol on anything except one’s own tough, and then, with respect (and typical discust), we water the trees “naturally”, just prior bed. The last one in is responsible to put out the fire, and hopefully not fall in.

    Life is good in the north woods, even at minus 30 degrees F.

    A blessed New Year to you and all of your readers. Rob, keep up the lead work. Perhaps Calvin and Hobbs will contact you someday. (Is he related to Sir Jack Hobbs?)

    Stoshu 🙂

    • So good to hear you’ve shoveled your way out of this last dumping! Although, if I remember correctly, shoveling your way out of all things trouble related is something you’ve put a lot of effort into as a teenage boy. 😉
      Regardless, if you’re the guy stirring the pot, I shall be there with my big fat spoon.
      Stay warm, eat hardy and happy new year.

    • I intend to keep up the good work, and there will be cartoon competitions, be warned. I’m not sure about the Hobbs question. Maybe something to do with the McVities biscuits (sorry, “cookies” for those of you on that side of the pond!) called Hobbnobs?

  5. Question. Did The Church frown upon the revelries because it didn’t believe in encouraging/permitting joy and celebration or was it because the celebrations were rooted in Pagan beliefs the Church was trying to extinguish?

    • Miss Bevan,

      I love your thoughts. The world, in my small and simple mind is that mans (humans) creation of religion, writ of that down by man or woman, (outside of all personal inner spiritual beliefs) has been created with nonfunctional, blighted, one-sided, dysfunctional angst; one that continually fights in corruption, distrust and misinterpretation, one against another as does a dysfunctional family.

      Hence, your question if ANY church continues to allow purported thought of any pre-Abrahamic religion to celebrate, I believe that one must do as they wish and personally believe, and not be held back from what society froths upon us… as long… as it does NOT hurt ANY other person, mentally, spiritually or physically.

      Freedom of speech, religious belief, self sustainability and the offering of our personal human gift of pure thought to give assistance and celebration for another human in this world is one of the greatest gifts we have to offer.

      With respect, I do not speak for Shelley, you, or any other person who reads, posts, or skims this blog as my thoughts are of my own. I do, however give gratitude to you and everyone else for striking up such thoughtful conversation, and with that, the pleasure of extreme politeness.

      With all due respect and a very prosperous New Year,

      Stoshu 🙂

      • Huh. I was just going to say that the Church probably frowned upon the revelries because it was lacking a seriously needed and hefty dose of fiber for breakfast, but his words are a lot more pretty and a lot less offensive.

        • Well Stoshu definitely used many more words than you, Shelley. *smiles*

          So then if I understand both your comments, another reason the church frowned on the revelries could have simply been because those who are happy and content are less inclined to seek answers as to why they are malcontent, since they are not? (And, with supply and demand taken into account, when you have fewer seekers, there’s a smaller need for those who are said to have answers so there’d be less need for a larger church.)

          PS: Of course, Shelley, irregularity contributes to malcontent, but dont’cha think the movement and lightheartedness of a joyous revelry would counterbalance any apparent lack of fiber (moral or other) at breakfast? *attempts witticism*

          • Speaking only from personal experience, which was steeped in a cluster of black-robed women who acted NOTHING like Julie Andrews, I found the that ‘church’ and ‘joyous revelry’ were not words found in the same sentence. Some of my friends enjoyed a wholly different experience growing up, but come to think of it, I believe they might have all been Wiccans. 😀

    • It depends on your definition of awhile. Usually, the festivities ended with most people waking up the following morning naked in a giant pile on the floor of the Lord’s Great Hall. Today, it probably means you’ve still lost your clothes, but you’re just waking up on the floor of the county jail. One might take a little longer to untangle from than the other, but think of the stories to share with your kids, right?

  6. Very interesting! I didn’t know any of this information about Twelfth Night. (I only knew it was a play by Shakespeare–which I never read.) I admire anyone who commits to writing historical fiction. The amount of research required in order to do it well is mindboggling. So what’s your favorite period in history to read/write about, Shelley?

    • The one where Scotland wins its independence and freedom from England. Oh wait, that’s not happened yet. So it would have to be all of Scotland’s many ATTEMPTS to win independence and freedom from England. It’s not a particularly happy chunk of time, but defines perseverance. And I am all about the underdog. (okay, and all about men in kilts too)

  7. Very enlightening and entertaining to read about the Twelfth night celebrations around different cultures. All I knew about Twelfth Night was from Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night”. “I read about the past to plan a better future’ I love this line, full of wisdom. Happy New Year to you and your family.

    • I’m pretty sure this is the first time anyone used the word ‘wisdom’ in a positive way when referring to me. I just might have to find me one of those hoornblazens and make an announcement directed at my kids. They’d love that. And chances are they’d announce what a wise decision it would be for me to bury the horn. 😉

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