Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is a Sodus tradition (also on Christian Holler Road and Sodus Point) that is now “gone with the wind” although still done in some communities. In his book Stinky’s Tale (pp 100-102), Bob Pearson helps us relive those bygone days….

Twelfth Night – A forgotten ritual

Twelve nights after Christmas the gathered Christmas trees went up in a blaze seen for miles and felt for hundreds of yards down by the school parking lot. On January 6th the population of the community gathered at the school to watch the local volunteer firemen set off a huge pile of discarded Christmas trees already dried out and ready to glow in a whole new way. The trees were collected by village workers from the snow banks in front of the homes throughout the community. Some people dragged their trees there by sled if they had let the tree linger in their homes beyond the pickup date.

This eve of Epiphany was a special night in our area. According to many people it was considered bad luck to take the Christmas decorations and trees down prior to the 6th of January. The celebration recognized the gift of the Magi according to tradition. The tradition, going back in history hundreds of years, was a pretty big deal for several reasons. The gathering usually took place on a school night, and that was always a bonus and departure from the school night routines at home. Secondly, the night became a visual and sensatory delight since the dry trees burned fiercely and with nice aromas. A third factor was that in the cold night, laced with hot drinks and donuts for all, the kids got a glimpse of adults gathered in a community celebration of life and the passing holiday season.

Twelfth nights involving huge fires do not occur anywhere to any extent anymore for liability and environmental reasons. Probably communities don’t function quite like that anymore, either. Whatever liability problems existed then in my home town were not given much consideration, since the ground was usually covered with many inches of snow and the local firemen were there to start the blaze and then monitor it until its lingering ashes were finally extinguished. The environmental concerns just were not a factor in that era. We did not worry about things such as air quality, ozone layers, and global warming since our trees were disposed of, the warm drinks were great, and the event was over long after the smoke drifted who knows where. We burned leaves during the fall and that occurred with regularity. Since that was safe and fun, why would anyone worry about the January blaze?

The leaf fires of the fall were products of youthful “volunteer” firemen all over the village as we tossed horse chestnuts into the small fires and enjoyed the loud pops resulting from the minor explosions of the chestnuts. We would even save chestnuts for January to toss upon the tree fire, but their pops were indistinguishable due to the roar of the trees burning. The local firemen who tended to the details were, of course, volunteers. As with most small villages across America the volunteer firemen were the mainstays of a safe community.,

My own father served as mayor for many years, worked as a salesman for a local canning company, and on Twelfth Night was there with his volunteer cronies dressed out in fireman’s gear. The sight of our various fathers and local leaders assuming the fire fighter’s role was always intriguing. Long before the events of September 2001, firemen were held in special awe and esteem In communities like Sodus. The risk to these local people was always there and in certain fires such as when a big building caught in the downtown district—or when the local Greek restaurateur torched his place every seven years or so for insurance purposes—the risk was great.

The Twelfth Night celebration was a piece of cake for the firemen fire control-wise, and they used this night to rally the troops and new equipment in a show of force reminiscent of the July 4th parades and Firemen’s Field Days. After the January night concluded, my father would return to home after we had made the trudge home ourselves, and his arrival was an odor-full reminder of the season one more time. His clothes were permeated with the smells of the burning trees.

My home was on High Street and that was nice except that it involved going up a long, rather steep hill from the village and from school. Going there was a breeze, but the return walks were a test each time. Sliding down this hill took many hours of our winter days when we were not in school, so the location had a fine recreational dividend. Such dividends were paid for by taxing the heart and legs and lungs to get back to the top each wintry trip down the hill with the sled. Reflecting upon such activities now, I realize I had a physically challenging childhood, and because of those endless hours on the hill my constitution is better for it today. As an aside, the state of children’s fitness in the modern era is evidence enough of the void of physical activity in their young lives. The Twelfth Night celebration ended with another climb up the hill with my brother and others, and one more great memory of adults and children experiencing something together that developed greater respect for the community and its dynamics.

Other Memories:

Michael A. Stell:

I remember it fondly. The Twelfth Night celebration took place each year directly behind my house at 7 Carlton Street in the school’s parking area on Elmwood Avenue. The Contant family didn’t even have to leave their home to attend the festivities as they took place right next door. Twelfth Night was an annual celebration and the end of the Christmas festivities.

Marie DeWispelaere:

I remember it being at the “new school” later on but only for a year or two. The SPUMC celebrated 12th nite for many years with a huge Christmas tree bon fire at Gene and Betsy Wahls house on Christian Holler road and later on in the back lot of Gene and Marie DeWispelaere’s house (in Sodus Point). Of course there was always a lot of food.