Twelfth Night, Sixty Years Ago

With the holidays upon us and the observance of annual traditions in high gear it seems fitting to look back at one of Cranbrook’s most storied and festive occasions. Starting in 1950, every year at the beginning of December preparations would begin for the annual Twelfth Night Gala at Cranbrook House. Held on January 6th, the event was originally conceived as a small costume party in the 1920s by Cranbrook Founders’ son, Henry Scripps Booth. It eventually became an official Cranbrook gathering, with Henry at the helm.

The aim of Twelfth Night, as Henry stated, was “to recognize the contribution each employee and board member makes to Cranbrook by bringing them all together as participants in an enjoyable, annual, and ‘classless’ social event.” It was, in essence, a staff holiday party, but its magnificence was a far cry from the typical.

Joseph R. Scott Jr. practicing “piper’s piping” in Cranbrook House basement for the 1966 performance. Harvey Croze, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Not sure exactly what Twelfth Night signifies?  Perhaps you know the classic carol Twelve Days of Christmas: “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ….” A medieval English observance, Twelfth Night, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, denotes “the twelfth and last day of Christmas festivities”—twelve days after Christmas, or January 6th. The Shakespeare play of the same name is thought to have been created as entertainment for a Twelfth Night celebration.

Inspired by his English heritage and impressed with a performance of the play at the Detroit Opera House when he was twelve years old, Henry Booth created a sixty-year tradition for Cranbrook staff, faculty, and supporters that revived the holiday’s twin themes of celebratory food and pageantry.

In Cranbrook Archives, the Twelfth Night Records meticulously document the planning and execution of the gala as it took place at Cranbrook House, through programs, scripts, invitations, guest lists, receipts, budgets, meeting minutes, photographs and more. These items bring the party alive–and what a party it was!  

Eggnog in the Oak Room, 1967: (left to right) Helen Hays, Warren Hays, Chet Hard, Anita Hard, and Don Hays. Harvey Croze, photographer. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Choosing the decade of the 1960s to epitomize the revelry of the long-standing event, I give you the opening lines from the 1960 program, spoken by Cranbrook School Headmaster Harry Hoey:

We’ve all found a welcome in this mellow house
Including, we trust, some young shivering mouse
The wassail is heady
The fellowship’s steady
The mummers are ready
So gay may this gala be in Cranbrook House
On with the tom foolery!

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Photo Friday: Foaming Friendship

Prefects scrubbing the Gateway of Friendship plaque, Cranbrook School for Boys. September 18, 1944. Cranbrook Archives.

In the early 1940s, Cranbrook School students Pete Wilson and Tom Tyree wrote a modest suggestion in their “Cranium” column in The Crane student newspaper. The young men, both from the Class of 1943, suggested that students:

…refrain from walking on the plaque in the center of the gateway. It is inscribed “Gateway of Friendship” and it was pointed out that usually we do what we can to strengthen and propagate our friendships rather than trampling on them. The Crane feels this is a good point and a good example of a custom we might start.

The tradition stuck, and today students resist walking over the octagonal “Gateway of Friendship” plaque. One tradition that hasn’t stuck around, unfortunately: the annual scrubbing of the plaque!

Prefects scrubbing the Gateway of Friendship plaque, Cranbrook School for Boys. September 1953. Cranbrook Archives.

Meant to symbolize the importance of friendship among the Cranbrook community, Cranbrook School for Boys Prefects would clean the plaque at the start of each school year. It’s not clear, looking at the photographs, how clean they got the stone compared to how wet and soapy they got themselves, but it was an important symbolic gesture. In caring for the stone, the boys were demonstrating the spirit of the quotes carved into the archway. One, from James Fenimore Cooper, seems especially relevant:

Friendship that flows from the heart cannot be frozen by adversity as the water that flows from the spring cannot congeal in winter.

While the cleaning ceremony was described as a “sacred rite” in 1976 by Bruce Coulter in his history of the School, Forty Years On, I am not sure when or why the tradition stopped.

Gateway of Friendship plaque, unscrubbed. September 2020. Design attributed to Eliel Saarinen, ca. 1927-1928. Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

Cranbrook Schools students returned to class this past Monday for a school year like no other, donning masks and sitting at desks spread six feet apart. Instead of scrubbing the plaque, the most important thing students can wash this year is their hands! Maybe the tradition will return for 2021?

Kevin Adkisson, Associate Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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