Twelfth Night at Yaddo: Trasks’ Merry Measure of Yule-Tide Treasure

The Trasks shared an abiding faith in creativity as a transformative force that would necessarily improve life for mankind. —Micki McGee, editor of Yaddo: Making American Culture (2008) 

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Spencer and Katrina Trask, shown amid a large cast of costumed revelers at Yaddo in 1899, really knew how to throw a party. But they also strove to invest their “Twelfth Night” celebrations with spiritual significance. Courtesy of the George S. Bolster Collection, Saratoga Springs History Museum
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Courtesy of the George S. Bolster Collection, Saratoga Springs History Museum.

In the Trask household of the late 1890s, the gap between having a great idea and making it come alive was narrow. The Trasks had by then regained their equilibrium after the catastrophic loss of their four young children over an eight-year period in the prior decade, and had recovered from the fire that turned their lovingly remodeled Italianate-Gothic mansion, the original “Yaddo,” into a heap of ashes in 1891. Two years later, ensconced in the then new baronial structure that stands on the estate out Union Avenue today, they sought new outlets for their restless creativity. Spencer the Wall Street titan was all the while helping to reinvent America and the world one investment at a time (lights, the power grid and recorded music via Edison, railroads that helped reknit the country after the Civil War, the resurrection of The New York Times, etc.), and Katrina was turning out a steady stream of poetry, novels and plays. Their philanthropies were legion. But they had a nagging feeling that something was missing, and by 1899 they’d figured out what it was: Christmas.

Not that they hadn’t celebrated it before then; as committed Christians they’d of course always treasured the holiday, showering family, friends and staff with gifts and staging elaborate feasts, concerts and pageants. (They also supported extensive Christmas charities beyond the Yaddo community.)

In fact, they were already “keeping” the Victorian ideal of Christmas in a style few could match. But they wanted to invest the whole holiday season—the 12-day period from the birth of Christ to the Epiphany—with a specific yet transcendent meaning for those who had befriended and supported them through their staggering trials. Thus began the legendary “Twelfth Night” celebrations at Yaddo that lasted until Spencer’s shocking death in a train wreck on New Year’s Eve in 1909. (Ever the activist, he’d been on his way to New York City to further the state project that saved Saratoga’s mineral springs.)

As Katrina later wrote of the planning behind the “Twelfth Night” celebrations: “In the working out of the pageant, it grew deeper than surface play. It became another special opportunity to express the spirit of Yaddo life—the spirit of fellowship for which we strive—uniting those who serve and those who are served, in a common festival of living this day of Manifestation of Him Whom we both serve.” Since half-measures weren’t their style, “Lord and Lady of Yaddo,” as they called themselves with tongue in cheek, went all out in the 10 years from 1899 to 1909.

Former City Historian Evelyn Barrett Britten, writing of the epic revels nearly a half-century later in The Saratogian, tells us: “The host of Yaddo, Mr. Trask, dressed in an English knight’s costume of black velvet with black satin knee length trousers, white satin waistcoat and lace and satin at the cuffs of the long coat, surrounded by guests and employees, dressed as heralds, shepherds and courtiers, silently awaited the arrival of the Queen of the Festival, Mrs. Trask.”

Katrina, clad “in a white satin gown with a wreath of pink roses in her hair,” descended the main staircase and moved to the great fireplace where she read “Ring Out Wild Bells,” as the chimes of the Yaddo chapel answered her, Britten reports. The heralds blew their trumpets, and the costumed household staff sang Mrs. Trask’s “Yule Log Song” as a log from Yaddo’s forests arrived on a sled “drawn by six children dressed as scarlet gnomes.” That ancient Christmas fragrance, frankincense, was poured into a brazier, and apparently all that was missing was the proverbial partridge in a pear tree.

But as Katrina makes clear in her forward to Bishop William Croswell Doane’s “Twelfth Night at Yaddo” (in the collection of the Saratoga Springs Public Library’s Saratoga Room): The pageant’s significance and symbolism differed from that “of those rougher days, when roystering feasts and cruel sports prevailed.” Two silver loving cups were passed around to all the guests, suggesting a kind of communion of kindred Yaddonian spirits in place of the wassail bowl (with, as Britten says, “its relatively coarse associations of drunkenness”). After caroling and dancing, guests searched for a ring hidden in pieces of the two huge Twelfth Night cakes. The pageantry, which was varied (one year including a performance of Katrina’s Christmastide play, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”) but always included a procession up to the creche on the third floor of Yaddo’s tower, ended on Jan. 6 with the crowning of Spencer and Katrina as king and queen.

After Spencer’s death—the last catastrophe of Katrina’s life, which continued for another 13 years until her own death in early 1922—the elaborate and creative Twelfth Night fetes ended, but Katrina determined that realizing their longtime shared vision of using Yaddo to encourage and support the creative arts would be among his memorials (along with William Chester French’s stunning “Spirit of Life,” which has stood in Congress Park for over 100 years). The Trasks’ mansion and estate reopened as an arts colony in 1926 with a uniquely significant impact on American and world culture. Did Yaddo as we now know it grow directly out of the Christmas epiphanies they created for 10 years running? Maybe not, but the spirit was the same. As Britten wrote in 1952: “Without posterity of their own, they decided to adopt posterity… Yaddo, as a site for artists, poets, writers, creators of a better living for mankind, carries the torch for the Yaddo of the Trasks.”

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Courtesy of the George S. Bolster Collection, Saratoga Springs History Museum.