Christmas has come and gone, New Year’s resolutions have been made, the melancholy of January will set in, but don’t feel tempted to take down that Christmas tree just yet! According to Victorian tradition, your tree should remain until January 6. Failure to do so may result in bad luck. You’ve read this far, so don’t stop now. Your friends who skip this article of The Gazette might not have the same good fortune as you!
Originally the Twelfth Night ceremony, which marks 12 nights after Christmas, represents the eve of The Epiphany. This evening celebrates the Magi visiting baby Jesus and was historically accompanied by a temporary suspension of rules and social orders. Many years ago, in England, servants would dress as their masters, men as women, and vice versa.
The City of Cheviot adopted the Twelfth Night Christmas tree burning ceremony in 1957. The Cheviot Firemen’s Association gathered trees residents had put out to the curb and piled them at the Cheviot Field House field. On January 6, a tree burning ceremony would take place, with a few hundred spectators coming out to watch the blaze of glory.
On the city’s seventh anniversary of hosting this event, however, five teens decided it would be fun to start the ceremony a night early. Maybe they did it out of boredom, or maybe they knew it was a night where rules are temporarily suspended, but alas, trouble ensued…
According to news reports taken at the time, the five teens consisted of two brothers from Covedale, and one each from Bridgetown, Cheviot, and Westwood. After being apprehended, all five gave written confessions detailing the events of the evening. The teen from Bridgetown, along with the younger of the Covedale brothers, pretended to have car trouble and lured the two guards (Frank “Slim” Payler and Robert Bley) away from their station at the adjacent Memorial Field. Meanwhile, two teens snuck onto the field and set the mountain of Christmas trees into a blazing inferno, while the fifth teen waited up the hillside to drive them away.
Fire Chief Clarence Borntrager led ten Cheviot firemen to battle the blaze. They fought the flames for three hours until every last tree was burnt to a crisp. While no one sustained any injuries, Richard Keiser, General Chairman of the Twelfth Night Ceremony, did lose his dentures, which were later found uncharred next to the smoldering embers.
Police Chief Elmer Zoller began a hunt for the fiery bandits immediately. The license plate of another car in the parking lot was traced back to the Bridgetown teen, who after questioning, admitted to the crime and also gave up his accomplices. Then-Mayor Edward C. Gingerich presided over the case, but it is unknown the punishment that was handed down to the teens.
Despite the unexpected travesty, leaders of the Cheviot Firemen’s Association were able to gather more than 3,000 trees on short notice, allowing the Twelfth Night-after-Christmas burning to take place on schedule. The ceremony had the largest turnout ever with an estimated 1,000 spectators in attendance.