Twelfth Night, Epiphany, the Feast of Three Kings -- call it what you will, today not only officially ends the holiday season but serves as a reminder of how we've let the good surprises drain out of our lives.
There is the bean baked into the Twelfth Night cake, which entitles the finder to reign for the evening; the tiny silver charms steamed into the Christmas pudding, which promise love, luck, health and wealth; and Christmas crackers, to put a pop into a party.
Once, entertaining was full of such devices -- and if they seem a bit childlike in serious Washington, all the more reason to embrace them. Hosts had water fountains that erupted when people passed by, drenching the unwitting guest. And elaborate constructions made out of spun sugar (most inappropriately called "subtleties") were brought out to the "oohs" and "aahs" of delighted diners.
One 19th-century host surprised his guests by having a caged canal built down the middle of the dining table, where four live swans were to float during dinner. This turned out to be a surprise for the host as well, as he was unaware that he had staged his Swan Lake during the mating season. Host and guests were treated to a spectacle that was a good deal more interesting than the intended one.
Hosts once did things with gusto, but we've grown to neglect the good surprises while we moan about the bad ones -- the guest who forgets to show up or the one who forgets to leave; the roast cooked to a leathery dryness because a small person turned up the oven; a chicken cooked not at all because a small person turned it down.
Instead of complaining about the bleakness of winter, why not give a party with a surprise in it? By this I don't mean a surprise party, since it is most unfairly the ones who give the surprise party who have all the fun. For at least a week before the event, the unwitting guest of honor is left to wonder why everyone stops talking and begins to giggle whenever he enters the room. And by the night of the great event, he is sunk in paranoia. No, let's bring back parties where everyone is surprised equally.
Simplest, of course, is to have a Chinese dinner and follow it with fortune cookies. You'll notice that no matter how inedible those cookies are, no one ever neglects to break one open and see what the future will hold. A box of eight dozen is $2.80 at Chinese Groceries, 604 H St. NW.
If Christmas hasn't entirely cleared out your account, you could hire a fortune teller. The next time you pass a place that promises to read the future, ask the reader the cost of an evening of fortune telling.
Stage a drama for your guests without telling them you're doing it. Hire two college students to show up just before dinner and announce that they've come to reclaim your dining room table. After they've successfully made off with it (they can store it in the garage and bring it back in tomorrow), explain that it was a joke and produce an elaborate picnic supper, to be eaten while guests loll about on the dining room floor. Or hire two drama students to pose as guests who meet in your living room and fall instantly and outrageously in love.
Buy darts and a dart board at a sporting goods store, set out pub food -- scotch eggs, chutney and cheese, meat pies -- and inform your guests that they have just entered the annual dart tournament.
Have Robert Redford make a late appearance as a guest of honor.
Now that many people have VCRs, it is no longer a surprise to discover that the evening's entertainment is to be a movie shown on the TV set. Go a step further. When your guests arrive, give each a bag of popcorn and herd them off to the American Film Institute at the Kennedy Center. You can rent their 38-seat screening room for $175 and show the film of your choice. Bring your home movies, or . . . no, don't. Ask AFI to guide you to a distributor, who will rent you a favorite movie for prices that usually range from between $50 to $125. To reserve the screening room, call (202) 828-4090.
Invite the stodgiest people you know to a formal dinner and then, when they arrive, say that your stove has just broken.Apologize and give everyone sticks, hot dogs, and marshmallows to toast over the fire. They'll have a much better time than if it were summer and they were dressed for it. And they may turn out to be fun.