The Re-invention of tradition: Time to bring back The Lord of Misrule for Twelfth Night

In Uncategorized on January 5, 2014 by kmflett

The Re-Invention of Tradition: Time to bring back The Lord of Misrule for Twelfth Night

Most will be aware that the Christmas many celebrated towards the end of December is not an ancient tradition handed down over the centuries but something invented by the Victorians.

Cromwell tried to ban Christmas during the Commonwealth period in the 1650s and by the 1830s it was rarely observed in the UK.

Shortly afterwards matters began to change. Charles Dickens wrote a Christmas Carol which focused on the ability of the poor and down trodden to enjoy festivities despite the activities of what today would be called neo-liberal bosses like Scrooge.

Dickens knew he was inventing a tradition and he did so purposively. His idea was that Christmas should indeed be a time of enjoyment to counteract the misery that, as he well knew, was the reality of the daily lives of many. We might see it as a radical take on the idea of ‘we’re all in it together’.

Alongside Dickens some parts of the upper classes were making new Christmas traditions. The idea of a Christmas tree for example came from Germany via Queen Victoria’s husband Albert. Along with the tree came greetings cards and a revival of what was genuinely a tradition, the singing of carols.

Were there other reasons for the invention of the modern Christmas at the start of the Victorian age?

The answer seems to be yes. Just as early Christians established the original idea of Christmas in a bid to compete with and diminish other end of year celebrations, so the Victorian Christmas aimed to replace what was an inconvenient folk custom.

This was the tradition of celebrating not Christmas on 25th December but Twelfth Night before Epiphany on the 6th January.

The celebration of Twelfth Night along with other customs such as Saint Monday where workers took the day off to recover from the weekend or continue its revels were increasingly out of place for an industrial capitalism that looked to rely on a regular, disciplined workforce.

Whatever else Twelfth Night was, it was not disciplined. Rather it was a Saturnalia, where a Lord of Misrule was in charge and the existing order of things was inverted. It can be seen as a Carnival, a popular celebration of the possibility of a differently ordered world.

Shakespeare famously wrote a play about it, although that is about the general idea of the world being turned upside down rather than the winter festival. The Lord of Misrule in the play was a conservative figure, Toby Belch.

Some have argued that the Lord of Misrule was a way of temporarily allowing expressions of dissent the better to make the existing order continue, a kind of safety valve. He was a radical world turned upside down figure who traditionally ruled from All Souls Day on November 1st,  to Shrove Tuesday.

It did not however always work out that the Lord of Misrule was simply a release for discontent. In fact the Christmas period, both the start of the twelve days of Christmas and the eve of Epiphany at its end were sometimes marked with street parades and riots about discontents. In Norwich on January 6th 1443 a King of Christmas figure led a revolt against an Abbot who was trying to close two of the cities mills

If we understand that before Charles Dickens and Prince Albert got to work the only viable and existing end of year tradition involved disorder in the streets we can begin to grasp why they put so much effort into inventing the tradition that is the modern Christmas.

At the same time just as the Victorians invented Christmas there is no reason why the left can’t re-invent the much more radical traditions of Twelfth Night and the Lord of Misrule


One Response to “The Re-invention of tradition: Time to bring back The Lord of Misrule for Twelfth Night”

  1. thankyou! You seem to have unusual instincts and the abilty to ‘think outside the box’ . Until I read your blog, the devilish reformation as well as the commercial seeds planted by Dickens, the Prince and my great great great uncle, Washington Irving were explained only as a way to stop the riots going on in Europe. I think there was alot more to it than that, and it was your input that sparked my own rebellious thoughts. I was trying to find a modern festival or celebration that was still acknowleding the lord of misrule when i saw your comments. I was doing research for my second book, Noel, in the Holiday Series. I’m putting in a break between Part 1 and Part 2 in the new book, with the twelve days of Christmas celebrated in my own way to end with Twelfth Night and prescence of the Lord of Misrule. When I was alot younger Christmas had budded into a vision of the tree, the roaring fire in the hearth and the upcoming surprise of unwrapping a pile of toys and goodies waiting for me under the glittering tree. I didn’t know that my parents were way too drunk every day, that our Christmas was actually X-mas(having been created out of thin air only a few years ago) and now I see teenagers beating each other up on the floor of a shoe store in a mall to get their hands on a new sneaker from Michael Jordan the day before the date we’ve chosen to memorialize the birth of a god or a prophet depending on what you believe.

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