Twelfth Night: time to reinvent the season of Misrule
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 at least the religious aspects of Christmas during the Commonwealth period in the 1650s and by the 1830s it was rarely observed in the UK in that form.
Even so an observance of the period from Christmas to Twelfth Night (25th December to 5/6th January) continued until the early nineteenth century. Hutton in Stations of the Sun notes that as late as 1797 the Customs and Excise Office was shut on 7 days between December 21st and January 6th. By 1838 it closed only on Christmas Day. In the meantime the 1833 Factory Act made clear that Sundays aside the only two days in the year when workers should be absent from work was Christmas Day and Good Friday.
Shortly afterwards matters began to change again. Charles Dickens wrote a Christmas Carol, published in 1843, 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’.
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 (according to some accounts but the date does vary) 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 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