It’s Twelfth Night, the day the decorations traditionally come down, and when the festivities are supposed to end. The twelve days of Christmas, culminating in Twelfth Night as a time of revelry and mayhem, have a long tradition, and with seasonal associations of Saturnalia, it is tempting to see this as a Pagan throwback. Maybe it is.
Mediaeval life was in many ways quite regulated. Most people lived very close to the land and so the shapes of their lives were governed a lot by seasons, light levels and weather. The church of those times held a lot of political and practical power, we were in a feudal system where arms and fealty ruled, there were some very well defined social structures and the more ordinary people had little say over their lives. It’s a broad generalisation of a big swathe of time, but enough to put carnival and misrule into context. For a few days, the poorest man may be King. The Boy Bishop may preach, there can be nonsense in the services, lewdness, mirth and misbehaviour. As far as anyone can tell the effect of this was to make it easier to hold up the rules and status quo the rest of the year. I believe the Romans did something similar. I can’t help but think that if a hierarchical society likes a short period of misrule, that rather suggests that the brief letting off of steam serves to facilitate the existence of power structures the rest of the time.
Mayhem, it turns out, may not be as anarchic as we might like to think. Mayhem might be all about getting us to play nicely most of the time. I find myself thinking of the young binge drinkers, out misbehaving at the weekends, but back on the treadmills come Monday morning. The promise of a bit of carnival keeps us all behaving. In Alice through the Looking Glass, one of the Queens mentions that there will be jam yesterday and jam tomorrow, but never jam today. Now, you can, as one of my favourite philosophers, Terry Pratchett observes, get people to do rather a lot on the basis of jam tomorrow. You can’t do that forever though. Just now and then the jam has to show up for a little while, to keep the promise of jam real for the rest of the time. Welcome to Twelfth Night.
In terms of modern partying, New Year and Christmas itself have replaced Twelfth Night as the party season, because we’ve largely abandoned the religious aspect. But like the Romans of old, we need our bread and circuses to keep us passive.
We need a balance of order and chaos. Life depends on it. Sanity also. Too much safe stasis leads to stagnation and boredom. Too much chaos is exhausting and disorientating. We need the wild times and the times of peace. As a Druid I feel that need for balance keenly. Give me a staid and suffocating thing and I will try and break it open. Give me an excess of disorder and I will tidy it up a bit. I’m also a touch perverse, so give me a prevailing current and I’ll tend to swim against it anyway, but it doing that I create balances and restore harmonies. A bit of perverseness is an essential part of the mix.
What troubles me enormously, is the idea that officially sanctioned mayhem has probably always existed as a way of upholding the status quo. That’s not real chaos, real rule breaking, real wildness, it’s a stage managed and carefully ring-fenced bit of allowed messing about with a side order of pretending this is the real thing. The Boy bishop and the hooting priest are not manifestations of chaos if every year you get the same routine for a couple of days. The Lord of Misrule is not an expression of liberation if paying for his brief rein sends you back to a soul destroying job making someone else rich.
Chaos should not just be for Christmas, and if you’re doing it to uphold the system, you’re doing it wrong.