Breaking The Rules

The Christmas jumper is a case in point. There are things we put up with at Christmas that we wouldn’t countenance at any other time of the year. Tasteless, excessive, ludicrous, or sentimental - if it’s Christmas then it’s OK. Many a uniform, be it of hipster cool, Sloane style, no-nonsense utility dressing, or corporate chic, is interrupted, come December, by some festive abomination in jumper form. While some insist that the Christmas jumper is worn with irony, the fact remains that perfectly stylish people suddenly add tinsel, cartoon reindeers, funny fur, bells, baubles, and even L.E.D.s to their day-to-day wardrobe. I have to admit to sporting a terrible number this year: a woollen, beige travesty of a snow scene, featuring a rabbit in a scarf. The lumpy thing was too long and so the rabbit’s fluffy, large bottom and protruding tail sagged like a sporran over my groin, and, however much I tugged at the blasted garment, two of the woollen snowflakes always ended up suggestively placed on my chest. When, if not at Christmas, would you ever go to work in what look like cotton wool nipple tassels? But the Christmas jumper is far from the end of our Christmas rule-breaking. Ascetic types who eat carefully and exercise hard, lounge guiltlessly in front of the fire while on their eighth glass of bubbly and their second box of chocolates, after a carb-heavy dinner that would usually be eschewed with a superior smile. Family members with little patience for the sentimental, whose normal viewing consists of gory but detached Scandi-Noir crime series, are suddenly cooing over the predictable and mushily neat tying up of loose ends in the Downton Abbey Christmas special. Honestly! One minute the man is dying of pernicious anaemia and the next they’re going to live a long and happy life together? It’s more ludicrous than Hermione’s statue coming to life in The Winter’s Tale! But hey, it’s Christmas. All the usual rules of narrative, good taste, and self-restraint have gone out of the window.

Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals

One highlight of my Christmas season this year was going to the panto with some friends and their children. It was the first time in donkey’s years I’d been to a pantomime and I was really looking forward to seeing Jack and The Beanstalk at a beautiful Regency theatre in Bury St Edmunds. Unfortunately I began the evening playing by my usual rules of self-conscious restraint and good manners, which really isn’t conducive to enjoying a panto. As the house lights went down and the over-loud music was matched by the wails of several small children, I felt my neck stiffen. Would I be able to bear this much noise? A mild sense of panic began to take hold as the narrator strode onto the stage in a paisley dress and a joke shop hippy wig. This was surely going to be an utter nightmare, I thought to myself. As Jack and a troupe of dancing girls jiggled exuberantly through the first number, I watched the eyes of the children in our party open with unadulterated joy, their mouths hung open in wonder, or beamed and giggled without inhibition. Pretty soon I forgot that the dame’s relentless fart jokes were unsophisticated and that it was slightly worrying that Jack and Jill’s main love theme was the one about dying from Twilight.  It wasn’t long until I was simply having a fantastic time. Such is the combined magic of theatre and Christmas that I slipped from sitting stiffly in my seat and wondering about the misogynist undertones of the pantomime dame tradition, into yelling “it’s behind you” just as loudly as the five-year-old next to me. Perhaps I was even louder. At the part in which the audience are split into two and compete to sing a silly song louder than the other side (you’ll remember this part from the last time you went to a panto) the actor playing the Duke called the musical director, known as Auntie Vicky, on to the stage to accompany the singing on a bogey green banjo. After each side had roared their loudest, the Duke mused, “if only there was someone with a bit of musical knowledge to help us decide on the winner!” He looked around in hammy confusion, “who can we ask? Who do we know who’s an expert in music?” The penny dropped. Without missing a beat I yelled “AUNTIE VICKY!” only to find that I was the only one. I didn’t even mind. When at a conference I can’t even ask a question without blushing in profound embarrassment, but as I left the theatre that night my cheeks were flushed only with joy. If only I could find a bit of that Christmas abandon in my everyday life! So long as I don’t start shouting “Oh no it isn’t!” in the middle of conference papers I disagree with, I think it would be a very good thing.

The winter festival that has become Christmas in the Christian calendar used to be, at one point, the Roman Saturnalia. At Saturnalia, festival of Saturn, the social order of Roman society was ignored. For one day, even slaves were free to engage in general merrymaking and not bound to serve their masters. In Medieval England, the idea of an upheaval of order survived in the December celebrations around Christmas time. As well as general merry making, the celebrations also featured a Carnival King, chosen from the normal folk to rule for a day. Figures of authority, such as the churchmen, could be mocked and lampooned, and, for the duration of the carnival, everything was topsy-turvy. Into the renaissance, and in Shakespeare’s day, theatre played an important role in this Christmas season of misrule. The twelve days of Christmas would be marked at court not only by gift-giving but by jousts, masques, and by the performance of plays. Upturned order and celebration are powerful themes in many of Shakespeare’s plays. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Bottom, a mere weaver, becomes the bedfellow of a queen, Titania; in Twelfth Night authority changes hands as the puritanical steward who rules Olivia’s household with a firm hand is mocked and bested by a couple of drunks and a fool; and in the Henriad, Falstaff, a heavy-drinking big-eater (who in many productions looks a lot like Father Christmas), lives, full of joy, outside the normal rules of society and morality, and, at one point, role-plays as a king. The celebratory world of Shakespeare’s comedies not only throws out the rules of social order, it throws out other rules as well. One of the laws tossed out of the window is that of reality. The law of reality tells us that Hermia will not end up married to her true love, Lysander (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and that Hero’s name will never be cleared (Much Ado About Nothing), yet this rule book is scrapped, and the dead can even come back to life (as in The Winter’s Tale) if that’s what’s needed for a happy ending.

When we watch a good production of one of Shakespeare’s comedies, we play along with Shakespeare’s rule-breaking and meet these endings not with scepticism, but with joy. We meet Christmas and all its absurdities with the same abandon, forgetting all the rules. Today our Christmas celebrations still preserve the element of misrule that was enjoyed by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and many cultures before them. The joy we feel when we break away from our usual, and often self-imposed, rules and routines is refreshing and rejuvenating. The outpouring of joy and affection that we allow ourselves at Christmas makes a nonsense of many of the restraints we place on ourselves for the rest of the year. Perhaps we ought to be a little bit more as we are when at a panto all year round: irreverent, joyful, and uninhibited. Shaking things up at Christmas, or at other moments of carnival, can highlight the fact that some of the rules we force ourselves to live by are more absurd than the most ludicrous Christmas jumper.

Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals


Popular Posts