In Medieval times, the twelve days between Christmas Eve and January 6 were marked by special forms of celebration. Plays and musical comedies were presented at courts and castles --a lingering tradition that was responsible for Shakespeare's Twelfth Night . Felix Mendelssohn's family adores staging Shakespeare plays during Twelfth Night, and it was for this occasion in 1826 that he penned his enchanting "Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream" , first performed as a piano duet with his beloved sister Fanny. Both Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night's Dream are variations on theme of mistaken identity and loss of identity, themes that were particularly resonant with one of the most rambunctious traditions of the "Twelve Days of Christmas": the Festival of Fools. On this day, the world would be turned upside down: the kings and nobility were to serve at table, while the peasants were to partake of an abundant feast. Whoever was crowned as the Lord of Misrule would preside over a scene of riotous debauchery, with echoes of the Roman custom of Saturnalia: wine, (loose) women and (very loud) song were the order of the day, with absurd commandments requiring absolute obedience.
Perhaps the most surprising master of this sort of ceremony in history was the son of a cloth merchant from Assisi. The youth's rule, capped off by a drunken auction of women, was so scandalous that the Pope finally outlawed the festival. That hedonistic ruler later became known to the world as St. Francis. As a more mature man, Francis never gave up on the idea of fantastic celebrations at Christmastime, but instead of the party of his youth, he created the roots of the nativity celebration, a theatrical event held in the open air filled with real animals. Francis presided over these festivities with the singing of hymns in the common language of the people -- which is why we have Francis to thank for the tradition of Christmas caroling.
I love how St. Francis continued to symbolically live into the spirit of the Lord of Misrule, turning the world upside down by rejecting all the values of his time in order to uphold the values of his heart and soul. In order to find his truth and live out his calling, he abandoned the prestige and riches of his ambitious family to serve the lowliest lepers in his village, giving away his finest cloak, dancing barefoot in the forest and joining the voices of peasants and aristocrats together in song -- all in an effort to make his world turn right side up. In following his topsy-turvy path that began as the chief of ceremonies for a Saturnalia, Francis ended up becoming a beacon of light, hope, healing and inspiration for the world.
At a symbolic level (whatever your religion), Twelfth Night suggests some profound themes for contemplation, questions that bind together St. Francis with the topics I will be exploring in workshops and classes in the next two months: Dante's Divine Comedy and Carl Jung's Red Book.
Dante (who ended his life as a Franciscan oblate) knew exactly what it was like to have his entire world upended. On the wrong side of a political battle, his wealth was confiscated and he was sent into permanent exile from his family and Florence, sentenced to death if he ever stepped foot in his home again. It was while wandering throughout Italy as a refugee dependent on patrons ("doomed to know the bitter taste of borrowed bread" , as he puts it) that he began to write the Comedy as a way to deal with his loss, grief and rage: the first act I know of Narrative Therapy. In the poem, his character travels through the Inferno only to discover when he emerges on the banks of Purgatory that what he thought was down was in fact up. Hell, the poem suggests, is the place where our perceptions are completely disordered and upside down, and it is only when we can arrive on the Shores of Humility that we can begin to have the proper perspective. When Dante encounters disciples of St. Francis in the circle of the sun, he learns that Paradise is the place where you can tell the story of your enemies with reverence and honor- and they tell yours with empathy and respect. Imagine that.
Carl Jung's midlife crisis was another underworld journey in which everything became topsy-turvy. He wrote that at the age of 40, “ I had achieved honor, power, wealth, knowledge and every human happiness. Then my desire for the increase of these trappings ceased, desire ebbed from me and horror overcame me. The vision of the flood seized me and I felt the spirit of the depths, but I did not understand, yet he drove me on with unbearable longing. “. His long and courageous journey to grapple with his emotional breakdown led him through the Red Book to understand that midlife flourishing emerges only when we claim and love what we once rejected as foolish, childish or worthless. Our energy, vitality and creativity in midlife is utterly dependent on becoming the servant of our soul rather than the steward of our ego.
Twelfth Night encourages us to consider the world we have made, and how it might need to be re-fashioned. What needs to be turned topsy-turvy in your life? Where are the places in your life that are upside down and need righting? How can you make a feast for the lowliest and cast off parts of yourself? What has ruled your life that now needs to become a servant of your soul instead?