Christmas’s Unruly Past In England

Christmas throughout history might conjure up candy-coated visions such as decorating the home, giving gifts and worshipping the son of God. While all these depictions are authentic, revelry during at least three centuries in England prove that people have never completely celebrated the holiday so innocently.

In England from the 14th to the 17th centuries, many people at Christmas time engaged in rambunctious, drunken merrymaking under the leadership of the Lord of Misrule.

Generally, the Lord of Misrule presided over activities such as plays, musical entertainment, dances and feasts. His main order of business revolved around creating a lively, merry atmosphere.

Various cities, colleges and the royal court typically selected a peasant based on drawing lots (a chance decision made by throwing pebbles or stones). They crowned him the Lord of Misrule. Other titles bestowed on the lucky individual included the Abbot of Unreason, the Christmas Lord and the Master of Merry Disports.

His various duties included arranging Christmas festivities during the twelve days of Christmas. In some locations, the merrymaking began as early as Halloween. The theater was widely used between Halloween and the twelfth night, considered January 6. This night ended the holiday with an excess of entertainment and food.

King admires Lord of Misrule’s antics

King Edward III (1312-1377) admired the spectacles and requested that a “Master of Merry Disports” create merriment in 1347. He also ordered others to embrace the ritual. He founded Trinity College and urged that a Lord of Misrule take over at Christmastime.

The Lord of Misrule would lead crowds of peasants through the streets. They would dance, sing, jingle bells and extravagantly display their hobby horses.

They continued merrymaking when wandering into churches during services. Many members of the congregation found the roguish behavior amusing, and they stood on their pews to get a better look.

Another aspect entailed seizing power from the wealthy in a role reversal. The Lord of Misrule and his followers would go door to door. They would force the rich to submit to their requests of giving them their best material things. If they failed to comply, the group would perform tricks.

Pagans convert to Christianity, but traditions remain

All these customs dated back to pagan traditions. Out of the Roman festival of Saturnalia sprung the Lord of Misrule and his eager adherents. Paganism was practiced throughout England under Roman rule. The Feast of Fools focused on servants wearing fine clothing and sitting at the head of the table. In turn, their masters waited upon them. The festival also included indulging in a mass amount of food and drink, as well as enjoying plays, parades and dancing. At the end of this particular festival, the Lord of Misrule was sacrificed.

While sacrifices ceased to exist during the later Christmas festivals, the people carried much of the old traditions to the new celebrations. The official festivities were banned multiple times until the 17th Century when the Puritans eventually wiped them out altogether.

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