26 July 2010

Good Times: Lord of Misrule

By Anna C. Bowling

The English tradition of the Lord of Misrule, a fixture of Christmas feasts until well into the sixteenth century, originated with the ancient Roman feast of the saturnalia. To honor the god Saturn, Romans turned the social order upside down, with nobles behaving as servants and servants set at their masters' tables. Master waited upon slave, with great feasting and merriment, all overseen by the Lord of Misrule, a servant who could order anyone to do anything he pleased to keep the party going. Well, at least until the end of the festival. Then he was sacrificed.

When Romans expanded into Britain, they brought their festivities with them, mixing with the locals. The Celts had their own version of the Lord of Misrule, called the Year King, who could also command the favors of any woman he fancied.

With the advent of Christianity, some of the old Saturnalian traditions became incorporated into Christmas celebrations. Most important for those Lords of Misrule who came later, the sacrificial aspect fell by the wayside and the fun became the main part of the function. During the appointed Christmas season, the Lord of Misrule dressed in motley clothing and could command those usually counted as his betters to do silly, amusing or even embarrassing things. Games, songs, races, dances and other entertainments all fell under his duties as well as plays or masques. There might also be a mock court, with charges, defenses and penalties all falling under the patently absurd.

How far the revelry extended could vary from place to place, depending on the individual Lord. Accounts exist of honest travelers who happened to pass through certain towns with ribald Lords finding themselves accosted and spanked before being allowed to go on their way. Cross-dressing, indoor animal races and a general drop in inhibitions did not go over well with some clergy, who preferred people have a more reverent celebration of Christ's birth. By the time the practice faded out in the late sixteenth century, one might even find professional Lords of Misrule, actors or entertainers who would hire themselves out during the season for the sole purpose of creating the liveliest, wildest celebration possible. Part party planner, part clown, part public relations professional, such a professional might well find themselves able to command quite a fee for filling exactly that position today.

Traces of the Lord of Misrule's traditions still carry on today, with the modern Christmas cracker, a cardboard tube wrapped in festive paper. Crackers make a popping sound when pulled, yielding a nominal prize, often a paper hat or crown.