The Lord of Misrule and other Christmas traditions through the ages merge in a classic Western holiday

Christmas 2020 is different from any other, but the spirit can remain the same even as we gather in smaller groups to celebrate without Phish shows at MSG 

The modern celebration of Christmas is a wonderful combination of ancient festivals and traditions, crass commercialism, and religious observations developed over two millennia.  Even as an atheist, it’s my favorite time of the year.  The spirit, joy, anticipation of the new year, and of course gift-giving, enough to overcome almost everyone’s inner Scrooge.

A classically Western holiday, Christmas celebrates renewal and rebirth, family and friends, food and drink in a way that is only possible because of the constant blending, borrowing, and stealing between cultures that occurred across greater Europe and the Americas over two thousand years of mixing and matching.

As such, Christmas used to be celebrated quite a bit differently than it is today.

In the Middle Ages, somewhere between 400 and 1500 AD, a peasant or minor religious officer would be appointed the Lord of Misrule to preside over the Feast of Fools, a revelry that usually included drunkenness and other assorted debauchery.  The custom was so popular the role was referred to as the Abbot of Unreason in Scotland and the Prince des Sots in France.  The Church of England had a spin on it as well.

Of course, not everyone was pleased.

The Lord of Misrule was abolished in Europe by the Council of Basel in 1431 and in England by Henry VIII in 1541.  A hundred years later, Christmas itself was cancelled, by Oliver Cromwell in England in 1645 only to be restored by Charles II.  The Puritan pilgrims in America outlawed the entire holiday in Boston from 1659 to 1681.  The resistance to Christmas in the United States was so strong, December 25th wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.

It is believed that the Lord of Misrule evolved from an earlier Roman tradition during the celebration of Saturnalia.  Things were even more violent then:  A man was chosen to be a mock king for the feast only to be sacrificed at the end of the festival. 

In the early days of Christianity’s spread throughout Europe, leaders of the new religion co-opted the existing winter solstice festivals to increase the likelihood Christmas was broadly celebrated.  The result was an odd blending of traditions right from the start, usually involving a trip to Church followed by a wild party.

Complaints about commercialism and other concerns also started early and often.

On January 1, 400, the bishop Asterius of Amasea, in modern day Turkey warned, “This festival teaches even the little children, artless and simple, to be greedy, and accustoms them to go from house to house and to offer novel gifts, fruits covered with silver tinsel. For these they receive, in return, gifts double their value, and thus the tender minds of the young begin to be impressed with that which is commercial and sordid.”

The bishop urged listeners to take part in the more pious festival for the birth of Christ, “We celebrate the birth of Christ, since at this time God manifested himself in the flesh. We celebrate the Feast of Lights (Epiphany), since by the forgiveness of our sins we are led forth from the dark prison of our former life into a life of light and uprightness.”

Though Pope Julius I christened December 25th as the Feast of Nativity around 350 AD, the modern conception of the holiday didn’t begin to take shape until the 1800’s.  The original impetus is believed to have been a series of conflicts between the lower and upper classes.  Unemployment was high and rioting was frequent.  In fact, New York City instituted its first police force in 1828 as a result of Christmas riots.

According to The Atlantic, “New York’s population grew nearly tenfold from 1800 to 1850, and during that time elites became increasingly frightened of traditional December rituals of ‘social inversion,’ in which poorer people could demand food and drink from the wealthy and celebrate in the streets, abandoning established social constraints much like on Halloween night or New Year’s Eve.”

The Atlantic continues, “In response to these concerns, a group of wealthy men who called themselves the ‘Knickerbockers’ invented a new series of traditions for this time of year that gradually moved Christmas celebrations out of the city’s streets and into its homes.” 

They were aided by the famous author Washington Irving, also known as the creator of Ichabod Crane, who wrote the Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent in 1819.  The story features a wealthy squire who invites peasants into his home to celebrate Christmas and the two groups mingled easily in a warm hearted affair.  Like Christmas itself, Irving mixed up a wide variety of traditions including the crowning of the Lord of Misrule.

The spirit of Christmas was beginning to take shape.

There was one more seminal cultural event, however, that gave modern Christmas its meaning, the publication of Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol in 1843.  The novella was written while Americans and Europeans had already been mixing and matching different traditions for the Christmas season, but Dickens gave everything new life through the timeless redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge.  The poet, Thomas Hood, wrote in his journal, “If Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances, were ever in danger of decay, this is the book that would give them a new lease.”

During this period, Christmas continued to absorb older traditions.

Decorating Christmas trees originated in Germany, then became popular in America.  Mark Carr is believed to have opened the first official Christmas Tree lot in 1851.  Today, 77% of Americans have a tree, 81% artificial and 19% real.  Wreaths are another ancient tradition, dating back to the Greeks and the Romans.

Santa Claus himself dates back to the legend of a monk known as St. Nicholas, born in Turkey around 280 AD who gave away all his money to help the poor and the sick.  He arrived in America in the late 1800’s via Dutch immigrants as Sint Nikolaas or Sinter Klaas, soon to become Santa Claus.  In 1890, James Edgar of Brockton, MA dressed up as Santa at his dry goods store, and a year later the tradition sprung up in other cities.  Macy’s in New York, however, claims to have been doing Santa since 1862.

Speaking of Macy’s, we can’t forget the gift giving.

While the exchange of gifts during the winter solstice is an ancient tradition that began to be revitalized in the early 1800’s, the custom took on new life after the Civil War along with the rise of the department store.  Richard Warren Sears and his partner, Alvah C. Roebuck started adding Christmas specific items to their catalog around 1900.  In 1896, the Sears catalog featured wax candles for Christmas trees.  In 1898, they added Christmas cards and then ornaments in 1900.  Stockings and artificial trees followed in 1910, electric Christmas lights in 1912.

The catalog officially became the Wish Book in 1933.  The very first Wish Book included a “Miss Pigtails” doll, a battery powered toy car, a Mickey Mouse watch, Lionel Trains, and even live singing canaries.  The toys were not exclusively for adults.  The original 1933 edition was 87 pages long, 25 pages were for children and 62 for adults.  Even in 1968, the now whopping 605 page catalog featured 225 for children and 380 for adults.

Sears wasn’t the only department store that got in on the act.  Neimann Marcus launched their catalog in 1926.  The Neimann Marcus catalog gained notoriety when Edward R. Murrow asked Stanley Marcus if they had unusual gifts that would interest listeners of his radio program.  Marcus claimed they had a live Black Angus bull and a sterling silver BBQ set for the low price of $2,000.  Though Marcus made it up on the spot, he immediately added it to the catalog.

The tradition of pricey, exclusive gifts from Niemann Marcus continued for years.   In 1964, there were his and hers hot air balloons at $7,000 a set. In 1970, there was a Noah’s ark and matched pairs of animals for a cool $588,000.  In 2005, there was a private Elton John concert for $1.5 million.

Whatever your social status, 2020 is going to be a very different Christmas for most of the world.  The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has no doubt put a damper on many family traditions.  I, for one, will be staying home for the first time in more than a decade after a couple of members of my household tested positive earlier this month with minor symptoms.

Normally, Christmas is a whirlwind of activity for me.  I’d start out on Christmas Eve at my parent’s house for lasagna and gift exchanges.  Christmas Day would begin with a brunch at my sister’s followed by an early dinner at my aunt and uncle’s, and only then back home with my wife and her family to celebrate.  Usually, it was filet mignon at the aunt and uncle’s and prime rib at home. Often, my wife and I would follow it all up by seeing Phish at Madison Square Garden between Christmas and New Years.

Coronavirus will change all that (though not the prime rib), as I am sure it will for just about everyone else.  The spirit can remain the same, however.  So, however you celebrate this year, be sure to remember all that came before to make this season special and all that will come after this is over. One thing I think we can all agree on:  The difference alone will make it memorable.

Merry Christmas, everyone!


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