Did you know that having your children in charge of your household at Christmas and the chaos that usually ensues is a timeless cycle that’s a living piece of ancient culture? We literally tap into an ancient, authentic Yuletide atmosphere when we crown our children as king for a season or a day. Social inversion during Christmas has its roots in the ancient Yuletide tradition of the Mock King.
It was the custom in ancient Babylon for masters to be subject to their servants, and one of them ruled the house clothed in purple garments. This Mock King dressed in royal robes, enjoyed the real king’s concubines, and after reigning for five days was stripped, scourged and killed. The servant made king custom was adopted by the Roman Saturnalia – Christmas Season’s immediate predecessor. (Please refer to “Where Christmas Comes From – Part 2” article for more information.) Its tradition continued down through the centuries, without the literal human sacrifice element, by way of the lower clergy’s Feast of Fools, the Lord of Misrule, Twelfth Night King and Queen, and the Christmas King.
It’s interesting to note that in the ancient Chaldean language of Babylon, “Yule” is the word for an infant or little child. This makes sense since the Yule Log tradition primordially was part of the birth celebration of the Babylonian Queen of Heaven’s son. The Yule Log symbolized Nimrod, cut down in his prime of life and in the height of his power, then cut into pieces and burned. An evergreen tree, which sprang out of an old tree stump, was said to represent Nimrod come back to life in Tammuz. Therefore, the very name by which Christmas is also known – Yule Day or the Yuletide Season – is literally linked to its Babylonian origin.
It’s not a coincidence that the burning of the Yule Log was at one time one of the most well-established traditions of Christmas. In fact, the Yule Log was such an integral part of Christmas for centuries upon centuries that it’s hard to understand why it’s virtually nonexistent in the United States today. As recently as the 19th century, bringing in the Yule Log was as much a part of Christmas as putting up an evergreen tree is today. Tradition holds that the Yule Log was brought into homes on December 24th; and then, on the following day — December 25th (the ancient winter solstice before the Roman shift in time) — the birthday of every sun god in every culture throughout antiquity was habitually celebrated. This included the original sun god of Babylon – Tammuz.
The shift from the social inversion where the master became a servant and a servant was in charge for the winter holiday season or for a day or two to a different gear where children are in charge of the festivities came with our new and improved American Christmas. The American Christmas, which is now prevalent throughout the whole earth, was forged with the Victorian values of family, children, goodwill and nostalgia in the early 19th century. Our domesticated Christmas rituals centers on family, but especially children.
According to Stephen Nissenbaum’s incredibly insightful book The Battle for Christmas, “the Christmas tree tradition is a direct outgrowth from parents being concerned over putting children at the center of Christmas. Ultimately, the Christmas tree was brought into the domesticated Christmas to manipulate the behavior of children. With the introduction of the Christmas tree to the American Christmas, the focus was supposed to shift from the children to the tree.” Unbeknownst to many, the evergreen element returns us full circle to Christmas’s original pagan root.
Remnants of a child-centered Christmas actually showed up prior to the invention of the American Christmas in medieval churches – the Boy Bishop. It was the custom on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) to elect a choirboy as a mock bishop. During his tenure from Dec 6: St. Nicholas Day to Dec 28: Holy Innocent’s Day, the boy wore bishop’s robes, took offerings, preached and gave his blessing. Henry VIII forbade the custom in 1541. Bloody Mary briefly resurrected the Boy Bishop in 1555, but he disappeared on her death in 1558. Vestiges remain in the Italian custom of children preaching before the Bambino. In some English churches and schools, the Boy Bishop custom was revived in the 20th century.
Another example of Yuletide social inversion was the Middle-Aged Feast of Fools. It was a carry-over from the similar midwinter festivals in ancient Rome – the Saturnalia and Kalends. It was said to be an attempt by Church authorities to maintain long-term order by sanctioning a time of temporary disorder. Note: Psychologists today would disagree. A study showing how to keep a cool head demonstrates self-control not venting your anger contributes to a good temper and temperament. In your mind, when you hear “Babylon,” put a little red flag up and remember that two hallmarks of Babylon (i.e. Tower of Babel) are chaos and confusion.
The World Encyclopedia of Christmas tells us that: The Feast of Fools was usually held on January 1st when the lower clergy elected a Bishop of Fools or Fools’ Pope. The clergy carried on outrageously, making fun of sacred ceremonies and reveling in a hierarchy turned upside down. For example, the clergy danced in the choir dressed as women, sang wanton songs, ate black pudding (i.e. blood pudding) at the horn of the altar while celebrants said Mass, played dice there too, performed indecent gestures, and declared scurrilous and unchaste verses. Even though this behavior was legislated against by King and Church, it proved very hard to eradicate.
One of the most famous examples of inversion of social order during the Christmas Season is the Lord of Misrule. The Lord of Misrule was appointed on All Hallow’s Eve for the Christmas to come. He was also known as the “Master of Merry Disport,” “Abbot of Unreason,” and “Christmas King.” The man acting as the Lord of Misrule was the personification of the spirit of disorder, rambunctious fun, and mischievous merriment. This jester was the principle ingredient in the medieval celebration of Christmas. It was just another servant-made-king re-creation of the Mock King from Babylon, which had also been adopted in the Saturnalia and parodied in the Feast of Fools.
In England, leading noblemen had a Lord of Misrule elected from the lower orders of their house. This was the practice of sheriffs, lord mayors, Oxford colleges, and Inns at Court as well. In the Elizabethan era, the Lord of Misrule used to lead their “courts” into the church to disrupt the service as they had done during the Feast of Fools. The 17th century Puritans condemned the profoundly pagan revelries of the Lord of Misrule. Before the 1820s in America, Christmas was a time of heavy drinking and promiscuity, when the rules that governed society and the boundaries for people’s behavior were temporarily abandoned in favor of unrestrained carnival.
With the growth of American cities in the early 19th century, the December Mardi Gras behavior became more threatening when combined with urban gang violence and Christmas Season riots. By 1820, Christmas misrule could no longer be ignored in New York City, because it had become such an acute social threat that respectable citizens could no longer ignore it. Therefore, some wealthy New Yorkers fashioned Christmas into a domestic ritual where kids are king. Basically, Victorian values suffocated disorder, and forged something seemingly more respectable. If you pay close enough attention to Christmas history, you can literally see the winter holiday season behave like a toggle switch when either one of the extremes of disorder or materialism are reached. It toggles from disorder to materialism, back to disorder, back to materialism and so forth. Just understand that both disorder and materialism can be traced back to its Babylonian roots; and therefore, they have always been a part of Christmas’ DNA. Social inversion – children in charge of Christmas – is merely one of the talismans that draw us back to that sensually satisfying place where there’s a magical Yuletide appeal.
Copyright Nov. 27, 2012 – Author: Robin Main.
Most references to the things I write on this blog can be found in my book SANTA-TIZING: What’s wrong with Christmas and how to clean it up (available on amazon http://www.amazon.com/SANTA-TIZING-Whats-wrong-Christmas-clean/dp/1607911159/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1353692179&sr=1-1&keywords=SANTA_TIZING).