In some areas of England, during the late medieval and early Tudor periods, especially through the reign of King Edward VI, a custom emerged in which the lord of a manor or other great house appointed an individual to be in charge of all of the Christmas holidays. This person was titled “the Lord of Misrule”, the tradition expanded from the homes of noble families, and the Yuletide events at a manor house or at Court ran anywhere from a few days to the entire month of December. This entire period was to be filled with non-stop entertainment, from balls and parties to parades and scavenger hunts. The larger the population of a home or village, the more elaborate the season’s entertainment was expected to be.
Traditionally, the Lord of Misrule was someone of a lower social status than the homeowner and his guests, which made it acceptable for them to poke fun at him during drunken celebrations. In some parts of England, this custom overlapped with the so-called Feast of Fools, with the Lord of Misrule being the Fool. There was often a great deal of feasting and drinking going on, and in many areas, there was a complete reversal of traditional social roles, albeit a temporary one.
The tradition, of course, has its origins in ancient Rome, during the December feast of Saturnalia, when a peasant or slave was appointed to represent the god Saturn himself, as the Lord of Misrule, or the King of Saturnalia. Because this holiday included a time when roles between master and slave were reversed, a Lord of Misrule could order anyone to do anything during Saturnalia, despite his role as a slave during the rest of the year.
Folklorist Sir James Frazer compared the Saturnalia traditions to the custom of the British Lord of Misrule. He wrote in The Golden Bough,
“a conspicuous feature of the Carnival is a burlesque figure personifying the festive season, which after a short career of glory and dissipation is publicly shot, burnt, or otherwise destroyed, to the feigned grief or genuine delight of the populace. If the view here suggested of the Carnival is correct, this grotesque personage is no other than a direct successor of the old King of the Saturnalia, the master of the revels, the real man who personated Saturn and, when the revels were over, suffered a real death in his assumed character.”
Of course, the Lord of Misrule isn’t literally shot or burnt or killed in any other fashion, but the death is a symbolic one: it was a man who got to sit in a place of prominence during the holiday season and, once it is all over, demoted back to his real life (and his real socioeconomic status as well), which was far lower than the one he enjoyed as the Lord of Misrule. And in fact, any sense of social equality between the classes was strictly temporary.
In some regions, there were similar customs with variations on the names. In Scotland, for instance, this same figure was known as the Abbot of Unreason while, in the British Isles, the custom of the Lord of Misrule was typically associated with lavish excess. The more elaborate and complex your Christmas celebrations were, the more you could show off how much money you were spending. Eventually, following the death of King Edward VI, the tradition fizzled out. This was due in part to the Church’s disapproval of such displays of drunken excess but not only.
Because of its association with early Roman paganism, the popularity of the Lord of Misrule and the Fool’s Feast waned as a stronger emphasis was placed on observing the Nativity as the reason for the modern Christmas celebrations.