Dec 18, 2009

Lord of Misrule

In ancient Roman times, December 17 was the beginning of the festival of Saturnalia, in honor of the god Saturn (of agriculture). It was originally just a day event, but eventually grew into a seven day orgy of revelry, feasting, and merrymaking. 

The Saturnalia was a holiday period for all, including the slaves, who changed places with their masters for the duration. Presents were exchanged, especially candles, informal clothes worn, and gambling games permitted. It was also customary to appoint a master of the revels (Saturnalicius princeps), a character that reappeared in England as the Lord of Misrule. The Lord of Misrule formally presided over the Christmas celebrations, or over the entire period from All-Hallows Eve (October 31) to Candlemas (February 2).

It is commonly believed that the church chose this time (Pope Julius I chose December 25) in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. It was first called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by 432 and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread to Scandinavia. Today, in the Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day, as it is believed then the three wise men finally found Jesus in the manger.