The Merry Lords of Misrule (and the war on Christmas)

For centuries, Christmas has been a time to let down hair, eat and drink in a way that causes doctors to cry, dress up, and celebrate with friends. It’s a time to cast aside the dietary and social guidelines we are governed by all year. A time to embrace heartburn and weight gain and the miracle of Tums and elastic waistbands. It’s long been a time of light in the middle of an unforgiving, cold, and dark winter. But despite these pleasant aspects of a beloved holiday, history has witnessed a war waged against Christmas.

To understand the origins of the war on Christmas, we first look at the origins of Christmas. Like so many of our holidays – Easter, Halloween, National Taco Day (Oct 4) – Christmas comes from the Pagans. In Christmas’ case, it comes from the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia. This holiday honoring the god Saturn took place in the last week of December. Just as Christmas would, Saturnalia was a time to let loose and celebrate, and it involved a broad range of rituals both public and private. Romans set aside social barriers, cultural mores, and they drank, feasted, cosplayed animals, and screwed their neighbors. The party ended in the late 4th century when Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I forbade all pagan activities, and decreed that the church in Rome was monotheistic and that December 25 was the nativity of Christ. Christmas’ coincidence with Saturnalia was no coincidence, as the Church was trying to get people to turn away from the sex, fun, and feasting of paganism and look towards the solemn prayer, guilt, and permanently-delayed gratification that Christianity offers in cheerful bucketloads. But Saturnalia’s customs wouldn’t be forgotten overnight and many of them carried over to Christmas. And so Christmas caught on in a big way.

Medieval Christmas was a twelve day event that was like a mix of Christmas, Mardi Gras, and Halloween. After the monthlong period of advent, a period of fasting, sober reflection, and wondering why you were Christian, Christmas started on December 25. It went through the Feast of Fools on January 1 and ended with Twelfth Night on January 5. (Today, January 2, is the ninth day of Christmas, so if you feel like partying in a chicken costume, go at it. Extra points if you include nine ladies dancing). During the festival, celebrants ate boar’s head, pies, and peacock. They drank cider and ale. They mummed, wassailed, hoggled, and probably some other archaic verbs. And then they experienced jollity and mirth. In another paganistic tradition nabbed from the Romans, presiding over the entirety of the Christmas festivities was the Lord of Misrule (or the Abbott of Unreason). This was a peasant or a subdeacon who acted as a faux king or a ‘maister of merry disports’ who oversaw the festivities and the Feast of Fools. They dressed as women or in colorful costumes and ‘leapt and ran’ while presiding over dining and drinking commoners. Major emphasis on the ‘drinking’ part, for the festivities were a time to get fralalalalalalala-liquored up. It was an explosion of joy after a period of restriction.

It will surprise nobody to learn that Christmas’ 17th century critics were the Puritans. The Puritans were a sect of Christians that wanted to cleanse the Church of England from Roman Catholicism. Among other issues, they believed they did not follow scripture as rigidly as it should. According to them, there was no scriptural tradition on which to base Christmas. For in no place in any bible does it read ‘…and lo was the Christ child crapped out on December 25 in a manger and henceforth shall all humankind on that day eat hamloaf and buy reindeer sweaters at Target’. But the bigger issue was Christmas’ links to the aforementioned paganistic traditions. In the mid-1600s, English Protestants saw Christmas festivities, or ‘Foolstide’ as they called it, as nothing more than the ‘anti-Christian rages of the beast’, and while I’m not 100% sure what all those words mean, they definitely sound like Puritans being unhappy about other people having fun. When the Puritans took control of the government after the fall of Charles I, they tried to abolish Christmas. The custom of the Lord of Misrule was banned as well. Because it is a fact well-established that every time a pagan’s good time is ruined, a Puritan gets a buckled hat.    

Spoiler alert: Christmas won. Sure, the Puritan decrees were at times followed, but even the Puritans noted this was under duress and that the people wanted Christmas celebrations. The church simply couldn’t defeat a foe as popular as Christmas. Yet though we may look with a laugh at the curmudgeonly Puritans grumbling over Christmas, it did help dig cleavages in England that would lead to civil war and revolution. Christmas has survived, but it has had its detractors. Nowadays, people gripe about the commercialism of the holiday or the fact that shops put up decorations too early. If you’re a Fox News fan, or an idiot, you think there’s a war against saying ‘Merry Christmas’. Some complain that the hoopla is just too much and unwarranted, but this is nothing new. ‘It’s now December, the greatest part of the city is in a bustle . . . everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparation.’ This was written by the Roman philosopher Seneca in 62 AD in a letter to a friend in which he complained about the hustle and bustle of Saturnalia season. Some things never change.

While a resurgence of the Lord of Misrule was occasionally attempted, it never really caught on again. This is probably for the best, as it was recorded in Ancient Rome and later even in England that the Lord of Misrule was sacrificed at the end of Christmas. But today we drink in honor of the festivities and the twelve days of Christmas. And a-wassailing we shall go. Wassailing took place on January 5 or 6 and was an activity sort of Christmas carolling if it’s done by a tipsy rugby team. Poor or common people would dress up, make wassail in wassail bowls, and visit the houses of richer people and sing wassailing songs offering good tidings and blessings in exchange for food and drink. If they weren’t given this, then sometimes the wassailers got rowdy and demanded it before they’d leave. Don’t do that part.  


  • 2 apples
  • cups apple cider
  • 2 cups orange juice
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 4 cinnamon sticks
  • 15 whole cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 Tablespoon light brown sugar


Pretend the apples are voodoo dolls of your boss and your cloves are little daggers, and poke the whole cloves into the apples on all sides until they’re begging for mercy and offering you a raise. (nota bene: if you actually hear someone screaming while doing this, please put the cloves down and go to your nearest mental health emporium). Add all ingredients, including the (screaming) apples, to a large pot over medium-low heat. Bring to a simmer for 30-45 minutes. While this is simmering, stir occasionally, take in deep breaths, and put a wreath of leaves around your crown or put on an animal mask (yes, Goofy or Donald Duck are fine).

After 30-45 minutes, remove the apples and whole cloves. Ladle into mugs and a-wassailing you shall go! Go visit friends and sing to them and drink with them. Drink to a festival of light in the winter, drink to friendship and festivity, and drink to winning the war of Christmas.

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