Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Celebrate Christmas the old-fashioned way: with drunken mayhem

Quality time with family and friends, peaceful evenings under a twinkling tree, writes Ainsley Hawthorn, are these the activities that come to mind when you think of an old-fashioned Christmas?
Twelfth Night Revels in the Great Hall by Joseph Nash, c. 1839. (Public domain)

Quality time with family and friends, peaceful evenings under a twinkling tree — are these the activities that come to mind when you think of an old-fashioned Christmas?

Well, that version of the holiday is only about 175 years old. Traditionally, Christmas was a whole lot rowdier.

Our family-centred festivities were popularized during the Victorian period, when newspapers published images of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrating at home with their brood of nine children and Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol depicted Christmas as a season of reconciliation and community spirit.

Christmas festivities hadn't always been so serene.

In the medieval and Renaissance periods, Christmas in England was often a raucous, raunchy, and booze-drenched free-for-all.

Lord of Misrule by William Sandys, University of Leicester Special Collections. Circa 1852. (Public domain)

Medieval Christians fasted during Advent, the period leading up to Christmas. As a sign of repentance, they would abstain from rich foods like meat, cheese, butter, and ale, and sometimes forego pleasures like gambling and sex. 

After that long period of self-denial, they were ready to let loose over Christmas, which was celebrated for a full 12 days between Dec. 25 and Epiphany on Jan. 6.

In the Middle Ages, carols were full song-and-dance numbers that frequently featured suggestive lyrics and gestures.

King Alfred the Great (849-899) outlawed all but the most essential work during those 12 days, and for centuries afterward, Britons at every level of society made the most of their extended holiday by spending days at a time feasting, drinking and carousing.

We can find sassier variants of some of our own Christmas customs in their celebrations.

The most popular Christmas decoration in medieval and Renaissance England was the kissing bough, a ball of evergreens twined with mistletoe that was hung from the ceiling.

The Mistletoe or Christmas Gambols by Edward Penny, c. 1796. (Public domain)

Anyone caught under the bough was required to accept a kiss, just like when we hang mistletoe today. Instead of a single peck, though, the kisser would pick a mistletoe berry off the bough for each kiss and could keep going until the branches were bare, making the kissing bough a perfect place for unmarried couples to get away with making out.

Medieval Britons loved a lewd carol, too. In the Middle Ages, carols were full song-and-dance numbers that frequently featured suggestive lyrics and gestures.

The 16th-century opening line to the song we now call Deck the Halls was "Oh, how soft my fair one's bosom," and an early version of The Holly and the Ivy is a battle between the sexes spiked with potty humour.

More than anything else, Christmas in the medieval and Renaissance eras was a time when the social order was turned on its head.

A medieval boy bishop, attended by his canons. (Public domain)

One of the oldest of these topsy-turvy traditions was the appointment of boy bishops. A cathedral choirboy was chosen to replace the local prelate, fitted with his own miniature vestments, and granted the full power of the bishop for up to three weeks.

Not only did boy bishops lead processions and give sermons while in office, it was illegal to interrupt or discipline them no matter how they behaved. The boys weren't above using this opportunity to their advantage: one boy bishop preached against whipping children but suggested instead that all his teachers should be hanged.

Use this as a reminder not to get too wrapped up in the stress of our modern Christmas and to have a little fun this holiday season.

Another custom was the selection of a Lord of Misrule, sometimes known as the Abbot of Unreason or Captain Christmas. Lords of Misrule were appointed at the royal palace, in aristocratic households, at the Inns of Court, and in many of the colleges at Cambridge and Oxford. Their role was to preside over the Christmas merry-making and keep the party going.

Since the Lord of Misrule could order anyone to do anything — even the king himself — and madcap antics were the order of the day, perhaps it's not surprising that sometimes things got a bit out of hand.

Nobles employed guards to protect their estates during the 12 days of Christmas in case of rioting, and high blood occasionally led even to murder. In 1306, a man was stabbed in the back when he tried to break up a street party.

Mummering is an old tradition in this province, dating back to the 1800s. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

As a result of this general chaos, there were several attempts to impose limits on Christmas festivities or to ban Christmas altogether. Christmas celebrations were outlawed in Britain from 1647 to 1660 and in Massachusetts from 1659 to 1681.

The occasional wild office party aside, our modern seasonal celebrations are mild compared to what they used to be. In Newfoundland and Labrador, though, we still enjoy one of the descendants of the unruly medieval traditions: mummering.

Like carolling, mummering from house to house was a popular Christmas entertainment in medieval England, and, like other disorderly Christmas activities, it's had a spotted relationship with the law. Mummering was actually banned in Newfoundland in 1862 after a group of mummers in Bay Roberts beat a man to death.

Mummering is making a comeback in the province today, though, showing that we're still drawn to Christmas customs that allow us to act foolish and turn the world upside down, if only for a while.

So if you feel like enjoying a truly traditional Christmas this year, why not do some inappropriate dancing, convince your boss to swap jobs with you, and then take 12 days off to glut yourself with food and wine? Failing that, at least use this as a reminder not to get too wrapped up in the stress of our modern Christmas and to have a little fun this holiday season.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.

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