Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Yuletide, Saturnalia and the Feast of Fools

The Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia

Santa Claus is coming to town.
(so mind your bottoms, ladies!)

Lo! the Yuletide festivities are upon us once more, and already people will stocking up with the booze, the liver salts and the paper hats. But to what do we owe this our annual manifestation of silliness? Or put another way: From whence comes it thither? And for wherefore does it why?

The winter solstice celebrations, of which Christmas is a part, owe their origins to the ancient Roman tradition of Saturnalia, the festival of Saturn. 

During this period, which lasted seven days, all schools and law courts closed, prisoners went unpunished, and the population indulged in a frenzy of drinking and debauchery. Not very different from the office Christmas party, in fact.

Social boundaries of class and gender were also swept aside as all and sundry celebrated the coming of the New Year in a passionate sexual re-enactment of ancient fertility rites. Once again not very different to the office Christmas party.

The Feast of Fools (detail)
Pieter Bruegel
In England, in mediaeval times, the Christmas festivities were presided over by the Lord of Misrule. During the Lord's 'reign' there was open licence for days (and nights) of nameless wildness, and cross-dressing was an indispensable part of the frivolity.

Naturally it France they went further with their Feast of Fools, which took the form of open rebellion against the Catholic Church. In 1445, the Faculty of Theology in Paris wrote a letter to the bishops, stating: 
'Priests and clerks... sing wanton songs... run and leap through the church... and rouse the laughter of their fellows... with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste'.

In England, the revelry continued unabated until the 1640s, when that old killjoy of an Oliver Cromwell, deciding they were unfit for a decent society, took the law into his own puritanical hands and banned them outright. 

Naturally the stout yeomen and yeowomen of Olde Englande didn't give up their pleasures that easily, and they just moved underground. But when they resurfaced again during the Restoration, they had become less wild and spontaneous, with the cross-dressing left to the professional performers, of which today's pantomime artists are the relic.

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