Christmas Masking

From an article by Mr. T. M. Fallow in The Antiquary, May, 1895.

We have already seen a good deal of masking in connection with St. Nicholas, Knecht Ruprecht, and other figures of the German Christmas; we may next give some attention to English customs of the same sort during the Twelve Days, and then pass on to the strange burlesque ceremonies of the Feast of Fools and the Boy Bishop, ceremonies which show an intrusion of pagan mummery into the sanctuary itself.

The custom of Christmas masking, “mumming,” or “disguising” can be traced at the English court as early as the reign of Edward III. It is in all probability connected with that wearing of beasts’ heads and skins of which we have already noted various examples—its origin in folk-custom seems to have been the coming of a band of worshippers clad in this uncouth but auspicious garb to bring good luck to a house. The most direct English survival is found in the village mummers who still call themselves “guisers” or “geese-dancers” and claim the right to enter every house. These will be dealt with shortly, after a consideration of more courtly customs of the same kind.

In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the English court masque reached its greatest developments; the fundamental idea was then generally overlaid with splendid trappings, the dresses and the arrangements were often extremely elaborate, and the introduction of dialogued speech made these “disguises” regular dramatic performances. A notable example is Ben Jonson’s “Masque of Christmas.” 14-2 Shakespeare, however, gives us in “Henry VIII.” 14-3 an example of a simpler impromptu form: the king and a party dressed up as shepherds break in upon a banquet of Wolsey’s.

In this volume we are more concerned with the popular Christmas than with the festivities of kings and courts and grandees. Mention must, however, be made of a personage who played an important part in the Christmas of the Tudor court and appeared also in colleges, Inns of Court, and the houses of the nobility—the “Lord of Misrule.” He was annually elected to preside over the revels, had a retinue of courtiers, and was surrounded by elaborate ceremonial. He seems to be the equivalent and was probably the direct descendant of the “Abbot” or “Bishop” of the Feast of Fools, who will be noticed later in this chapter. Sometimes indeed he is actually called “Abbot of Misrule.” A parallel to him is the Twelfth Night “king,” and he appears to be a courtly example of the temporary monarch of folk-custom, though his name is sometimes extended to “kings” of quite vulgar origin elected not by court or gentry but by the common people. The “Lord of Misrule” was among the relics of paganism most violently attacked by Puritan writers like Stubbes and Prynne, and the Great Rebellion seems to have been the death of him.

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