Christmas In Ritual & Tradition - online book

The Observance Of Christmas In Various Lands And Ages.

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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 Jon-son's " Masque of Christmas." 2 Shakespeare, however, gives us in "Henry VIII."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." 4 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.
Mummers' Plays and Morris Dances.
Let us turn now to the rustic Christmas mummers, to-day fast disappearing, but common enough in the mid-nineteenth century. Their goings-on are really far more interesting, because more traditional, than the elaborate shows and dressings-up of the court. Their names vary : " mummers " and " guisers " are the commonest ; in Sussex they are " tipteerers," perhaps because of
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