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Ancient And Modern Saturnalia
by [?]

Haec est clara dies, clararum clara dierum,
Haec est festa dies, festarum festa dierum.[131]

These are scenes which equal any which the humour of the Italian burlesque poets have invented, and which might have entered with effect into the “Malmantile racquistato” of Lippi; but that they should have been endured amidst the solemn offices of religion, and have been performed in cathedrals, while it excites our astonishment, can only be accounted for by perceiving that they were, in truth, the Saturnalia of the Romans. Mr. Turner observes, without perhaps having a precise notion that they were copied from the Saturnalia, that “It could be only by rivalling the pagan revelries, that the Christian ceremonies could gain the ascendancy.” Our historian further observes, that these “licentious festivities were called the December liberties, and seem to have begun at one of the most solemn seasons of the Christian year, and to have lasted through the chief part of January.” This very term, as well as the time, agrees with that of the ancient Saturnalia:–

Age, libertate Decembri,
Quando ita majores voluerunt, utere: narra.
HOR. lib. ii. sat. 7.

The Roman Saturnalia, thus transplanted into Christian churches, had for its singular principle, that of inferiors, whimsically and in mockery, personifying their superiors, with a licensed licentiousness. This forms a distinct characteristic from those other popular customs and pastimes which the learned have also traced to the Roman, and even more ancient nations. Our present inquiry is, to illustrate that proneness in man, of delighting to reverse the order of society, and ridiculing its decencies.

Here we had our boy-bishop, a legitimate descendant of this family of foolery. On St. Nicholas’s day, a saint who was the patron of children, the boy-bishop with his mitra parva and a long crosier, attended by his school-mates as his diminutive prebendaries, assumed the title and state of a bishop. The child-bishop preached a sermon, and afterwards, accompanied by his attendants, went about singing and collecting his pence: to such theatrical processions in collegiate bodies, Warton attributes the custom, still existing at Eton, of going ad montem.[132] But this was a tame mummery, compared with the grossness elsewhere allowed in burlesquing religious ceremonies. The English, more particularly after the Reformation, seem not to have polluted the churches with such abuses. The relish for the Saturnalia was not, however, less lively here than on the Continent; but it took a more innocent direction, and was allowed to turn itself into civil life: and since the people would be gratified by mock dignities, and claimed the privilege of ridiculing their masters, it was allowed them by our kings and nobles; and a troop of grotesque characters, frolicsome great men, delighting in merry mischief, are recorded in our domestic annals.

The most learned Selden, with parsimonious phrase and copious sense, has thus compressed the result of an historical dissertation: he derives our ancient Christmas sports at once from the true, though remote, source. “Christmas succeeds the Saturnalia; the same time, the same number of holy-days; then the master waited upon the servant, like the lord of misrule.”[133] Such is the title of a facetious potentate, who, in this notice of Selden’s, is not further indicated, for this personage was familiar in his day, but of whom the accounts are so scattered, that his offices and his glory are now equally obscure. The race of this nobility of drollery, and this legitimate king of all hoaxing and quizzing, like mightier dynasties, has ceased to exist.

In England our festivities at Christmas appear to have been more entertaining than in other countries. We were once famed for merry Christmases and their pies; witness the Italian proverb, “Ha piu di fare che i forni di Natale in Inghilterra:” “He has more business than English ovens at Christmas.” Wherever the king resided, there was created for that merry season a Christmas prince, usually called “the Lord of Misrule;” and whom the Scotch once knew under the significant title of “the Abbot of Unreason.” His office, according to Stowe, was “to make the rarest pastimes to delight the beholder.” Every nobleman, and every great family, surrendered their houses, during this season, to the Christmas prince, who found rivals or usurpers in almost every parish; and more particularly, as we shall see, among the grave students in our inns of court.