Country Matters Dec 22: Saturnalia

Country Matters by Arrowsmith, December 2022

Master becomes servant.

Lord of Misrule!


Before there was Christmas, the winter solstice was a time for celebration.  Not only could people look back to the year that was ending, but also forward to the return of lighter, longer days, and the promise of new seasons to come.  People relied upon the repetition of the familiar conditions of  years past, but we’ve lived through record-breaking days of climate change, and there’s uncertainty about how severe a winter we may face; if February might bring floods worse than those of recent years; and whether summer will scorch our crops and bring us thirst-provoking drought.

Pagan populations celebrated Yule, when huge logs would be burned for people to gather around and enjoy the heat and light that the Sun had stored in the wood as the tree had grown.  Evergreen plants would be gathered to represent the continuity of life, and Holly and Ivy were joined by Mistletoe, cut from the trees by Druids and Shamans because it was believed to be a magical plant which would endanger ordinary folks if they dared to harvest it. 

Around Cirencester, home of the Dobunni, whatever beliefs had been shared from the days of stone circles and monuments such as Avebury and Stonehenge would have been challenged by the arrival of the Romans sometime around 43AD (43CE) which introduced the Roman feast of Saturnalia.

Saturnalia began a custom of turning many social conventions upside down.  Masters would dress as servants, men as women (RuPaul isn’t as innovative as you might imagine) and often there’d be a limited period of power exchange during which a person of low status would be elected director of the celebrations, and lead people in ridiculous party games. This custom became the appointment in the days of British Christianity of ‘The Lord of Misrule’. What had begun as a drunken joke in Roman Saturnalia became a parable of rich and poor exchanging places under Christianity around about the seventh Century.

Many Catholic Cathedrals developed a tradition of appointing a ‘Boy Bishop’ who’d be elected from amongst the young members of the choir to carry out the Bishop’s role throughout December from the sixth, for three weeks until Christmas.  When he became Head of The Church of England, Henry VIII banned the practice.  Queen Mary reversed the ban, and then Queen Elizabeth reinstated it.  U-turns, it appears, are not a new idea.  Some cathedrals later reintroduced ‘Boy Bishops’ unofficially, including Salisbury where the last Chorister Bishop, 12 year old Isabel Moss, was enthroned on the 5th of December 2021 thus becoming a ‘Girl Bishop’. Recently, Hereford Cathedral cancelled their enthronement in 2018 due to ’unforeseen circumstances’, but it’s hoped that – post Covid – it shall be resumed.

Regardless of the religious significance of the season, feasting has always been a major part of the celebrations. The Roman Saturnalia apparently involved lots of sausages, which might have been like Milano and Napoli Salami, but one of the early Christmas Carols of the Christian Middle Ages sings of The Boar’s Head.  ‘All the trimmings’ will of course have depended on what you were

able to afford.  Some foods would have been foraged, such as nuts, fruits and fungi, but of course snails were in plentiful supply as were rabbits when the Romans were occupying Cirencester.  Towards the River Severn, elvers were once plentiful, and Oysters were a cheap food eaten by poor people. Some of the Christmas traditions we associate with Prince Albert possibly began with George III, whose Consort, Queen Charlotte, is thought to have brought Christmas trees into use in the late 18th century, and during Dickens’ time, wealthy people ate Goose.  But Turkeys first hit our Christmas tables back in the last quarter of the 16th Century.

Next month we’ll take a look at some of the traditions of Twelfth Night and the New Year.  

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