Modern Times and the Lord of Misrule

In medieval Europe, there was a festival held every year in the run up to Christmas.  It went by a number of different names and a number of different shapes, but essentially it was the same all over the continent.  If I were an anthropologist, I would tell you that it was a mutation of the old Roman celebrations for the god Saturn, hijacked by the early Christian church.  And that it was also tied to the even earlier local animistic rituals connected to the Winter Solstice.  However, I’m not an anthropologist, so to me, the whole thing was just a drunken bash.  The Medievals would get together just before the onset of real winter and party – mainly because they weren’t sure if they were going to make it ‘til spring.  They’d eat and drink, gamble and chase women (or men, depending on which side of the bar wench you were on) until after the Solstice and the solemn occasion of Christmas.  Then they’d hunker down and try to survive for another year.

In England, this was called the Feast of Fools or Topsy-Turvy Time.  For twelve days (probably the 12 days from our Christmas song) the natural order of society was suspended and turned upside down – the more ridiculous, the better.  People wore their hats backwards; shepherds carried their sheep.  Peasants stopped toiling and went to the bar; servants were served by their masters, barmaids were treated like ladies, and on and on.  The whole thing culminated in a drunken ceremony on the steps of the handiest church or cathedral, where the unruly crowd grabbed the dumbest Dumb and Dumber oaf among them and crowned him the Lord of Misrule.  He presided over a feast that ate and drank into the early morning.  Over the centuries, these parties got wilder and wilder until they were finally banned, in 1512, by Henry VIII, a guy who knew how to party.  (That just tells you how crazy it got.)

It has stuck me recently that we live in Topsy-Turvy times — except for us they’re all year round.  The natural order of our world has been bent to the breaking point and little or nothing we do makes sense anymore.  For example, our cities are spending tons of money every day, trying to accommodate the needs of the ubiquitous Occupiers: things like extra police, fire and paramedical personnel, sanitation facilities and the essentials of water and trash removal.  These things cost money that our cities wouldn’t normally be spending.  Yet who’s complaining about these extra expenses?  Ordinary taxpayers!  This is exactly ass-backwards.  Let me explain.

Normally, aside from walking on the streets or calling the city to complain about potholes, ordinary people don’t have much contact with their civic government.  They go to work, come home, rake their leaves, lock their doors at night and shut up about it.  Come election time, they vote (in ever decreasing numbers) and once a month, they pay their rent or their mortgage, and that’s about it.  The majority of people in any city don’t even know what services, aside from garbage pickup and community centres, their cities offer.  They don’t need to; they don’t use them.

On the other hand, in every city I know of, there’s a group of people (and it’s getting larger by the minute) who not only know what services are available but actually need them to survive.  These folks, on the bottom end of our social order, are in dire straits.  They need homeless shelters, drop-in centres, clinics, paramedics and way more police protection than the rest of us.  Their very lives depend on the money the city passes around to the various and sundry agencies and institutions dedicated to helping them.  If that money is being spent someplace else, it has a direct impact on their quality of life — such as it is.  Thus, money spent on Port-a-Potties for political activists is literally being taken out of the mouths of the homeless.

It doesn’t make any sense for ordinary taxpayers to complain about the whack in the wallet the Occupiers are giving us.  That tax money is allocated long before we ever write the cheques, on stuff we’re never going to see anyway.  The city managers could just as easily take it down to the local casino and drop it on 14 Red at the roulette wheel, for all we know.   For example, thousands of dollars in my city was spent to encourage children to grow wheat in their backyards.  That didn’t impact my quality of life one bit.  I didn’t get any wheat, but that’s okay: I wouldn’t know what to do with it in the first place.  My point is the money’s gone, folks, and Occupiers or not your tax assessments are going to go up next year.

However, the people who should be bitching, loud and long, are the disadvantaged among us who have a long, cold winter ahead of them.  The money the city is spending on aid and comfort to the Occupiers is all immediate costs.  If nothing else, overtime has to be paid, and that’s real cash – dollars and cents.  At some point, city services are going to suffer — just to make ends meet.  After all, that annual tax increase isn’t going to come until late next year, which is a little late when the snow’s gonna fly in January.  Personally, if I was digging in a dumpster behind KFC, trying to find breakfast, I’d be a little tight-jawed to see a $20.00-an-hour city worker getting time and a half for extra clean-up at the local protest.  A couple of thousand dollars a day is big money when food and shelter are an occasional luxury.

So here’s the deal.  The people who are going to take the biggest kick in the groin from the uber-extra city expenses are oddly silent on the subject — whereas they should be the ones howling, to claw back some of that money, as if their life depended on it (which, in fact, it does.)  Meanwhile, the folks who really aren’t affected by what the city spends (because they have to pay for it, regardless) are roaring away like a lion with a thorn in its paw, just as if somebody at the other end was actually listening.

Me, I want a spot in the front row, when we finally get it over with and crown the Lord of Misrule.

Christmas and the Annual Idiot

I love Christmas.  I love everything about it.  I love Santa and the reindeer, jingle bells, mistletoe, the baby Jesus and the Wise Men – everything.  I like the crowds and the bitchin’ and the music in the malls.  I even tolerate that stupid little drummer boy – the first 500 times, anyway.  It’s all too cool but I’m an old-fashioned guy, so I like the older traditions best.  That’s why, every year, I wait, in uncontrollable anticipation, for one of our society’s oldest and dearest traditions — the arrival of the Annual Idiot.  For me, the arrival of the Annual Idiot actually kicks off the Christmas season.  When I was younger, the Annual Idiot was usually a school teacher with a full beard or the woman who didn’t shave her legs.  However, like most traditions, the Annual Idiot has changed over the years.  Today, the Annual Idiot could be anyone — a friend, a colleague, the guy you meet in the mall, even a family member.  Like Christmas itself, the Annual Idiot has become somewhat universal.

For those of you who haven’t figured it out yet, the Annual Idiot is that person, who, filled with the spirit of “I’m Smarter than You Are” (and overcome with joy at the sound of their own voice) takes it upon themselves to explain just how screwed up Christmas really is.  This can be as simple as the politically correct guy who stops you in mid “Merry Christmas” to tell you to say “Happy Holidays” because it’s more inclusive.   Or it could be the holier-than-thou woman who tells you, “Christmas is becoming just too commercialized.”   Or it could be that pompous ass who explains, “According to the fragmentary records from the Augustan period of the Roman Era, tax collection was done in July of the Julian calendar; therefore, Christ could not possibly have been born in December.”  But the one I like the best is the cynical jerk who questions the holiday itself, asking, “How did we get from the birth of the ‘so-called’ Saviour to Santa Claus and elves?  All of the things we have for this ‘so-called’ Christian holiday are really just pagan symbols, you know.”   When I hear these dulcet voices singing, I know it’s finally Christmas.  I like to take a second or two to contemplate the infinite universe and its delights before I respond, in my best little kid voice, “Sorry, I forgot.”  What these neo-fascists don’t realize is that they’re engaging in a Christmas tradition that is one of our very oldest.  Christmas bashing actually pre-dates most of what we know to be a traditional Christmas.  In truth, these modern merry morons are merely acting like our most intolerant Christian ancestors – the Puritans.  They didn’t like Christmas, either – over 400 years ago.

In Elizabethan England, Christmas was the main holiday of the year.  When good Queen Bess was on the throne, the locals really knew how to party.  First of all, Christmas lasted 12 days – the 12 days of Christmas, from the song.  Secondly, nobody went to work, so if you wanted your doublet fixed, you were out of luck until January.  What people did was roll out of bed and head for the nearest tavern.  They drank and gambled and chased women (who generally tried not to run that fast.)  They sang bawdy songs, ate, laughed, joked and then drank some more – and this went on every day.  They dressed up as supernatural creatures and animals and danced in the streets or watched the acrobats, the bear-baiting or one of Will Shakespeare’s new comedies.  It was called Topsy-Turvy time — when the servant became the master and the shepherd became the sheep.  The Elizabethans celebrated by honouring the Lord of Misrule, a local dimwit or barmaid who rode backwards on a donkey through the streets to the steps of a church or cathedral where he or she was crowned, in front of the cheering, jeering mob.  Basically, it was all one big, queen-sized debauch.  Obviously, our ancestors saw Christmas as a time to have fun, much as we do.  So it was only a matter of time before somebody tried to put a stop to it.

Enter the Puritans.  Without overstating it, the Puritans were a gang of uptight, intolerant fanatics who wanted the world to do as it was told, and they wanted to do the telling.  They were so narrow-minded they could look through a keyhole with both eyes.  They believed life was a serious business and anybody who wasn’t serious about it needed to be whipped into shape – literally.  They also believed they had all the answers, and were willing to provide them even when nobody was asking for their opinion.  Actually, they compare very well with our contemporary Christmas bashers — except the Puritans were better organized.  They looked at Christmas, circa 1570, and practically burst an internal organ.  One unnamed source wrote “There is nothing else [at Christmas] but cards, dice, tables, masking, mumming, bowling and such fooleries…”   It was clearly the work of the Devil.  As early as 1583, some churches were setting penance for “keeping the superstitious day called Yule,” and by the turn of the 16th century, the common folk were well-advised to stay off the streets after the middle of December.  The times were changing in Merrye Olde England: it was getting a lot less merry.  By the time Cromwell and his Puritan crowd actually came to power, anybody who wanted to celebrate Christmas did it at their peril, and in the privacy of their own hovel.  Within a couple of years, there was nothing much left of Christmas, and on December 24th, 1652, it was formally banned.  The proclamation read, “That no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Christmas nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches.”  It would take Christmas just about 200 years to recover.

So you see, all those oh-so-enlightened Christmas bashing freaks who wander the earth, setting the world straight every December, are just following in the footsteps of their Puritan ancestors.  They’re actually celebrating their very own, very old Christmas tradition.  That’s why I wait for them so eagerly every year.  They’re as much a part of Christmas as Santa Claus himself.

 Wednesday: A Modern Christmas, or how Santa Claus finally came to town.