Mischief and Misrule

Ah yes, here we are!
That time of year where (for the fortunate) family gather together to exchange gifts and share in feasting and drinking.

For some this is a time of family, for quite a lot it is the celebration of a certain individual who was said to be born at this time.

For the Pagan community it is a time where friends and family gather, the feasting still takes place (not to mention the usual tired arguments about Christmas vs. Yuletide); although quite a few of these are celebrating either the Winter Solstice, the birth of Mithras or even Modranacht.  Or even none of the above.

In British folk tradition, there is the concept of Misrule at Yuletide.  Folklore says there are spirits roaming about and causing trouble during the Twelve Days.  Even the early Church had Fool Bishops ruling the land for one day in Christmas.
By Yuletide I don’t just mean the Pagan observances of the Midwinter Solstice.
Yuletide, in its classical sense, meant any of the celebrations or observances taking place from the beginning of Martinmas (11th November) to Candlemas, the 1st February.  Chances are this was an effort by the Church to allow the populous to keep their original winter customs spanning from Samhain to Midwinter then to Imbolc.

And during this time a lot of the folk customs, though having possibly Pagan origins were in fact practiced by people who were Christian.  Here’s a few:

*The Old Oss (Horse)

Old Horse
The Black Pig Border Morris version of ‘Old Oss’ http://www.blackpigborder.co.uk/home.htm

And its variations have the comedic if sad sacrifice of a horse that has gone past its prime.  It can be traced back to medieval times where the in the 7th Century, Theodore of Tarsus once declared:

If any of one on the Kalends of January walks as a stag or as a little old woman, that is to say if they change themselves into the likeness of wild animals, or clothe themselves in the skins of cattle and wear the heads of beasts, they shall do penance for three years: for this is devilish.” (David Clarke, Strange South Yorkshire: Myth and Magic in the valley of the Don, Sigma Press, Cheshire, 1994, p.77).

Pixyled writes more about the Owd Loss here: http://traditionalcustomsandceremonies.wordpress.com/2013/12/31/custom-revived-poor-owd-oss/ he is also the photographer of the image I used, thanks Pixy!

*The Mummers Play

The Black Pigs performing the ‘Selston Mummers Play’ for the W.I. 2012.

And even the Plough Plays have the theme of good overcoming evil (white knight vs black knight) only for good to get a grilling from evils mother.  Think of it as an ancestor to the Pantomime.

*Morris Dancing

Black Pig Border Morris at the Galleries of Justice, Nottingham, 2013.
Black Pig Border Morris at the Galleries of Justice, Nottingham, 2013.

Has as many variations as it does origins although Border Morris (sticks, painted faces) began as a winter time activity.

What they all share (despite being resurrected into the public consciousness by Cecil Sharp) is that they all contain an element of mischief and chaos.  Border Morris has lots of shouting and hollering as well as the black face said to scare away evil spirits (another aspect of Yuletide, now only enacted with traditions like opening all windows and doors at New Year’s in order to release all the present year’s bad luck.  Be sure to close them gently… lest you run the risk of trapping any passing spirits in your home!).  The Old Oss involves dressing up as a beast, something banned around the 7th century, obviously our ancestors didn’t care for it and carried on, ban be damned!  The Mummers and Plough plays are bawdy comedy stories involving men dressed as women, quack doctors with ridiculous cures for death.  Usually the character of Beelzebub turns up at the end to take money from anyone to give them a reason to buy beer.

These were originally done throughout Winter, but it was Cecil Sharp who brought them back for Boxing Day.

Practical jokes on our neighbours were also popular… possibly a reason why there is the practice of putting coins into the Christmas pudding, which then became a sort of divination.

I’m normally playing St. George or the Doctor characters in the Mummers Plays I’m involved with, so this years Solstice was the first for a while where I’ll not be in costume.

However, to keep within the spirit of Misrule, I’d like to leave this little bit of writing to give an image in your mind:

The children gaped on in horror as they looked at Father Christmas laying flaccid on the now snapped Christmas tree.  He reeked of sherry and his beard was soaked in mince pie vomit, the stench of which crept along as he breathed heavily.
  “Are- are you alright, Father Christmas?” Tommy asked warily.
Father Christmas rolled his bloodshot eyes at young Tommy and tried to pull at his magic bin liner, not quite managing to reach it.
Cynthia slowly walked forward to the magic bin liner and passed it gently to the exhausted man. 
  “Giveitfugginhere!” Father Christmas mumbled, grasping the black polythene in his trembling hand.  He quickly thrust one gloved hand inside and pulled out…. a fist. Which slowly revealed one digit facing the two children, before he collapsed and fell asleep.
  Cynthia walked back to Tommy shaking her head.
  Tommy hugged his little sister and told her  “Never mind, we’ll make him some coffee and phone Mrs. Christmas.
  The little girl looked up with a hopeful glint in her eyes. “Yes! And maybe next year someone else will have to be the last house on Christmas Eve…”

Mischief managed!


6 thoughts on “Mischief and Misrule”

      1. Indeed! And I was the Oss this year for one performance only…not planned so took less photos! Have a look at the Anottinghamshirecalendar.wordpress.com for more! Look forward to more folklore based posts..

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