Christmas in England: Extinct Customs
Throughout their long history the English have adopted and invented many distinctive Christmas customs. They have also discarded a number of customs over the years. One such discarded custom, electing a Lord of Misrule to preside over Christmas festivities, fell out of favor in the seventeenth century. While the Lord of Misrule ruled over towns, schools, courts, and noble households, the boy bishop supervised the revelry taking place in church circles. The boy bishop did not outlast the Middle Ages, although this custom has been revived in a few churches. The boys who lived in the centuries that followed found another Christmas time sport: barring out the schoolmaster. If successful in keeping their teacher from entering the classroom in the days before Christmas, they won themselves a couple days of vacation from school.
Another old English Christmas custom, mumming, gave ordinary people license to disguise themselves in old clothes, mask their faces with burnt cork, and roam about the town engaging in horseplay. Around the time of the Renaissance, the wealthy developed their own version of this custom. They began to celebrate the Christmas season with masques, elaborate costumed balls that included dancing and perhaps a bit of playacting as well.
Although masques themselves began to die out as a form of Christ-mas entertainment in the late seventeenth century, the English con-tinued to celebrate Twelfth Night with costume balls and playacting until the nineteenth century. During the nineteenth century many English families decorated their homes with a kissing bough for the Christmas season. Anyone passing beneath this spherical bunch of greenery could be claimed for a kiss. The kissing bough did not survive the transition to the twentieth century. Neither did the waits. These semi-official bands of musicians used to wander the streets during the Christmas season, singing for food, drink, and tips. They disbanded during the nineteenth century, when people began to view their activities less as a seasonal entertainment and more as an annoyance. (For more on extinct Christmas season entertainments, see games.)