A Feast of Fools is an ancient peasant custom, usually celebrated around Christmas, celebrated in Britain until the 15th century but originating in ancient Rome around the festival of Saturnalia, associated with the winter solstice. The feast was a wild and drunken party, with revellers roaming from house to house exchanging gifts, kisses and tricks.
The Lord of Misrule would be appointed by election or drawing lots to rule over the revels for up to 30 days, adopting the costume of the court jester in paper crown and motley dress. The paper crowns, gifts and jokes found in modern Christmas crackers allude to this costume and tradition. During his reign, the Lord of Misrule was granted full licence to enjoy whatever pleasures he wished, and to draw others after him.
Whilst the custom originated among the peasantry in late mediaeval and early Tudor times in Britain, it was taken up by higher classes, although with more responsibility for organising Christmas festivities and less for pranks and drunkenness. A Lord of Misrule was appointed at court, in the homes of great noblemen, in the law schools and colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. In choir schools, a 'Boy Bishop' took on a similar role among fellow pupils, whilst in Scotland the Lord of Misrule figure became known as the Abbot of Unreason.
After several failed attempts to end the tradition of the Feast of Fools, it was eventually quashed by Queen Mary I (1516-1558) in Britain in 1555. Her objection was on grounds of public decency, but anthropologist James Frazer (1854-1941) has suggested a darker side to the festival of Saturnalia and even to the Lord of Misrule in Britain, finding evidence that these temporary monarchs were executed upon an altar at the close of their reign as a sacrificial offering. This sacrificial role reinforces the metaphor of Buffo as a parody of a Christ-king, dying for others.
James Frazer's work, The Golden Bough (1922) explores global rituals and beliefs in intimate detai l.
The 1973 cult horror film The Wicker Man draws on some of the customs explored by Frazer and the sacrifice of temporary monarchs.