Misrule, Inequality, and the Strangest Christmas Ever

This recent Christmas season we, perhaps like you, decorated our tree and strung up our lights earlier than usual. We left the lights plugged in all night and sometimes during the day, previously considered in our household a foolish waste of electricity. And we left the tree, the lights, and other decorations up later than usual, past Epiphany’s official end to the season. To wit, our tree started to turn brown. But we didn’t care – we needed these Christmas accoutrements to soothe us a bit longer. Covid and its debris field of death, fear, isolation, and economic uncertainty – along with plenty of political turmoil – provided a full measure of gloom to the season. With no doubt, December 2020 will be remembered – hands down and sanitized – as one of the strangest Christmas seasons ever.

X-mas 2020 was quiet in our South Austin abode

Whatever the Christmas season might mean to each of us, it’s now something – lesson learned – that a number of us will no longer take for granted. We’re not guaranteed or entitled to gather and celebrate with loved ones, sing carols and hymns with other worshippers, or venture out to watch a newly released movie (a Christmas tradition in our household). These events, God willing in December 2021, will carry much joy and greater gravitas.

What does Christmas mean for you? The essence of Christmas for me: light shining in the darkness for those who need it most.

Twenty years ago this past December, I read Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas (Knopf, 1997). This excellent history revealed to me numerous insights into the cherished holiday season. That year, I used part of the book’s message – recasting Jesus’s coming as misrule – as the basis for my Christmas Eve sermon at the church I served.

Misrule, as explained by Nissenbaum, is best understood within the historical context (in the Northern Hemisphere) of year-end crop harvest, the availability of freshly slaughtered meat facilitated by cooler weather, and the culmination of beer and wine fermentation. For millennia, this time of the year – coinciding with December 21, the calendar’s shortest day – has been a time of celebration, leisure, and even revelry as people enjoyed the rewards of their labor at year’s end.

Misrule, historically, was a moment of social inversion when the wealthy and powerful deferred to their dependents and poorer neighbors. Practiced in Europe and early America, misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class.

Understanding misrule helps one decipher the downright bizarre lyrics of the carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The song originated in 16th-century England. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!

One of the unwritten rules of misrule was the continuation of a social bargain. The peasants, satisfied with the brief turning of the tables during misrule, were to offer their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the rest of the year. If you’ve ever received a Christmas bonus at a job where you felt you were underpaid, you can see that misrule is still with us. It’s the misrule bargain: accept your year-end bonus and do not grumble about your low pay for the balance of the year – a gift given in exchange for goodwill.

Misrule was a way to mitigate the social inequality that existed in the mercantile age. Misrule upset the natural order, but only momentarily.

Perhaps you can see where I went with my Christmas Eve sermon in 2000.

Jesus’s coming into the world – especially in Luke’s gospel – upsets the regular order, and permanently so. His birth was first announced to shepherds, low-status workers, and not to royalty – certainly not to conniving King Herod and his ilk. Later, Jesus’s first sermon (Luke 4) focuses on social changes for peasant folks, like shepherds: I bring good news to the poor as I proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. I proclaim to you the Jubilee year of the Lord.

If you’re unaware, the “Jubilee year of the Lord” refers to the book of Leviticus’s decree that every fifty years in the community of God’s people there shall be the cancellation of all debts, the release of slaves, and the equitable sharing of land. Radical? Absolutely.

As if a reboot, the year of Jubilee existed for the sake of the society’s common good which included the mitigation of the potentially devastating effects of generational inequality.

In his first sermon, Jesus spells out his mission by the precepts of Jubilee year. It was a big chunk of light shining in the darkness for people who needed it most. His first sermon still inspires the same type of mission thinking and action some two thousand years later.

Today, US society suffers from a forty-year run on inequality, now exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. Many who are rich have experienced gains; many who are poor are in worse shape. What to do?

Individually and collectively, we need lights to shine. The darkness, you know, has never yet been able to stand up to light. That’s just the way it is. At this point – the light of compassion, the light of love, the light of kindness, the light of self-sacrifice for neighbor or for greater good – any type of light will do.

T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Austin City Lutherans (ACL), the social ministry expression of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”

I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”

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