The Lord of Misrule was an official who presided over raucous holiday celebrations in England through the 16th century. Similar officials were seen in Scotland and France as well. Typically, the Lord of Misrule was chosen by drawing lots, and he was responsible for organizing entertainment and presiding over events at celebrations which could extend from November to January. These riotous holiday celebrations were banned on multiple occasions before finally being suppressed, turning into the more orderly celebrations of the holidays seen in the 17th century.
The roots of this tradition lie in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which fell during December. During this festival, there was a reversal of traditional roles, with slaves wearing fine garments and sitting at the head of the table while they were waited upon by their masters. People ate massive quantities of food, drank a great deal, and engaged in entertainments like dancing, parades, and plays. The Lord of Misrule was allowed to order anyone to do anything, and at the end of the festival, he was sacrificed.
Sacrificial kings who preside over debauchery can also be seen in other cultures. Saturnalia was likely practiced in England during the period of Roman occupation, and the Celts also had similar figures who presided over seasonal festivals. In exchange for acting as a sacrifice to bring good fortune to the people, the Year King, as he was known, was allowed to enjoy the favors of any woman and to command any favor.
As societies gradually converted from Paganism to Christianity, they retained many of their pagan traditions, including the concept of the Lord of Misrule. He was not sacrificed at the end of the holidays, but he shared many traits with his pagan counterparts, including the ability to ignore usual social conventions and permission to order any favor; monarchs spent lavishly on their holiday celebrations supervised by the Lord of Misrule, and the Christmas holiday was often used as an excuse for a display of excess.
With changing social norms, the Lord of Misrule gradually grew less and less acceptable. Several monarchs and the Church attempted to ban riotous Christmas celebrations, and the role of this official gradually changed, with more of a focus on organizing holiday events, and less of one on drinking and engaging in unsavory activities. Eventually, the tradition of appointing a Lord of Misrule and holding a "Fool's Feast" with a comic reversal of social roles petered out altogether.