All Hail the Lord of Misrule


In many ancient societies, winter was the time to abandon all restrictions, with the excuse or justification of celebrating various holidays like the feast of Saturnalia. A Lord of Misrule would be chosen to preside over a period of time when slaves would act like masters and even take over official government positions. Meanwhile, the rich and powerful had to play the roles of slaves. Orders issued by the Lord of Misrule had to be carried out, no matter how nutty, and regardless of whose dignity was wounded.

There was also a New Year feast day, where children used to go from house to house and give the owner a piece of fruit wrapped in silver foil, receiving a gift in return. This somehow transmogrified into Halloween’s trick-or-treat custom. In other times and places, vagrants and hooligans would group up and surround respectable houses, making hellish noise until the inhabitants tossed them a satisfactory amount of loose change and valuables. In later, more civilized times, this seems to have morphed into the custom of singing Christmas carols.

In various societies, the period of misrule lasted as long as a month, and one thing that particularly disturbed some upright citizens was the tendency of manly men to dress up in women’s clothes and speak in falsetto voices. Later, in England during the Tudor era, the season of craziness might last as long as three months, during which the Lord of Misrule arranged and directed all kinds of entertainments, processions, masked balls, stage plays, and banquets.


Here is the point. Human history contains solid precedent for choosing a stretch of time in the winter to toss propriety aside. This tendency seems almost to be imprinted on our DNA, and certainly permeates the social environment. From now until after New Year, it is fully authorized and officially sanctioned binge time, and rather than one Lord of Misrule, we have thousands.

If a person decides to quit eating sensibly, validation is out there. In a single day you can find 20 people who say things like, “What the heck, it’s the holidays,” and “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Live a little!”

Even if people in real life don’t sent that message, advertising certainly does. Merchants want us to feel obligated to throw caution to the winds, spend every cent we own, go into debt for more, eat everything that’s put in front of us, and come back for second helpings.

For many Americans, there are multiple and overlapping social requirements. You have a certain kind of good time with the family, and another sort of celebration with your friends, and yet another with the work crew and another with the church group, and so on. But they all involve either food or drink or both. The numbers on the calorie counter spin wildly, as the device sends up a shower of sparks and a wisp of smoke.

Holiday madness

Psychologically, to stay on a sane path can be brutally difficult. As a host, you feel compelled to buy and serve items you never touch the rest of the year, that you know are not good for people. But (especially if cultural heritage is involved) expectations need to be met, at the risk of causing interpersonal ruptures that could take until next holiday season to heal.

As a guest, you must partake fully or risk giving offense. On a deep subconscious level, people need to prove that they have a lot, and that they are generous with what they have. To validate the abundance and generosity, you have to eat eat eat, or figure out a really smooth exit line.

No matter how well prepared we think we are, some awkward situation always waits to pounce. A successful person who goes back to the old home town might be the only individual in the room under 200 pounds. Deep inside, most humans harbor that little bit of schadenfreude, the resentment that wants to see others fail.

That afflicted person will generously feed you a week’s worth of nutrients at one sitting, as punishment for leaving the old neighborhood and getting skinny. The scenarios vary, but everyone faces challenges.

Childhood Obesity News recommends “Fitting Into the Winter Food Festivals,” which discusses the work of the very interesting Dr. Billi Gordon. “The Day After Thanksgiving” offers a few suggestions on how to cope with the inevitable Diner’s Remorse, and “Clean Up After Thanksgiving” is more of the same. Happy Holidays!

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Photo credit: mike1727 via Visualhunt/CC BY

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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