Hereford Boy Bishop, HerefordshireThe installation of a boy bishop before or after Christmas is a tradition that is observed not only in Britain, but elsewhere in Northern Europe and in Spain. It is a medieval custom, and one that is of philosophical significance in that it recalls Christ's naming of the child as the most important figure in heaven, and telling his followers that unless they became as children they could not enter heaven.
Boy bishopping also has something in common with the military tradition of officers serving men at Christmas: it is something to look forward to; it is fun at the time; and it is a reward. In medieval times the period when the boy bishop was enthroned was also marked with a feast and wine for the choristers from whom the lad was chosen. In some places the new bishop and his attendants toured the well-to-do in the area extracting gifts and money, to be redistributed among the poor, or consumed by the choristers themselves.
Some have the Feast of the Holy Innocents as the day when the boy bishop is given his mitre, others have the service around St Nicholas' day, December 6th. In some places the boy remained in power until Christmas Eve after enthronement on the 6th.
Henry VIII put a damper on the tradition, banning it as unseemly, but it was continued clandestinely in some out-of-the-way spots, and in others was re-started at a later date.
In Hereford the Dean chooses the boy bishop - in other places, rather more excitingly the choirboys chose from their own number - and after kneeling in front of the real bishop he takes the pastoral staff, and replaces the bishop on the throne before preaching a sermon of his own devising. Sadly it is traditional in Hereford for the boy bishop to be a chorister of good character. The event has sometimes been of more moment than the authorities would wish, with riots in St Petersburg and Paris, and the murder of a boy bishop in the French capital too. Some link the ceremony with the Roman year end celebration of Saturnalia, when mock kings were chosen amidst drunken revelries, though Hereford 's ceremony is unlikely to descend to an alcohol fueled orgy, though we can always hope.
More British Folk Customs?