The Topsy Turvy Social Order of Christmas Past

Our modern Christmas owes a debt to the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia. It’s the likely origin of winter gift giving traditions and the concept of an extended holiday season. It was also a time when normal social roles were temporarily suspended. Masters would provide table service to their slaves, for example.

Early Christmas celebrations borrowed from this idea of social inversion. Celebrations included rituals where the social order went upside down. Most examples come from the church during the Middle Ages, which allowed a sanctioned period of temporary disorder. But as that old adage goes: give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile. When the proceedings eventually got out of hand, the church suppressed them.

We still have echoes of social inversion in some of today’s holidays. Like when the President pardons a turkey at Thanksgiving. Or when senior officers serve meals to their subordinates on Christmas. But these are nothing compared to the topsy-turvy world of Christmas Past.

French Congregations Acted Like Donkeys

The “Feast of the Ass” celebrated the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem. But it was more of a raucous parody than a solemn observance. Clergy and congregants alike paraded to the church with the honored donkey, reciting a poem that ended with the line: Hail, Sir Donkey, hail! The parade culminated in a Mass where the entire congregation made donkey noises.

Churches Let a Child be Bishop for a Day

December 6 is Saint Nicholas Day, commemorating his death. The celebration would go on to be rolled into the Christmas celebration. On Saint Nicholas Day, the church elected a choirboy to be the “boy bishop,” who would wear bishop’s robes, preach, and give blessings.

A Fool Ridiculed Sacred Rituals — and Everyone Was OK With That

During the “Feast of Fools,” the clergy elected a “fool’s Pope” to parody church rituals. Also, low and high church officials traded places. Eventually, the feast of fools changed from an exercise in silliness to a full-on burlesque, and the church banned it. Or, rather, attempted to. Despite repeated bans, the Feast of Fools continued on as late as the 18th century.

image of the feast of fools

The Feast of Fools

British Schoolboys Laid Siege to Classrooms

This is a non-church example, but still one that involves role reversal within a venerated institution. The practice of taking over a classroom goes back as early as 1558. Students hoping for an extension of the Christmas holiday break would gather weapons and provisions as Christmas approached. The practice was known as “barring out,” and was even depicted in Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. Usually, if the boys could maintain their stronghold for three days, the headmaster would meet their demands.

image of a student revolt, from Nicholas Nickleby

A student revolt, from Nicholas Nickleby