Saturnalia was a Roman midwinter festival that involved the usual social rules being inverted. Social hierarchies were forgotten and people of all classes mingled together as equals. Gambling (usually illegal in Roman society) was permitted and the masters would give their slaves a banquet. The streets were full of singing, partying, Saturnalia greetings and novelty gifts. In later periods of Saturnalia, a slave or person of low social status was appointed the king of festivities. He was free to order people to do as he pleased and they had to obey. This could be seen as a clear predecessor to Medieval England’s Lord of Misrule, which also involved a common townsperson being given the power of a King.
As the Greek writer Lucian of Samosota put it in around ad 150, becoming the king of the festivities meant that ‘you can not only escape silly orders but can give them yourself, telling one man to shout out something disgraceful about himself, another to dance naked, pick up the flute-girl and carry her three times around the house’.
“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” by Paul Hawkins is published by Simon & Schuster and available now.