Today, December 21 is the Winter Solstice, the day with the least amount of daylight hours in the Northern hemispheres and the MOST daylight hours in the Southern hemisphere by comparison with the rest of the year. It’d also have been the fifth day of Saturnalia during Roman times. These days, the terms “saturnalia” evokes lurid imagery of excessive behavior. Here’s some of the history of the celebration:
The Saturnalia was an enduring Roman festival dedicated to the agricultural god Saturn which was held between the 17th and 23rd of December each year during the winter solstice. Originating from archaic agricultural rituals the Roman festivities came to include a general round of gift-giving, merrymaking, and role-reversals so that it became one of the most popular celebrations in the calendar and certainly the jolliest. The similarities of some of its features and the timing – pushed later into December over time – suggest a strong influence on the Christian celebration of Christmas.
The focus of the Saturnalia and the god who gave his name to the festival was Saturn (or Saturnus), who is something of a mysterious figure in Roman religion. Depictions of the god in surviving art have him wearing a veil and brandishing either a sickle or a pruning knife suggesting a close relation with agriculture and especially seed-growing or seed-corn. With links to indigenous Italian deities and perhaps, too, a version of the Greek god Kronos, he was regarded as a primordial deity who had taught humanity important agricultural skills. He was thought to have ruled when the world enjoyed a Golden Age of prosperity and happiness, hence the general frivolity of his festival.
Despite Livy‘s claim that the festival began at the beginning of the 5th century BCE, there is evidence it began much earlier. The Saturnalia enjoyed great longevity for it was famously described in the 5th century CE work of the same name by Macrobius, who selected it as the setting for his dialogue where the protagonists display a certain nostalgia for a time when Rome‘s pagan rituals were more prominent, before the growing influence of Christianity.
Starting off as a one-day holiday the Saturnalia eventually expanded to cover a week by the Late Republic. Augustus reduced the festivities to a more modest three days, but his successor Caligula increased it to five days, and it seems that, in practice, ordinary people celebrated for the full seven days anyway, despite the official decrees.
read the entire piece here: http://www.ancient.eu/Saturnalia/