StarDate: December 17, 2009

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Although Christmas is still a few days off, the celebrations are already under way -- from office parties and TV specials to early trips to Grandma's house. We've decorated our houses with lights and greenery, and stocked up with food and presents.

Many of these customs are thousands of years old. In fact, they can be traced to an ancient Roman festival that began on December 17th. The festival was tied to the winter solstice -- the shortest day of the year. Houses were decorated with plenty of candles and lamps, and big bonfires were built -- all to cheer up the long winter nights.

The festival was known as Saturnalia. It was named for Saturn, the god of agriculture. It was one of the biggest and most boisterous festivals of the year. People decorated their homes with greenery, visited with friends, ate too much, and exchanged gifts -- usually candles for adults, and dolls for children. Masters waited on slaves, and temples held feasts that were open to the poor and homeless.

Many of these traditions are incorporated into the modern Christmas celebration -- and that's no coincidence. The Bible didn't give a date for Christ's birth, so the early Church picked December 25th -- the date of the solstice under the calendar in use at the time. The date was chosen in part to try to replace the Saturnalia. Yet many of its customs were incorporated into the Christmas celebration -- and are still observed today.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2004, 2009

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