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In the sky, Saturn is taking a bit of a supporting role to Jupiter. The two planets are staging a spectacular encounter in the early evening. But Saturn is only about one-tenth as bright as its planetary sibling.

On the calendar, though, this is Saturn’s time to shine. Today is the beginning of Saturnalia, a festival in ancient Rome. Both the planet and the event were named for the Roman god of agriculture.

At the beginning, Saturnalia lasted only one day — December 17th. Over the centuries, though, it grew. Eventually, it lasted a whole week.

One writer called Saturnalia “the best of times.” Almost all regular work stopped. Businesses, schools, and government offices closed for the occasion, and slaves were allowed to join the festival.

People decorated their houses with wreaths and other greenery. They held big parties, with lots of food, drink, and music. They also exchanged gifts. And since the festival came just before the winter solstice — the darkest time of year — candles were among the main gift items. They heralded the return of light after the solstice, as the days began to grow longer.

Many of the traditions of Saturnalia were incorporated into the celebration of another holiday: Christmas.

Saturn’s other namesake — the planet — is low in the southwest as darkness falls this month, quite close to brilliant Jupiter. Tonight, both planets are to the lower right of the beautiful crescent Moon.

Script by Damond Benningfield


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