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Jolly old Saint Nick will be heading our way soon. But he can’t hold a candle to jolly old Saturn, a Roman god of agriculture. A year-end festival honored the god, and it was the biggest party of the year — a week-long holiday that ended with rounds of gifts — including wax candles.
Saturnalia began as a single-day celebration, on December 17th. Over the centuries, it was extended to three days, then a full week. It came after the autumn planting season had ended, and coincided with the coming winter solstice — the shortest day of the year.
It began with a day of public festivities, including a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn and a big banquet. It then segued to private celebrations, although the official holidays continued. People decorated their houses with greenery and other festive touches.
One of the main features of Saturnalia was unrestrained merry-making — lots of eating, drinking, gambling, and otherwise making merry. Another was a temporary upheaval of Roman social status. Masters served meals to their slaves, and the slaves were free to move about.
Saturnalia ended with a day of gift giving — fruits, small terracotta figurines, and wax candles. The candles may have been given to symbolize the solstice and the longer days that would follow.
Some of the customs of Saturnalia were folded into the new celebration of Christmas — banquets, candles, gifts, and more — keeping some of the “jolliness” going long after Saturnalia disappeared.
Script by Damond Benningfield