What is Saturnalia?
Saturnalia, held in mid-December, is an ancient Roman pagan festival honoring the agricultural god Saturn. To clarify, Saturnalian celebrations are the source of many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas.
Saturnalia, the most popular holiday on the ancient Roman calendar, derived from older farming-related rituals of midwinter and the winter solstice, especially the practice of offering gifts or sacrifices to the gods during the winter sowing season.
The pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and time, began as a single day, but by the late Republic (133-31 B.C.) it had expanded to a weeklong festival beginning December 17. (On the Julian calendar, which the Romans used at the time, the winter solstice fell on December 25.)
During Saturnalia, work and business came to a halt. Schools and courts of law closed, and the normal social patterns were suspended.
Furthermore, people decorated their homes with wreaths plus other greenery. Also, they shed their traditional daily togas in favor of colorful clothes known as synthesis.
Even more so, slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them.
Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts.
Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.