The Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honor of Saturn, celebrated on the 17th of December. Saturn being an ancient national god of Latium, the institution of the Saturnalia is lost in the most remote antiquity. Falling towards the end of December, at the season when the agricultural labors of the year were completed, it was celebrated by the country-people as a sort of joyous harvest home, and in every age was viewed by all classes of the community as a period of absolute relaxation and unrestrained merriment. The festival was extended in later times to three and still later to seven days.
During the celebration of this holiday no public business could be transacted, the courts were closed, war was suspended, all private enmities were for the time forgotten, and the city was alive with hilarity. On this day the slaves feasted and were waited upon by their masters, as the female slaves were waited upon by their mistresses on the Matronalia.
The special feature of the festival was the gift of wax candles and of little images of wax or clay called sigilla. The public festival, in the time of the republic, was for only one day; but for seven days the celebration continued in private houses.
Many of the customs of the Roman Saturnalia were taken over by the Christian Church in celebrating Christmas. Thus the origin of the Christmas-tree, and the custom of making presents to children and friends may be traced back to the Roman Saturnalia, while the Yule-log and Yule-fire are remnants of ancient sun-worship, one of the Roman festivals in honor of the Sun god being celebrated on the 25th of December as "Dies Natalis Solis Invicti."
From: Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult
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