I've wished a few people a happy Saturnalia recently, and discovered some don't know what it is. So here is a quick run down on the real celebration for this time of year.
Saturnalia was the Roman festival in honor of...you guessed it...Saturn, the god of the harvest. The festival sits more or less on top of the winter solstice, if you happen to be in the northern hemisphere, when winter turns and crops soon begin to grow once more.
During Saturnalia friends would give each other presents. There was much merry-making, partying, eating and drinking. Sound familiar?
It was the time of Misrule. Slaves were allowed to dress and behave as freed men, even permitted to drink and gamble. They could lounge around the house and give orders to their owners. The slave owners served a banguet to their slaves. You can imagine how much the slaves would have enjoyed that.
Common sense dictates the slaves did not make too much of their one week of lordship, because if they did, their masters would have the next 51 weeks to exact revenge. Chances are it was, fundamentally, an official holiday for all slaves. Not that the owners would have noticed; they would have been too wiped by their own celebrations.
Saturnalia began on December 17th and went for a week. It was only a couple of days originally, but the festival just kept getting longer and longer because everyone loved it so much. It reached the point where two Roman Emporers even tried to reduce the holiday, but everyone ignored the boring old guys and kept partying.
Saturnalia did not include Christmas trees, by the way. Christmas trees originated in pagan Germany, associated with the winter solstice festival Yule, and seem to have spread into the English speaking world via marriage between the English royal family and German nobility in the late 1700s. Subsequently during the Peninsular War, Wellington's forces included the King's Own German Legion, German cavalry fighting for England, who probably spread the custom to the commoners.
The Greeks, weirdly, had no equivalent celebration I know of for the winter solstice. The closest were the Lenaea, which was held at the beginning of winter and included a major arts festival, and the Kronia, which was held on the 12th Hekatombaion, which was in Spring or Summer. Despite the radically different date, the Kronia was the exact equivalent of Saturnalia. It included master/slave role reversal and was in honor of Kronus, the Greek harvest god.
Experts (which means not me!) seem to believe Jesus was actually rather unlikely to have been born at Christmas, plumping mostly for some time in Spring. As Christianity became the dominant religion, people remained unwilling to give up the immensely popular Saturnalia, so the date was adopted for Christmas.
So as you celebrate Christmas this year, spare a thought for the poor god Saturn, who's mostly out in the cold these days.