Saturnalia. According to Roman myth, and the much older traditions on which it was based, Saturn ruled over a period when humans lived in eternal bliss, food literally dripped off the trees and things were generally pretty darned good.
From the viewpoint of the Northern Hemisphere, the Sun reaches its lowest point in the southern sky and on 21 December. At this point, winter begins and the Sun appears to "die" for three days, as it ceases to move in any direction north or south relative to the horizon.
On 25 December, the Sun is "reborn," as it begins its months-long trip northward again, culminating in the Summer Solstice on 21 July. As the Sun "dies," the original King of the Gods - Saturn - once again takes control of the Heavens and for a brief time, the Golden Age returns.
Saturnalia was marked by the suspension of social norms. Wild parties ensued, with people exchanging gifts, slaves being treated like house guests, and lavish feasts that sought to recreate the Golden Age of plenty. People disguised as Cronus/Saturn, with great white beards, would tote sacks of gifts around, tossing goodies to random children as a good luck token, since any one of the children could be the young New Year in disguise. Special lamps were lit all night to provide the light that the dying Sun could not.
As the Roman empires spread into northern Europe, aspects of the Germanic winter festival, called Yuletide, were added to Saturnalia. Evergreen trees symbolizing Eternal Life were cut down and set up in public areas, decorated with candles and glittery glass objects to catch and reflect the light. Groups of people would wander around singing traditional Yule songs. Special Yule logs coated with cobalt, copper and other minerals were tossed on bonfires to add multi-colored flames to the festivities. Feasts eventually centered around roasted boar, a favorite of the Germanic people.
The festivities ended on 25 December, with the birth of the Sun. The 12 days of feasting and partying gave way to the somber reality of winter, as they retreated indoors for the next three months, until the resurrection of life in the spring.
Saturnalia would then give way to the Feast of Janus, the two-faced god of thresholds, who stood on the dividing line between inner and outer, past and future. Old man Cronus would surrender to the infant Sun, now slowly rising again in the sky. Darkness and death would eventually become light and life once again.
The festival was so wildly popular that the emperor Constantine could not stop it in favor of his new christian religion. Instead, the birth of the Sun became the birth of the Son. The plethora of Roman and Germanic gods were replaced with a single deity and a Christian veneer was cast over the proceedings.
Vestiges remained and proved hard to squelch. Old man Cronus became Santa Claus, Yule songs were replaced with Christmas carols and the evergreen trees - symbols of Eternal Life - took on more symbolic roles. The festival proved so popular and enduring that two thousand years later it has become a global event marked with gift-giving and sparkly decorations, and even here in the tropics and in the Southern Hemisphere, the imagery of snow cannot be extricated from the celebration.
The next time someone tells you that Christmas is a sober holiday celebrating the birth of the Son, you can say with certainty that it is actually synonymous with wild parties and extravagant feasts, and that the New Year celebration is the one that is supposed to be a sullen and somber reflection on the passing of time, things lost and things to come.
In the meantime, I'll have another mug of eggnog, hold the egg, and would you mind carving off another chunk of roast boar for me?