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*The Big Bang Theory (S2 E11, “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis”)
“In the pre-Christian era, as the winter solstice approached and the plants died, pagans brought evergreen boughs into their homes as an act of sympathetic magic, intended to guard the life essences of the plants until spring. This custom was later appropriated by Northern Europeans and eventually it becomes the so-called Christmas tree.”
– Sheldon Cooper, on the festival Saturnalia
(Pronounced “eeyo sa-tur-NAL-ee-uh”)
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival celebrated in honor of the god Saturn, an agricultural deity said to have reigned over the world in the Golden Age of peace and plenty. Traditional held on December 17th it lasted from one to five days (variously) throughout its history – which continued into the 4th century C.E.
A huge public celebration would be held at the Temple of Saturn in Rome. All Romans (including women and slaves) spent Saturnalia feasting, singing, playing music, putting on satirical plays, and gambling. Equality and free-speech were embraced and role reversals were de rigueur; some slaves would even find themselves being fêted by their masters. Considered free men during the festival of Saturnalia, slaves were allowed to wear the pileus or cap of freedom.
As celebrations continued into the night it’s no surprise that traditional gifts of white candles (cerei) were exchanged. Romans decorated their homes with greenery and the aristocracy traded their traditional togas for brightly colored garments in shades of red, purple, and gold. The people would feast on bread, nuts, dried fruits, cheeses, sweet treats made with honey, nuts and dried fruit, pork, winter vegetables, and plenty of a mulled honey wine called mulsum.
A mock king, the “Lord of Misrule“, would be chosen to serve as a master of ceremonies. The King of Saturnalia was responsible for making mischief during the celebrations and generally ruling over the ever-increasing chaos and debauchery.