Saturnalia was held on December 17th to mark the dedication anniversary of the Temple to Saturn in the Roman Forum in 497 BCE.
Saturn was the most important of the Roman gods. He was the god of agriculture and his celebration marked the end of the winter planting and the preparation for the winter solstice celebration, Sol Invictus, eight days later.
A grand feast would have been held on this night and there would have been plenty of wine to go around. There would have been a special phrase that you would have used to greet your friends and neighbors or to dedicate a toast. Yo Saturnalia! would have been the phrase heard most often in the shops and markets as Romans did some last minute holiday shopping.
Saturnalia was a time for merry-making and singing, a vacation from the normal run-of-the-mill existence. It was a time of drunkenness and singing naked in front of yours neighbor’s house. Today we call this caroling but these days most carolers wear clothes.
At the end of the first century C.E, the Roman poet Statius wrote: "For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue."
Well, to answer Statius’s question, the holiday would last only about 300 more years in name but it continues in practice to this day. Traditions from both the feast of Saturnalia and the winter solstice celebration were incorporated into the Christ’s Mass holiday of the Roman Catholic church. (Christ’s Mass of course being the traditional day of the birth of Jesus, which in the early days of the Church, curiously fell on the December 25th pagan solstice holiday of Sol Invictus.)
So tonight, with Statius in mind you may want to lift a glass and proclaim Yo Saturnalia! and be thankful that the winter planting season is over.