I am a pagan at heart. And for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere festivities like Chanukah and Christmas are all about bright lights and heat radiating out into the darkest of the days. But long before there was a Santa Claus or Macys the ancient Romans were celebrating Saturnalia. This seven day-festival began on December 17. It was named for the God of Agricultural whose name literally means "to sow."
Candles were lit to insure the return of the sun's power after the solstice. It was a time of equality between men, slaves danced with masters and the poor and the rich mingled. An early law made it clear: "No discourse shall either be composed or delivered, except it be witty and lusty, conducing to mirth and jollity."
This festival was meant to insure crop fertility in the coming year.
A few days after Saturnalia was the Roman festival of the Kalends. To paraphrase Libanius, the famous Greek sophist of the Fourth Century, The festival of the Kalends is celebrated as far as the limits of the Roman Empire .... Everywhere may be seen carousals and well-laden tables; luxurious abundance is found in the houses of the rich, but also in the houses of the poor. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his pence, becomes suddenly extravagant.
People are not only generous towards themselves, but also towards their fellow-men. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides. It may justly be said that it is the fairest time of the year.... The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment.The festival also teaches not to hold too fast to money, but to part with it and let it pass into other hands.