The chief festival of this "tenth" and last month of the Roman year was the Saturnalia, held on the seventeenth of the month in honour of Saturn, the father of Jupiter. Saturn, or Cronos, as the Greeks called him, was one of the Titans, the six giant sons of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth). Uranus ruled before the days of Man, but he was overthrown by his son Saturn, who became for a time the supreme ruler of the universe. Uranus, however, prophesied that Saturn would one day himself be overthrown by his children, and in order to avoid this, Saturn, when his first child was born, immediately swallowed him! As other children were born, he swallowed each of them until at last Rhea, his wife, succeeded in hiding her youngest son, Jupiter, and deceived Saturn by giving him a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, which, in his haste, he swallowed without realizing the trick played upon him. Jupiter was thus saved, and when he grew up he overthrew his father, as Uranus had foretold. Saturn, having lost his power, took refuge on the Earth, and became king of a part of Italy, which, as Virgil tells us in the eighth book of his Aeneid, he called Latium, since it was there that he lay hid (Latin: lateo= to lie hidden). "Saturn was the first to come from heavenly Olympus, fleeing the arms of Jupiter, an exile deprived of his kingdom. He it was who made into a nation a people untaught and scattered on the mountain tops, and gave them laws, and chose that the land should be called 'Latium' because in safety he had lain hidden in this region."
Jupiter's rule was very soon threatened by the Titans, who refused to bow to his will, but after a long and terrible struggle, the giants were overthrown by Jupiter's thunderbolts. One of the giants was imprisoned under Mount Aetna, where, breathing out fire and smoke, he still struggles to free himself, thus causing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
Another of the Titans, Iapetus, had two sons, Prometheus (Forethought) and Epimetheus (Afterthought). To these two gods fell the task of making man, who was to rule over all living creatures. Prometheus was very anxious to give to the race of men that he had fashioned a power that would make them supreme on the earth, and nearer to the gods themselves. The way in which he could best bestow this power upon them was by the gift of fire, for fire belonged only to the gods and was jealously guarded by them. In spite of the terrible punishment which he knew awaited him should he be discovered, Prometheus determined to steal fire from heaven, and during one dark night he brought down to the earth a burning stick from the home of the gods on Mount Olympus. Jupiter, seeing an unaccustomed light on the earth, discovered the theft, and his rage knew no bounds. He seized Prometheus, carried him off to the Caucasus Mountains, and there bound him with chains to a huge rock. Then he sent a vulture that, day after day, might feed upon his liver, which grew again during the night so that the terrible torture of the god should have no end. After hundreds of years of this ghastly pain and suffering, Prometheus was rescued by Hercules, who came to him to ask him where he might find the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. Hercules killed the vulture, broke Prometheus' chains, and released the tortured god, who in return advised Hercules to go to the giant Atlas, who knew where the apples were, as we have seen in the story of Atlas' daughter, Maia.
Prometheus' brother, Epimetheus, married the beautiful Pandora, and at first lived with her in great happiness, for in those early days the earth was free from pain, sickness, and ills of every kind. One evening they saw Mercury, the messenger of the gods, coming towards them and bearing on his shoulder a huge box which seemed to be of great weight. Tired out with his burden, Mercury begged permission to leave the box to their care, promising to return for it in a short time. Pandora and Epimetheus readily granted permission, and Mercury placed the box in their house and hastily departed. Pandora was at once filled with great curiosity as to what the box might contain, and suggested to Epimetheus that, they should just peep inside. Epimetheus was shocked by Pandora's lack of good manners, and, replying that they must not think of such a thing, he went out, calling to Pandora to follow him. But Pandora's curiosity was now thoroughly aroused, and the temptation overcame her when she found herself alone. Quickly she undid the cord which bound the box, and, thinking she beard sounds in the box, she put her ear close to the lid. To her surprise she heard voices calling, "Let us out! let us out!" Pandora, filled with excitement, slowly raised the lid a little, just for a peep, as she said to herself. But no sooner was the box opened than out flew little winged creatures, some of which settled on Pandora and Epimetheus, who had now returned, and stung them so that they knew pain for the first time. Then escaping into the world, these insects, Evil, Sickness, Unhappiness, and all the little troubles of life, became a cause of endless pain and suffering to men and women. Poor Pandora was broken hearted, and her eyes filled with tears at the thought of the harm she had done. Then again she was startled to hear a voice still calling from the box. It sounded so kind and gentle and pleaded so sweetly to be let out, that Pandora raised the lid a second time, and out flew Hope, who had been shut in with the cruel insects, and now fluttered busily over the earth, healing the wounds made by her evil companions.
This cheery little creature, Hope, may well be associated with the winter month December, when Ceres and her trees and flowers mourn for the smiling Persephone, yet cling to the hope of her return. It is Hope who bids us say with the poet, "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"
On December 25th, the Romans held a festival of the winter solstice, the turning point of winter, when the days begin to grow longer. It was called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun), and it is very probable that for this reason the Christians chose the 25th of December for the birthday of Christ. In early times Christmas (the Mass or Feast of Christ) was kept at different times in the year, but it was finally fixed on December 25th, since on that day there was already held this heathen festival to the sun, which had a meaning in some way similar to that of our Christmas. It was an easy thing to make the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, which wakes all nature from its winter sleep, into the Birthday of the Unconquered Son of God, who brought new life and hope to the world.
The same thing took place among the northern races of Europe and in our own islands. The first Christian missionaries found that, at the time of year we now call Christmas, the Northmen kept a festival called Yule, the greatest feast in the year. "Yule" means "wheel", and the festival was so named because the sun was thought to be like a wheel revolving swiftly across the sky. It used at one time to be a custom in England and Germany for the people to gather each year on a hill-top, to set fire to a huge wooden wheel bound with straw, and to send it rolling down the hill. The Christians made this festival into a Christian festival, and we still speak of Christmas as Yuletide. The origin of Santa Claus is St. Nicholas, who was the patron saint of Russia. He was famous for his kindness and generosity, and a festival was held in his honour on the 6th of December.
The custom of giving "Christmas boxes" comes from the Romans, and in later days these gifts came to be called "boxes", because at Christmas time boxes were hung up in the churches in which people might put money, for the poor. On the day after Christmas Day these boxes were opened, and the day was thus known as "Boxing Day". Another custom which comes from the Romans is that of having a Christmas tree hung with toys--a custom which dates back to the Saturnalia. Virgil, in his book called The Georgics, describes how the farmers, when holding a festival in honour of Bacchus, God of Wine, "hang from the tall pine tiny waving masks" of the god.
December also had two names among the Angles and Saxons: "Wintermonath", and "Heligmonath", that is, "holy month", from the fact that Christmas falls in this month.