Because winter is the darkest time of the year, the winter solstice has long been a time of great celebration, heralding the return of light to the world. Ancient cultures throughout the world and history have held celebrations of this time, most of them of days or even weeks duration.
Yule In Scandinavia, the party lasted from Dec. 21 into January. In many places, a sacrifice was made at the end of the festival on Mid-Winter Night, (Jan. 12). The sacrifice was originally probably human, (accounts say that Swedish Kings sacrificed male slaves every 9th year, for example), but became a boar, (think "Boar's Head Carol"). Germanic peoples celebrated the holiday from Dec.-Jan. on a date chosen by their lunar calendar. Records also reflect that the holiday was celebrated in Iceland.
The root of the word is the same as the root of the word "jolly" and other traditions based in Yule include decorating fir trees, hanging mistletoe and holly and giving gifts. (We owe a lot to Yule.) And, believe it or not, the tradition of Christmas ham comes from the tradition of feasting on the ritual boar.
At Yule, (also associated with the God Jul), it also was believed in some cultures that the spirits of the dead, as well as demons, returned to earth at this time and that people could have intercourse with them.
Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun) The Mithric religion celebrated the birth of their God, Mithras on December 25. It is, in fact, the reason that December 25 became the date chosen to celebrate Christmas. His story was similar in many, many ways to that of Jesus. Popular with Roman soldiers, he was of Iranian/Zoroastrian origin.
It was believed that Mithras was created by the chief deity, Ahura-Mazda, and born of a virgin woman, to save the world. Mithras was also believed to have been resurrected after death and to have ascended to the heavens in human form. He also was worshipped on Sundays. He was associated with the Sun, which begins it's journey to the peak of it's power each winter. Mithrasists beleved that the rituals observed on this date were as old as humankind.
Brumalia this holiday celebrated the maturing of wine and the God Dionysus in Greece. The word Bruma is Latin for the Winter Solstice.
Saturnalia, December 17-23 was a huge Roman Festival. It was originally celebrated for a day but people had so much fun it became a week long event.
During Saturnalia, Saturn was honored with sacrifices, the placing of a couch n front of his temple and the untying of ropes that bound his statue the rest of the year. A master of ceremonies was elected for the festivities. There were also many private rituals that were observed. Schools were closed, presents were given, there was a holiday market and gambling was a favorite activity. Instead of togas, people wore more colorful, informal clothes and feasting and drinking occupied everyone's time.
During Saturnalia, slaves were alowed to gamble and were not to be punished. They had a banquet either with, in front of or served by their masters and they were expected to treat them disrespectfully. This role reversal was, however, mostly symbolic.
The interjection, "Ho", comes from the Latin "io", which was frequently invoked at this time in the greeting "io, Saturnalia", equivillant to "Merry Christmas" now.