FLAMING torches will be carried through the centre of York by Roman legionnaires to celebrate the ancient festival of Saturnalia.
The striking spectacle will be led by Maximus Gluteus from the city's Lost Legion, which runs the annual Norwich Union-sponsored York Roman Festival.
People will learn about the first Christmas celebrations from Roman times while walking through the darkened streets during the tour.
Saturnalia was one of the most popular Roman festivals. It was held in mid-December to honour the Roman god Saturn with feasting, gift giving and role reversal where slaves acted as masters and vice versa.
The festival was linked to celebrating the beginning of the solar year.
Organiser Nick Eggleton said the flaming tour was a first for the city.
"This will be an eye-catching, atmospheric tour and will have the feel of a genuine Roman march," he said.
"It will have a magical, mystical quality about it. We've never tried anything like this before."
Mr Eggleton said many of the Christmas rituals were originally inspired by the Roman Saturnalia festival, including the wearing of paper hats, the giving of gifts and feasting with family and friends.
"The Romans used to hang wreaths and garlands during the festival and give each other holly as gifts," he said.
"The similarities with Christmas are striking."
The flaming torch tour, which sets off from the statue of Constantine The Great, outside the South Transept of York Minster, at 3.30pm on Sunday, December 17, is one of several events being organised by the Lost Legion to celebrate both Christmas and Saturnalia.
At Ye Olde Starre Inn, Stonegate, York, between 5pm and 7pm, there will be a "Santanalia" event with quizzes, games and a visit from Father Christmas. Roman-style food will be available The pub will then play host to a toga party between 7pm and midnight with free mulled wine for everyone wearing a costume. It will include live music from ADBC and also a Miss Toga competition.
It will be a fantastic day with something for everyone," Mr Eggleton added.
"We are determined to keep bringing Roman history to life."
Tickets for the tour are available from the Visitor Information Centre, at the De Grey rooms in Exhibition Square. Admission is £4 for adults and £1 for children. All the money raised will go towards the York Roman Festival.
Time to eat, drink and be merry
The Saturnalia was a large and important public festival in Rome.
It involved the conventional sacrifices, a couch (lectisternium) set out in front of the temple of Saturn and the untying of the ropes that bound the statue of Saturn during the rest of the year.
Besides the public rites there were a series of holidays and customs celebrated privately.
The celebrations included a school holiday, the making and giving of small presents (saturnalia et sigillaricia) and a special market (sigillaria). Gambling was allowed for all, even slaves.
It was a time to eat, drink, and be merry. The toga was not worn, but the pilleus (freedman's hat) was worn by everyone.
Slaves were exempt from punishment, and treated their masters with disrespect. Slaves enjoyed a banquet served by the masters. Saturnalia became one of the most popular Roman festivals which led to more tomfoolery, marked chiefly by having masters and slaves switch places, which led to widespread drinking and debauchery, so that among Christians the (lower case) word "saturnalia" came to mean "orgy".