Friday, January 05, 2007

On the 12th Day of Christmas, I Have Some Things to Say....

Christmas Day is past, but this is something that’s been on my mind for a while, and I wanted to address it before the end of the holiday season.

I’m sure you all remember the big flap the last few years about Happy Holidays versus Merry Christmas. This was largely just more invented “persecution drama” from the Christian Right, and it’s a shame that many businesses seem to have cowtowed to it this year by ordering their employees to wish customers a Merry Christmas rather than Happy Holidays.

Last Christmas season I received an email espousing the “Say Merry Christmas!” thing from someone who, as an esoteric practitioner, should have known better. Of course I wrote back to her, educating on her on the pagan antecedents of Christmas and the lore of some of the sun gods (Dionysius, Mithras, and Horus, for starters) who’d preceded Jesus. Her response was to take me off her mailing list.

This Christmas season there was an article in our local newspaper that tried to assert that the dating of Christmas had nothing to do with the winter solstice. The article’s author, relying on the writings of a prolific Christian writer, offered up another theory. He said that Christmas had been assigned the date of December 25th by the early church because of an ancient Hebrew tradition (not found in the Bible) that held that a prophet always passed away on the anniversary of his conception date, so it would follow that his birth date would be nine months later.

Unstated, but implicit in this theory, is the assumption that the March 25th Catholic feast of the Annunciation actually marks the date of Jesus’s conception — a bit of self-serving circular logic, methinks.

It occurred to me that perhaps there was a need for more information on this topic, particularly at this time of year, so to that end, I offer the following—in the spirit of the season, of course!

The Reason for the Season
Our modern dating of Christmas to December 25th does indeed have a pagan origin. It is, of course, related to the winter solstice, and long before Christianity, the winter solstice was celebrated in various ways by various pagan cultures in the Old World.

Insofar as the December 25th nativity of Jesus being dated to a nine months previous conception date of March 25th, there is no date actually recorded in the Bible or in oral tradition for the visit of the Angel Gabriel which announced the conception of Jesus. But in ancient Rome the new year began in March, and the spring equinox time of March 22-21st was celebrated as the start of the new year by most of Europe until the calendar change of 1752.

It seems fitting that the beginning of the new year would be chosen by the church as the time of conception of the major (sun) god-form of the new era, especially since this time marks the beginning of an obvious increase in the sun’s powers of warmth and light, which result in obvious signs (i.e growth of vegetation, birth of baby animals) of a new cycle of life in progress.

Christian tradition records the Church became headquartered in Rome early in its history, perhaps beginning with St. Peter’s residence there in the middle of the first century. Rome celebrated the seven day pagan feast of Saturnalia approximately December 17th through the 23rd. One may assume that the early Roman Christians were not uninfluenced by the celebrations all around them, especially since they had previously been pagan themselves.

Saturnalia was held in honor of the Roman god Saturn—a god of agriculture—and his wife, Ops—a goddess of fertility and agriculture. Her very name means abundance, plenty, opulence. Saturnalia was a joyful celebration; a time to eat, drink, and be merry. Schools and courts were closed, and entertainment was paramount. Decorations were put up. Gifts were exchanged. It was a time when social roles were reversed, and the master served the slave. It was a time of offerings to Saturn and Ops, and great banquets were held to celebrate their gift of abundance. It was an observance of both the harvest and the winter solstice, and was considered a return to the mythic Golden Age, a time when humanity was thought to have lived in a utopian state.

Saturnalia began as a one day feast, but its popularity caused it to finally encompass seven days of celebration, although through the years various emperors made attempts to trim it back to size. In 46 AD the date for Saturnalia was officially set at December 25th. That year was most likely before St Peter even came to Rome, so when he did arrive, he would have found, already in place at the winter solstice, a joyful celebration of light and bounty.

Also influential on the dating of Christmas was the December 25th Persian feast of Sol Invictis—the unconquered sun—which marked the birthday of the god Mithras. This feast was brought to Rome by Roman soldiers who’d encountered it in Persia. Mithraism was an extremely popular religion in the Roman empire and very influential on the early shaping of emerging Christianity and its doctrines.

Actually, some of the significance and customs of Saturnalia may have derived from these earlier solstice observances in Persia, and also those from Egypt, where not only was the rebirth of the sun celebrated, but decorations of greenery were used to symbolize the return of light and life. In Egypt there was a 12 day celebration, in honor of the 12 divisions/months of the solar year. It was considered a time when the sun god Ra was recovering from illness–that the spirit of life was returning was shown by the increasing day length. Later, when Horus became known as the sun god, his birthday was observed on the winter solstice. Some stories say that Horus, like Mithras and Jesus, was born of a virgin, in this case Isis.

Christian revisionist histories notwithstanding, to say that the newly emerging Middle-East-birthed and Mediterranean-based religion of Christianity was unaffected by any of these previous beliefs and observances defies logic. Indeed, a much more sensible and realistic scenario would be that the church, when it finally decided—in the fourth century—to commemorate the birth of Jesus, chose the winter solstice in order to coincide with these pre-existing and popular feasts, casting Jesus in the old pagan role of the Sun God/Son of God in the hope that the worship offered to these old gods on that date would be transferred to him.
So! Let us immerse ourselves in the joyful celebration of the Light’s return at this time of year, whether we celebrate Mithras, son of Anahita; Horus, son of Isis; or that late-comer, Jesus, son of Mary!

Blessings of the Returning Light to You All!



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