Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas’ pagan origins


Discovery news: Christmas Elements Have Pagan Roots
with James Williams
Christmas’ pagan origins
Written by Kelly Wittmann

No one knows what day Jesus Christ was born on. From the biblical description, most historians believe that his birth probably occurred in September, approximately six months after Passover. One thing they agree on is that it is very unlikely that Jesus was born in December, since the bible records shepherds tending their sheep in the fields on that night. This is quite unlikely to have happened during a cold Judean winter. So why do we celebrate Christ’s birthday as Christmas, on December the 25th?

The answer lies in the pagan origins of Christmas. In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast.

In Rome, the Winter Solstice was celebrated many years before the birth of Christ. The Romans called their winter holiday Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the God of Agriculture. In January, they observed the Kalends of January, which represented the triumph of life over death. This whole season was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The festival season was marked by much merrymaking. It is in ancient Rome that the tradition of the Mummers was born. The Mummers were groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining their neighbors. From this, the Christmas tradition of caroling was born.

In northern Europe, many other traditions that we now consider part of Christian worship were begun long before the participants had ever heard of Christ. The pagans of northern Europe celebrated the their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun God, Mithras, being born, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. As the Sun God grew and matured, the days became longer and warmer. It was customary to light a candle to encourage Mithras, and the sun, to reappear next year.

Huge Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun. The word Yule itself means “wheel,” the wheel being a pagan symbol for the sun. Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant, and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe began as a fertility ritual. Hollyberries were thought to be a food of the gods.

The tree is the one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were often brought into homes during the harsh winters as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Evergreen boughs were sometimes carried as totems of good luck and were often present at weddings, representing fertility. The Druids used the tree as a religious symbol, holding their sacred ceremonies while surrounding and worshipping huge trees.

In 350, Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25. There is little doubt that he was trying to make it as painless as possible for pagan Romans (who remained a majority at that time) to convert to Christianity. The new religion went down a bit easier, knowing that their feasts would not be taken away from them.

Christmas (Christ-Mass) as we know it today, most historians agree, began in Germany, though Catholics and Lutherans still disagree about which church celebrated it first. The earliest record of an evergreen being decorated in a Christian celebration was in 1521 in the Alsace region of Germany. A prominent Lutheran minister of the day cried blasphemy: “Better that they should look to the true tree of life, Christ.”

The controversy continues even today in some fundamentalist sects.

The Catholic Encyclopedia says, “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts.” […] Sir James Frazer says, “The largest pagan religious cult which fostered the celebration of December 25 as a holiday . . . was the pagan sun- worship, Mithraism . . . This winter festival was called . . . ‘the Nativity of the SUN.’ […] Franz Cumont, perhaps the greatest scholar of Mithraism, wrote, quoting Minucius Felix, “The Mithraists also observed Sun-day and kept sacred the 25th of December as the birthday of the Sun. Many scholars have pointed out how the Sun- worshipping Mithraists, the Sun-worshipping Manicheans and the Christians were all syncretised and reconciled when Constantine led the take-over by Christianity[…]”

However, other Sun-worshipping groups were included too, because of the general importance and popularity of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun-deity. Mario Righetti, a renowned Catholic liturgist, writes, “the Church of Rome, to facilitate the acceptance of the faith by the pagan masses, found it convenient to institute the 25th December as the feast of the temporal birth of Christ, to divert them from the pagan feast, celebrated on the same day in honour of the ‘Invincible Sun’, Mithras. The mixing of pagan Sun-worship and Christianity is exemplified by the testimony of a Syrian scholiast on Bar Salibi, who said, “It was a custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same 25th of December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and festivities the Christians also took part.” Practically all the known Sun-deities were born on the 25th December. In S.E. Titcomb, Aryan Sun myths, the Origin of Religions, we find it cited, quoted from primary sources, that the following Sun-deities were all born on 25 December, according to their legends: Crishna (Vishnu), Mithra (Mithras), Osiris, Horus, Hercules, Dionysus (Bacchus), Tammuz, Indra, Buddha. Therein we also read of the Scandinavian goddess Frigga in whose honour a “Mother-night” festival was held at the winter solstice (+ - 25 December), as well as a similar great feast of Yule, where a boar was offered at the winter solstice in honour of Frey.”

Recommended reading Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide
Wikipedia entry "Christmas controversy" and Pre-Christian origins of Christmas

Religioustolerance.org The Christmas star and The Christmas tree
A liberal analysis of the myths surrounding the birth of Jesus
A conservative Biblical analysis of Christmas

1 comment:

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