Reason for the season predates Jesus by Barbara G. Walker

By Barbara G. Walker

We are approaching a date that ancient people often regarded as the most significant, perilous time of the year: the winter solstice. Two thousand years ago, it occurred around Dec. 25, but the change in the calendar now places it closer to Dec. 21 or Dec. 22.
The problem was that the sunlight seemed to weaken and retreat further into night as the solstice loomed, and the ancients feared that a time might come when it would keep going and fail to return—an unthinkable disaster that would destroy all life on Earth. Early in human history, rituals were devised to make sure of the sun’s solstitial rebirth and renewal.

Rituals are invented according to the principle of sympathetic magic. That is, to make something happen, you symbolically imitate it. If rain is needed, you pour water. If you want to hurt an enemy, you mutilate his image. For success in hunting, you do dances imitating the kill. If you want the divine sun to be reborn, you light lamps and stage birth rituals.

When Christians adopted the solstitial birthday, they gave it the same hopeful title that Persian worshipers of Mithra had used centuries before: Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.
Throughout the Roman Empire, the worship of Mithra was more widely popular than Christianity for the first four centuries of the so-called Christian era. In 307 C.E., the emperor officially declared Mithra “Protector of the Empire.” His birth was witnessed by shepherds and by the “wise men” or priests known as Magi: magicians.

Mithra performed the usual assortment of miracles: healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out devils, making the blind see and the lame walk. He celebrated a Last Supper with his 12 disciples (the 12 signs of the zodiac), died and rose again at the spring equinox, and originated a sacramental meal known as “mizd” (Latin missa, English mass) at which his worshipers ate bread marked with a cross. They looked forward to salvation in the Last Days, when the apocalyptic battle will result in conquest of the devil of darkness (Ahriman) by the solar god of light, the Sun of Righteousness, Ahura Mazda.
The temple of Mithra on Vatican Hill was seized by Christians in 376 C.E., but the bishops of Rome adopted even the Mithraic high priest’s title of Pater Patrum, later Papa or Pope. Recently discovered vases from a Roman Mithraeum, dated in the third century A.D., bore the words “You saved us by having shed the eternal blood.”

Plagiarizing pagans

In fact, virtually all the details of the Christian solstitial legend came from much older pagan sources. In Egypt, 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, people knew that the all-important annual flooding of the Nile, on which their crops depended, coincided with the rising of the star Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens. They said this star represented the soul of the savior Osiris, god of both earthly crops and the after-life paradise. Like the reaped and replanted grain, Osiris died every year and was reborn as Sirius rose.

His worshipers chanted, “The Virgin has brought forth! The Savior is born!” They believed that by eating the flesh and blood of Osiris, in the form of consecrated bread and wine, they would take his essence into their own bodies and thus become immortal like him. Egyptians described Osiris as the savior “to whom men and women turned for assurance of immortality.”

During Osiris’s death phase, his star-spirit Sirius was in the keeping of the jackal god of death, Anubis, the “Great Dog,” whose constellation was and still is called Canis Major, the Great Dog, of which Sirius is the alpha star. The crucial rising of Sirius was heralded by the row of three stars in the belt of Orion, called the Three Wise Men, the same as the Persian Magi.

A line drawn through these three stars points directly at Sirius, so they became the annunciators who could say, “We have seen his star in the east,” meaning that it rose, like all heavenly bodies, in the east. Later, Christians forgot the star lore and insisted on human Magi coming from Persia, but had trouble explaining how the Magi could travel so far westward to Bethlehem by following a star in the east.

In the Near East, it was said that Bethlehem was where the god Adonis was born of the virgin Myrrha. Her sacred plant, myrrh, was used as an aphrodisiac in the rites of Adonis in his later role as consort of Aphrodite, and thorny twigs of myrrh made up his crown of thorns. Some early Christians referred to Jesus’s mother as Myrrh of the Sea; other versions of her name were Marina, Mara, Maya or Mari-anna, possibly all derived from Maia, the Virgin Mother of Buddha, five centuries earlier said to have been derived from the sound of a baby’s cry.

All over the world, the syllable Ma is ubiquitous in the names of Mother Goddess figures. Shepherds attended the birth of Adonis, who was the god of both crops and flocks. He too was known as the Good Shepherd.

Another contributor to Christian symbolism was the Phrygian god Attis, whose cult became very popular in Rome. Born of the usual virgin mother to bring back the light and the growing season, Attis was called “Most Holy God, Who Holds the Universe Together,” and greeted with the phrase, “Hail, Bridegroom, Hail, New Light.” He was crucified on a pine tree, which was said to be green all year round due to the infusion of his holy blood. Celebrants carried pine boughs in his rites.

Europeans continued to adore the winter greenery of the pine all the way up to Victorian times, when the Christmas tree was officially adopted in England, thanks to Queen Victoria’s German consort, Prince Albert.

In northern Europe, an evergreen widely revered as a symbol of ongoing life was the holly, sacred to the underworld Goddess Helle, or Hohle or Hel. Her name gave us the English the word hell, though her underworld was not a place of torture but simply a place of the dead, prior to any rebirth.

The red berries of the holly represented drops of the Goddess’s life-giving blood, an idea dating all the way back to the primitive perception of female blood as the source of all life. Holly and other evergreens were common in wreaths and other solstitial decorations. The Christmas hymn “The Holly and the Ivy” commemorates a very old tradition, as does the Yule log, lighted like other sacred fires to assist the rebirth of sunlight.

In the nineteenth century, however, some Christian ministers denounced the Yule “disorders . . . derived from these Roman Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals, which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them.” The pious Christians, apparently, didn’t abominate them at all. Customs arising from the worship of many virgin-born pagan saviors around the beginning of the Common Era and continued to be practiced even after their original intent was long forgotten.

Here comes Santa Claus

America’s most popular symbol of the season, Santa Claus, also had a somewhat questionable background. He was described as a fourth-century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. An official Christian version of his legend said that he gave three bags of gold to three women to “save” them from prostitution. But Christian Gnostics, some of whom still practiced sexual rites, may have been continuing the use of sacred priestess-prostitutes who perpetuated the traditional worship of Aphrodite and Adonis in the city dedicated to Adonis’ mother Myrrha.

Later, Nicholas became identified with the Italian city of Bari, where bones said to be his were installed to serve as a focus of pilgrimage in the 11th century. Many adherents of St. Nicholas had taken over the old temples of the sea god Poseidon, popularly known as “the Sailor,” a title inherited by Nicholas, who became patron saint of sailors.

His Bari temple was also dedicated to a female consort known as Befana, “the Grandmother,” who annually filled children’s stockings with presents and who was worshiped with gift-giving ceremonies. It was a common habit to give children gifts and treats on holy days so they would always remember the importance of such occasions.

St. Nicholas “the Sailor” was revered by the maritime Dutch, who called him Sinter Klaas, later Latinized as Santa Claus. Dutch immigrants brought him to America, where he was transformed into today’s jolly symbol of the winter solstice, fat with feasting and overflowing with gifts, especially gifts for children.

All religious ceremonies that were perceived as important evolved into “Feast” days, so that even if people went hungry at other times, they were obligated to provide as much as they could on these occasions. On some level, always in the past million years or so, the life-essential function of eating had to be demonstrated to the deities on their special days so that food would continue to be provided.

Sympathetic magic is still with us, and at the time of the winter solstice, we still delight in it.

Today we are fairly sure that the sunlight will return in a few months’ time to its former strength, and that eating a god’s symbolic flesh will not necessarily make us immortal. And that Santa Claus is not real, even though we teach our children to think so while they are young. But the magical fantasies of the equinox continue, and probably will continue to be celebrated for centuries to come.

Merry Christmas.

Freedom From Religion Foundation