Because that’s when Santa Claus comes.
Because that’s the day Jesus was born.
Wrong again. The reason is that the Catholic church chose that date. Why exactly the 25th of December? That is what this post will hopefully answer.
The Catholic church chose the day of a pagan festival in order to replace it, so that the pagans would not celebrate their gods any more but Jesus instead.
Not far from the truth, but it is actually a little more complicated than that. In fact, they did not really want to replace the pagan feast. But that’s what this post is all about.
It is a difficult task to write about this topic, since there are so many different gods with the same origin, under different names and all with slightly different legends surrounding them. I want to try and summarize the most important ones.
A Christmas Tale
Once upon a time, in the ancient days, there was a god in the Pantheon of gods, called Mithra in Persia, or Mithras by the Greeks and Romans. He was also called the god of the light.
According to the beliefs of the time, Mithras was the son of Ahura-Mazda, the so-called Knowing Lord. In most depictions, he was shown being born from a rock wearing a phrygian cap, while in others, he is born from an egg (a symbol of fertility) and lastly, from a tree. Mithras’ most prominent symbols are the items he is given at his birth: a dagger (which he later used to kill a bull) and a torch.1
This birth from a tree has a precedent in the Babylonian tale surrounding the birth of the unconquered sun:
Many different versions exist of the story, but the most widely one is told by Ovid in his work called Metamorphoses3&4:
According to the tale, Aphrodite compelled Myrrha (or Smyrna) to sleep with her father Theias, king of Assyria. When he found out, Myrrha had to run and she was turned into a myrrh tree. But Theias struck the tree with an arrow, after which it cracked open and Adonis emerged.
Adonis is later mortally wounded, either by a wild boar, Apollo or Ares, and he dies in his mother’s arms.
These are the very features of the Adonis legend: which is celebrated on flat roof-tops on which sherds sown with quickly germinating green salading are placed, Adonis gardens. The atmosphere of the festival is infused with the sweet aroma of incense, but the climax is loud lamentation for the dead god. The dead Adonis was then laid out on his bier in the form of a statuette and borne to his grave […]. The women afterwards consoled themselves with the assurance that the god was living.4
The name Adonis is of Semitic origin, and it is a form of Adon (meaning Lord). According to Burkert, the Adonis was mostly based on the Mesopotamian god Tammuz4. The prophet Ezekiel shows how similar these two cults are:
Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. Then he said to me, “Have you seen this, O son of man? You will see still greater abominations than these.” And he brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord. And behold, at the entrance of the temple of the Lord, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the Lord, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east. Ezekiel 8:14-16
This sun worship revolved around the winter solstice, as follows: The sun moves towards the south until the winter solstice, on the 21st of december. It then stays there for three days, from the 22nd to the 24th, before it starts moving north again. In the sun worship, these three days were considered a three day long death of the sun, with its re-birth on the 25th of december, called Natalis Invicti in Latin (Birth of the unconquered).
Centuries before Jesus was born, the followers of Mithras believed that their master was born on December the 25th, the day of the birth of the new sun (or the winter solstice).1&2 To celebrate this, they would light torches or candles, on a day they would call Sun-Day.
The symbolism in Ezekiel’s vision is uncanny: These people were looking at the sun in the east, turning our back to the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence is (Shekhinah, שכינה). When God calls us to repent (literal meaning: to turn around), He wants us to turn our back to the sun and to pagan religions (Deuteronomy 4:19), in order to follow him. In fact, the ten commandments state that the people who worship idols hate God (Exodus 20:5), as one of the most important premises of the Bible is to worship the creator, and not the creation.
An unknown Christian Syrian writer tells us that the catholic church chose the 25th of december to celebrate the birth of Jesus5:
The reason why our fathers changed the solemnity celebrated on 6 January, and transferred it to 25 December follows: it was the custom of the heathens to celebrate the birthday of the sun on this very day, 25 December, and on it they lit lights on account of the feast. In these solemnities and festivities the Christians too participated. When, therefore, the teachers observed that the Christians were inclined to this festival, they took counsel and decided that the true birth-feast be kept on this day, and on 6 Jan., the feast of the Epiphanies.
Clement of Alexandria (an early church scholar) states that there are those, too, who over-curiously assign to the Birth of Our Saviour not only its year but its day, which they say to be on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus5. This date makes more sense considering the fact that this is when shepherds would have been tending their flocks in the field and lambs were born. Nevertheless, the most plausible date is for Jesus’ birth is the feast of Sukkot.9;10;11
And that’s how the sun god was incorporated into Christianity. The same sun god worshiped all over the Middle East: In Babylon, Mithra was identified with Shamash, the sun god, and he is also Ba’al, the Mesopotamian and Canaanite/Phoenician solar deity, who is likewise Marduk, the Babylonian god who represented both the planet Jupiter and the sun.6 This is by far not a complete list (Example: The Egyptians had a celebration of Horus’ birth on the 25th of december, while his mother was the virgin goddess Isis).
Symbols of the sun worship in Catholic tradition
In some Roman depictions, Mithras was shown with a sunburst behind his head, either as a disk or with sun rays. The same symbolism was taken over into Christianity. In the Roman Catholic depiction of Christ, he has a sun behind his head. Not only that, but a picture is not to be made, according to the ten commandments:
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Exodus 20:4
The Babylonian sun-god Shamash had a symbol of sun-rays combined of straight and wavy lines, symbols of sexuality or sexual conception, a symbol present on the pope’s fish hat, for example. The same symbol of sun-rays is present in many of the Catholic banners and flags.
Many more claims exist about Mithras. The problem with these claims is that it is very hard to prove or disprove them, as there are so many contradicting sources. The Encyclopedia Britannica makes an interesting statement:
There is little notice of the Persian god [Mithra] in the Roman world until the beginning of the 2nd century, but, from the year AD 136 onward, there are hundreds of dedicatory inscriptions to Mithra. This renewal of interest is not easily explained. The most plausible hypothesis seems to be that Roman Mithraism was practically a new creation, wrought by a religious genius who may have lived as late as c. AD 100 and who gave the old traditional Persian ceremonies a new Platonic interpretation that enabled Mithraism to become acceptable to the Roman world7
Therefore, I conclude that some claims about Mithras were copied from the story of Jesus, not the other way round (like the ones above I could not find sources for).8 These are a few examples:
- Mithras had 12 disciples, standing for the 12 signs of the zodiac. This was part of the worship of the sun and stars.
- Mithras’ body was laid in a rock tomb.
- He had a celibate priesthood. Jesus on the other hand is married to his people (who are called the bride): To be a priest, this is a requirement.16&17
- Mithras ascended into heaven in the spring equinox (easter).
- Three wise men from Persia came to worship the saviour-god Mithras, bringing him gold, myrrh and frankincense. Note that the bible does not state how many wise man came to honour Jesus at his birth.
Nevertheless, sun worship was prevalent in the ancient Middle East and it has unfortunately made its way into Christianity.
The integration of Mithraic traditions in Christianity
Nabarz (2005) seems to think that Paul was at the head of the integration of paganism into Christianity:
The assimilation of Mithraism by its rival Christianity resulted in the early decline and loss of true meaning in both religions. […] The person who stood at the head of this process of systematic assimilation was Paul of Tarsus. Tarsus was one of the hotbeds of Mithras/Perseus worship.12
In fact, Paul fought fought this integration, and spoke from a hebraic perspective easily mistaken without the knowledge of the culture of the time. According to Nabarz, some examples of Paul’s references to the Mithraic sun-god worship:
- Paul mentions those who exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:23), possibly a reference to Mithraic animal masks used in initiations for the seven degrees.
- Nabarz mistakes the armour of god (Ephesians 6) for a symbol of the warrior-sun-god Mithras, while Paul was probably describing the temple guard.
The New Catholic encyclopedia states:
The birth of Christ was assigned the date of the winter solstice’ (December 25 in the Julian calendar, January 6 in the Egyptian), because on this day, as the sun began its return to northern skies, the pagan devotees of Mithra celebrated the dies natalis Solis Invicti (birthday of the invincible sun). On Dec. 25, 274, Aurelian had proclaimed the sun-god principal patron of the empire and dedicated a temple to him in the Campus Martius. Christmas originated at a time when the cult of the sun was particularly strong at Rome.13
Nabarz lists further similarities:12
- The equidistant cross was a symbol of the sun long before Christianity adopted the crucifix. Comment: There are many different shapes of roman crosses,14 and Jesus was probably crucified on a T-shaped cross.15
- The bishops eventually adapted the mitre as a sign of their office.
- The christian priest ultimately became “Father”, although Jesus says And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. (Mat. 23.9).
- The bishops eventually adapted the mitre as a sign of their office.
- The Mithraic feast of communion, where Mithras, Sol, and the initiates sit around the table of the “slayed bull”, before Mithras and Sol ascend to heaven in Sol’s chariot, is closely echoed by Christ’s Last Supper and his ascension to heaven. Here, Nabarz mistakes the feast of Passover (Pessach) that Jesus celebrated with his disciples, like every other Jew, once a year.
The origin of the Christmas tree is very similar, and again, in the sun-god worship:
The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.18
It is sad to see how many ancient cultures had a basis enabling them to recognize the true Messiah, but instead they were deceived into falling for worshiping the sun. Mixing that into our traditions and festivities is a smart plot of God’s enemy, because it mixes truth and lie, twisting the truth. The result, what many people who have looked into this topic seem to believe, is that Jesus’ story was merely a retelling of a more ancient tradition. I believe that Satan chose to create similar stories from what he knew was prophecied in the bible about Jesus, in order to confuse us.
In fact, none of those figures fulfills the prophecies about the Messiah, except for Jesus. But we have to be careful not to mistake Jesus the Christian with pagan roots with Jesus (or Yeshua) the Jewish Rabbi. Because when we look at Christianity through the pagan glasses, there is a danger of seeing an ancient sun-god, but when we look at Jesus through Hebrew Biblical glasses, we will see Messiah (Mashiach, מָשִׁיחַ).
1 Vermaseren, M.J. in Gerevich, László; Studia Archaeologica, Gerardo Van Hoorn Oblata (Studia Van Hoorn); Brill Archive, 1951; p. 93-109; on Google Books
2 Giles, Herbert Allen; Great religions of the world; Harper, 1901; on Google Books
3 Ovid, Metamorphoses; Latin and English
4 Burkert, Walter; Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical; Harvard University Press, 1985; on Google Books
5 Article in The Catholic Encyclopedia
6 Legge, Francis; Forerunners and rivals of Christianity: being studies in religious history from 330 B.C. to 330 A.D.; University Press, 1915; on Google Books, full text on Archive.org
7 Encyclopedia Britannica, Article on Mithraism, edition 2004
8 Blog on WordPress.com
9 Article on Hatikvah.org
10 Article on bethhamashiach.com
11 Article by Dr. James Trimm
12 Nabarz, Payam; The Mysteries of Mithras, the pagan belief that shaped the Christian world; Inner Traditions / Bear & Co, 2005; on Google Books
13 The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967, Vol. III
14 Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 5.11.1
15 Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter 9 (In Greek, translations into English). Also, Lucian (rhetorician of the 2nd century) speaks of Prometheus as crucified above the ravine with his hands outstretched and explains that the letter T (the Greek letter tau) was looked upon as an unlucky letter or sign, saying that the letter got its “evil significance” because of the “evil instrument” which had that shape, an instrument which tyrants hung men on (ibidem). See also: Wikipedia
16 Mishnah, Seder Moed, Yoma 1.1 based on Lev. 21:7,13 and traditions; p. 273, note 11
17 Article on the Jewish Encyclopedia
18 “Christmas tree”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 01 Dec. 2012