It would really be a shame not to celebrate Christmas for a Christian. This event is among the most joyful and healthy occasions in Western culture (even “imitated” by the Jewish brothers with the “twin” and not reported in the Torah, of Hannukkah), and also because this hymn to peace and family unity has truly entered into believer’s hearts.
But the Bible, both in the new and Old Testament, this date is not reported at all, so why not make some clarity on the origin of this feast?
Yet, today more than ever, it should be the ecclesiastic authorities to do so since the Church is “guided” not by one, but by two leaders (for the first time in history we have two Popes, since a Pope can not resign from its mandate ). So what about the gifts and the ceremonies that Pope Francis addresses to Pope Benedict XVI when less and less numerous of Christian believers need knowledge and clarity?
It is never mentioned, but it is written in the “New Catholic Encyclopedia” of the Franciscan Order (ed. 1941):
“…As unbelievable as it seems, the date of Christ’s birth is not known. The Gospels indicate neither the day nor the year.”
“was assigned the date of the winter solstice because in that day in which the Sun begins its return in the boreal skies, the pagans who adored Mithras celebrated the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” (day of the birth of the invincible sun)”
The name “Christmas” comes from the “Mass of Christ” (the mass of Jesus birth). A Mass service is where Christians remember that Jesus died for us and then resurrected. The “Christ-Mass” service was the only one that was allowed to take place after sunset, and before sunrise the next day.
But no one knows the real birthday of Jesus, since no date is given in the Bible, so why do we celebrate it on the 25th December? The early Christians certainly had many arguments as to when it should be celebrated.
The night between December 24 and 25 has been conventionally used (about 300 years after the death of Jesus) as the day of the birth of the Messiah (from the ancient Greek Messías – Hebrew māšīāḥ משיח ,that is “anointed” or “elected”) and introduced in the Christian rite. It seems really strange that the main holiday of the West, widespread and celebrated in many parts of the world, has to support such a vague historical documentation.
The date of December 25 is originally the birth day of the Sun and it is one of the richest cultural and religious debates of human history: in the roots of Christmas we have cultures and religions coming from Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Arabia and ancient Rome itself.
December 25 is the date of birth and celebration of divine characters before the appearance of Christ: the Egyptian god Horus, the Indo-Persian god Mithras, the Babylonian god Tammuz/Yule and Shamas; always on December 25 was celebrated the Invictus Sol Elagabalus in Emesa and the Sun god Dusares/Helios in Petra. In this date is credited the birth of Zarathustra, Khrisna and Dionysus, centuries or millennia before Christ.
In the northern hemisphere, in the days 22-23-24 December, the Sun seems to stop in the sky (the closer you are to the equator the more the phenomenon is evident): it is the Solstitium (Sun still). In astronomy are those days when the Sun stops to reverse its motion in the direction of declination, that is the point where the Sun reaches the maximum distance from the equatorial plane. The darkness of the night reaches the maximum extent and the light of the day the minimum. We have the longest night and the shortest day of the year. Immediately after the solstice, daylight gradually increases and the darkness of the night decreases until the summer solstice in June when we have the longest day of the year and the shortest night. Conventionally the solstice falls on the 21st day, but due to the apparent inversion of solar motion it becomes visible on the third/fourth following day. In a few words, the winter solstice at the time meant that the Sun, arrived in the weakest phase as light and heat, did not sink into the darkness where it seemed to precipitate, but became with its vitality “invincible” (invictus) on the same darkness, the Sun “reborn”, had a new “birth”. Exactly the “Christmas of the Invincible Sun”.
The ancient populations well knew this phenomenon of the solstice and transformed it into an occasion of celebration. This astronomical interpretation explains why December 25 (and adjacent days) is a date present in cultures and countries very distant from each other, from India to Mexico, from northern Europe to Ethiopia.
274 AD: The first Christmas in Rome
December 25 was introduced as a holiday for the first time in 274 AD by order of the Emperor Aurelian, who made the Christmas of the Sun an official holiday and wanted it celebrated throughout the Roman Empire: the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti.
The Emperor Aurelian had just completed the reunification of the Roman Empire and was back from the great victory over the then main enemy of the empire, Queen Zebedia of the Kingdom of Palmyra. The victory was made possible by the deployment of Emesa, a rival city-state, alongside the Roman army in a moment of disbandment of the militia; this descent into the field in favor of the Romans was supported by the priests of Emesa, worshipers of the god “Sol Invictus”; Aurelian at the beginning of the decisive battle said he had a vision of the god Sun of Emesa.
The Emperor transferred to Rome, as a sign of thanks, the priestly class and the cult of the Sun of Emesa and in honor of the sun god Invincible built a state temple in Rome, on the slopes of the Quirinal (Campus Agrippae, now Piazza S. Sylvester).
The emperor also did not escape how the adoption of the cult of the Sun throughout the Empire could serve to consolidate the reunification and be an element of cultural unity.
The feast of Sol Invictus was established as the most important festival of the Empire, with great popular participation in Rome, also because it was grafted and went to conclude the most ancient Roman festival, the Saturnalia. In this great cauldron of solar cults even the Christian rites were confused with them, so that St. Augustine urged his Christian brothers not to celebrate on December 25 the Sun, but He who had created the Sun.
330 AD: The first Christians’ Christmas
The Emperor Constantine himself, worshipper of the Sun god, embraced the Christian faith and in 330 transformed the Sol Invictus festival of December 25 into a Christian holiday. Previously (March 7, 321) Constantine had also changed the name of the first day of the week, from Dies Solis (day of the Sun) to Dominus (day of the LORD).
These changes were not always welcome, so that in central and northern Europe remained the ancient name of the day of the Sun (Sunday among the Saxons, Sontag among the Germanic). In 337 Pope Julius I made the date of Christmas official by the Catholic Church, as reported by St. Chrysostom in 390:
On this day, December 25, the nativity of Christ was also finally fixed in Rome.
In 354, the feast of Christian December 25 was mentioned for the first time in a calendar of the Roman liturgy. In 461, this choice will be reconfirmed by Pope Leo the Great. Other ecclesiastical authors refer to 354 with Pope Liberius the first appearance of Christmas in the West.
The choice of the Church of Rome to make the birth of Christ coincide with the most celebrated pagan feast was an attempt to respond to the great participation that the cult of the sun retained among the population of the Empire, adapting it to the new religion.
The Emperor Justinian, about two hundred years later, legalized this date for the entire West, and other Christian Churches, such as the Orthodox, Coptic, and Armenian Churches, continue instead to celebrate it on January 6 (Epiphany = Annunciation).
At the time, the Christians of Mesopotamia accused their “Roman” brethren of idolatry and of worshipping the Sun for adopting the Feast of the Sun as the feast of Christ’s birth.
Even the Churches of the Reformation, beginning with the Calvinists, accused the Church of Rome of the Christians’ yielding to paganism. In fact, the pagan dimension to Christmas lasted a long time.
Even one hundred and thirty years after Constantine’s decision, in 460, the disconsolate Pope Leo the Great wrote:
“So esteemed is this religion of the Sun that some Christians, before entering St. Peter’s Basilica, after having ascended the steps, turn toward the Sun and bowing their heads in honor of the shining star. We are distressed and greatly grieve over this fact which is repeated out of pagan mentality. Christians must refrain from any appearance of deference to this worship of the gods.”
(7th sermon given at Christmas 460 – XXVII-4).
St. Ambrose himself stated that: “Christ is our new Sun”, and in 376 the cult of Mithras was suppressed in Rome by order of the prefect, who with the edict of Emperor Theodosius in 392 that began the persecution against pagan rites (from “pagos”= village”), so December 25 was slowly established as the Christmas of Jesus and a Christian holiday throughout the empire.
Protestant and Reformed Christians
The Protestants of the “Reformation” put the Roman Church’s choice to move Christmas to December 25 under indictment, on the grounds that it was a capitulation to paganism. Christianity would bring back through the window solar cults of Babylon passed to Roman pagans, and in Calvin’s city of Geneva one could be fined and even put in jail for celebrating Christmas.
The English Parliament forbade the observance of Christmas, calling it a pagan holiday, and when the Puritan Christians went to America, they established this same law in “New England” and worked harder than usual on December 25, 1620. Forty years later, the Civil and Criminal Court of Massachusetts decreed punishments for anyone who observed the Christmas holiday: “Whoever is found observing, abstaining from work and celebrating, such days as so-called Christmas, shall pay for this transgression five shillings.” Until 1800 Christmas had no relevance in the churches of the “Reformation”
Mithras: the pagan god
The first centuries of the Christian era saw a flood of cults pouring into Rome, especially from the East. These cults were generally well tolerated by the Emperors as they were acceptable in the polytheistic universe of the Roman religion. In particular, solar cults, such as the Persian monotheistic cult of Mithras in the II-III century A.D., which became the cult most competitive with Christianity (read the whole article), the Egyptian cult of Horus and Isis or Serapis, the Hellenic-Eastern cult of Dionysus and Apollo, took root. In the first century A.D. Petronius wrote “Our territory is teeming with divine presences, to such an extent that it is easier to meet a God than a man”.
The emperor Maximinus the Thracian was instead a devotee of the Sun God Mithras as it seems Nero had been. In 218 he became emperor Elagabalus (already priest of the Sun at Emesa), who gave himself the name of the Sun God (El Galab = Sun God) and who built a temple on the Palatine dedicated to the Syrian Sun God Invictus.
Later the Emperor Aurelian established the festival of the Sol Invictus, which continued with Diocletian and others up to and including Constantine, who had the Sun engraved on his famous Arch in Rome. In those centuries were minted by many emperors coins with the effigy of the Sun and on the back his own, in other coins is depicted Isis nursing the Sun God child Horus. Even the military insignia of ‘imperial army bore the symbols of Sol Invictus. In those centuries Rome was full of temples and places of worship of the various solar deities.
Suffice it to say that St. Peter’s Basilica was built over the temple of the Sun God Mithras and still has an Egyptian obelisk in the center of the square. Still today the tourist guides of Rome offer excursions in the mithraea, catacomb places, sanctuaries obtained in underground environments of the cultists of Mithras: the crypts where this cult took place have been found all over Europe up to Ireland.
Festivities and rites of ancient Rome were a continuous adaptation of the tradition of Rome to that of the conquered peoples to make it “universal”: at the beginning we have Latin, Etruscan and Sabine influences, then Greek-Hellenistic and Oriental.
But the cult of Mithras is the one that has substantially more influenced the religious rite of Christmas and the Christian religion itself. Both Mithras/Sun God and one of his prophets, Zarathustra, are credited with births on December 25, many centuries before the birth of Christ. Mithras is made to give birth to a virgin, is called “the good shepherd”, had 12 companions, performed miracles, buried in a tomb is resurrected after three days and his resurrection was celebrated every year.
Later the Mithraic cult, had a great revival with the Persian emperor Artaxerxes II and in the Hellenistic period, when it spread in the provinces of the Roman Empire and in Rome itself brought by Roman soldiers who already under Pompey converted en masse.
Krishna: the Indian god
It is written in the Indian Rig Veda (Vedas of Praise) before the first millennium B.C.: “The leader of the anchorites called Devaki to himself and said to her:
Virgin and mother, hello! A son will be born of you and he will be the savior of the world. But flee, for the tyrant Kansa seeks you to die with the tender fruit you bear in your womb. You will give birth to the divine son and call him Krishna the sacred.
Krishna was born of a virgin: “Mahadeva, the Sun of Suns, appeared to her in the flash of a dazzling ray in human form. Then she conceived the divine son.” (Rig Veda, excerpts from E. Shurè’s translation, I Grandi Iniziati, Bari, 1941).
Krishna’s story also suggests influences on later religions, including Christianity. He is given birth to a virgin, he who fertilizes her appears in the form of light, he is persecuted by a tyrant who orders the killing of thousands of children, he is the second person of the Indian trinity, he is called the shepherd god, he performs miracles and ascends to heaven. The root of his name is similar to that of Christ (The full name of Jesus Christ was not fully and officially defined until 325 AD at the Council of Nicaea). Krishna’s life is full of details that we find in the story told of Christ.
The Birth Date of Jesus
Who established that Christ was born in the year I was the monk Dionysius the Small in the sixth century, who had calculated that he was born in the year 754 since the foundation of Rome. His date was then adopted as the beginning of the Christian era by the monk Bede the Venerable in 725 AD and is the date currently in use.
Historians have shown that it is an absolutely uncertain date, even basing themselves on the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 2, 1) where the evangelist recounted that Herod decided on the slaughter of all firstborn children under the age of two. Of Herod we only know the date of his death, which occurred in 4 BC a few days before the eclipse of March 13. Luke, in his Gospel, writes that Jesus was born during the census of Quirino, a Roman official in Syria. Quirinus, however, did two censuses, one in 6 AD as governor, the other in 6 BC as an official together with Sanzio Saturnino. Historians therefore take 6 BC as the reference date for further investigation.
When in 330 A.D. the emperor Constantine established the celebration throughout the empire of Christian Christmas in place of the feast of Sol Invictus (on the occasion of the ceremonies for the new capital of the empire, Byzantium) it happened that Christmas was celebrated twice in that year: on January 6 as per tradition in Byzantium and then again on December 25 as per the imperial decree that established the definitive change.
- Mithraism comparison with other belief systems. Wikipedia
- (IT, DE, FR) Natale, su hls-dhs-dss.ch, Dizionario storico della Svizzera.
- (EN) Gary Forsythe, The Non-Christian Origin of Christmas, in Time in Roman Religion: One Thousand Years of Religious History, Routledge, 2012, ISBN 0-415-52217-X.
- (EN) Susan K. Roll, Toward the Origin of Christmas, Peeters Publishers, 1995, ISBN 90-390-0531-1.