A couple of years ago [viz on 10 December 2012] I spoke on Sydney's Radio Skid Row 88.9 FM on the pagan roots and origins of Christmas. The purpose of this present article is to share some of what I said on the radio.
Now, don’t get me wrong---I love Christmas, and I have often written about its spiritual and esoteric (or ‘inner’) meaning. However, this much needs to be made unambiguously clear. The only thing foreign, external and even extraneous to Christmas is---Jesus. Bible-believing Christians keep saying, ‘Put Christ back into Christmas,’ but they fail to realize that, insofar as Christmas is concerned, Jesus---whose historicity hasn't been established beyond all doubt---was and remains an interpolation, that is, something extraneous that was added to, or interjected into, an already existent pagan feast and festival. Indeed, every element and aspect of the Christmas festival predates Christianity.
Apart from the gift-giving associated with the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus, the New Testament makes no mention of Jesus, his disciples or the New Testament Church celebrating Christmas Day. Amazing. It is not until around 354 CE that we get the earliest recorded reference to a December 25 Christmas actually celebrating the birth of Jesus, although it is highly likely that it had been celebrated for at least two or three decades before then.
The roots and origins of Christmas lie in, among other things, various pagan (that is, non-Christian) fertility rites and practices which predate Jesus by many centuries. In 350 CE Pope Julius I proclaimed December 25 as Christmas Day---for a very good reason. You see, it was the day on which the ancient Romans celebrated the winter solstice, being the last day of the Roman festival of Saturnalia (the cult of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture). Now, why did the pope of the day choose that day? Well, at the risk of being very cynical but not a bit dishonest, the reason is fairly simple and obvious---it made it easier for people to convert to Christianity, for they would not lose their feasts.
During Saturnalia, people exchanged gifts (especially dolls, candles, caged birds and fruit) decorated trees with candles, and decked their halls with garlands of laurel. There was much partying (both private and public), and masquerades took place in the streets. Masters and slaves swapped clothes, which could have been a lot of fun if you were into cross-dressing. (I should also mention that this swapping of roles between masters and slaves also took place among the ancient Babylonians and Persians in a five-day festival called Sacaea.) The wealthy paid the month’s rent for the less-well-to-do. (I can’t see the 'big end of town' doing that today. What a pity!) Executions were cancelled and---listen to this---no wars were declared during the festival. We could all learn something from that. Anyway, for at least 60 or 70 years after the 350 CE papal proclamation of Christmas the pagan festival of Saturnalia continued to be celebrated. Old customs die hard.
There is another pagan contender in the ancient Roman world for the origination of Christmas---the official monotheistic Sun god cult of Sol invictus (‘Invincible [or 'Unconquered'] Sun’) with its distinctive festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti ('Birthday of Sol Invictus') which was celebrated on, yes, December 25. This cult, it seems, had its origins in Syria. One would light a candle to encourage the Sun---as well as Mithras (see below)---to reappear next year. In many ways, Christmas owes more to the cult of Sol invictus than it does to the festival of Saturnalia. Even the present pope---Pope Benedict XVI---has stated that Christmas acquired its definitive form in the 4th century CE when it replaced the feast of Sol invictus.
Closely associated with the Sol invictus cult was the cult of Mithras (also known as Mithraism and the Mysteries of Mithra[s]) which, it seems, was founded in the 6th century BCE---well before the supposed advent of Jesus. Mithras was another Eastern solar deity (in the form of, among other things, the equinoctial Sun which revivifies and fertilizes the earth) whose feast day was also celebrated on---guess when---December 25.
Now, it is written that the mythical god Mithras---in whose honour the religion of Mithraism was founded---went around the countryside, teaching, healing the sick, and casting out devils. This Mithras supposedly had twelve disciples, held a last supper, was killed, was buried in a rock tomb, and then rose from the dead three days later, before finally ascending into heaven. Sound familiar? Anyway, according to Persian tradition Mithras was said to have been incarnated into the human form of the saviour expected by Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra). Mithra's ascension to heaven was said to have occurred in 208 BCE, some 64 years after his purportedly miraculous virgin birth in---wait for it---a cave where he was adored by shepherds. Again, does that sound familiar? (Although Mithraism and Christianity stole from each other, never forget this---all of the main features of Mithraism were in place before the birth of Jesus.)
The cult of Sol invictus and that of Mithras were, for all intents and purposes, the same [see opposite]---at least as respects their practice in the Roman Empire. When Mithraism became the chief (and de facto State) religion in the late Roman Empire, Mithras was called Sol invictus.
Let's now jump ahead. In the Middle Ages, in the festival of Yule ([‘wheel’]; a pagan symbol for the Sun), the birth of the pagan Sun God/Mithras was celebrated on the shortest day of the year, the idea being that as the Sun God grew and matured, the days would become longer and warmer. I could go on.
Christianity has always had an annoyingly bad habit of stealing from pagan religions and then running those religions out-of-business---often with much violence and bloodshed---and declaring their practices heretical. (Etymologically, a heretic is 'one who chooses' [to be different]. I am proud to be one.)
At the risk of stating the obvious, you don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy and celebrate Christmas. Indeed, I won't even say that it helps. (Ha!) So, my friends, don’t let those Bible-believing Christians tell you that we must put Christ back into Christmas. Historically---and also for millions and millions of people throughout the world today---Jesus is not the reason for the season, even though the legends surrounding the birth of Jesus (around whom a whole mass of pagan legends have otherwise been collected) constitute a wonderful object lesson of the 'inner' meaning and significance of the festival, namely, the need for each of us to awaken to our innate 'divinity'---that is, the primal power of be-ing itself---and our true potential as human beings.
Christmas---like Easter---is about renewal and revivification. It’s about the livingness and givingness of life itself. Life forever gives of itself to itself---and as itself---so that life can continue and be renewed. Each one of us is a unique individualization of the livingness and self-givingness of life.
May you rejoice in that fact, and celebrate it, not only at Christmas but always.
Note. The substance of this article first appeared as a post on the author’s own blog on 10 December 2012.