Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The #ChristmasMyths #7: Why December 25?

Part of a continuing series looking at the pagan origins of the Christmas Myths,1 one day at a time. Today, the reason we celebrate on December 25 …

As every child knows, Christmas falls on December 25th every year. Every year.

But is it because it says so in the Bible? Hell no!

The early Christian churches who did observe the Nativity2 celebrated it sometimes in May, sometimes in April, occasionally in January. So clearly they had no clue when legend had it their Saviour was born.

Nor did they know even which year he was supposed to have been born, the celebrated census causing the one-off visit to Bethlehem being a fabrication of census found nowhere else in the historical literature. So not a great way to start a calendar then.

The authors of both Matthew and Luke suggest these events happened in the days of Herod, the King of Judea.3  But this Herod died in 4BC. The authors of Luke talk too about a census “made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria” (one unknown both to historians like Tacitus and Josephus, and apparently to the authors of Matthew), just to have their boy born in the City of David. But while they get him to Bethlehem in order to please their Jewish readers, they face the problem that according to Josephus, the only historian to mention anything like this, Cyrenius didn’t become governor until either 6 or 10AD.

Quite a problem.4

Put beside that larger problem, the problem of the month, or day, seems almost minor. But you do have to wonder what sheep and shepherds were doing out in the fields at night in midwinter where snow occasionally “blankets the region.”

Now, despite the fact that not one of them had any clue, there is in fact a very good reason that fifth-century church fathers eventually settled on a date of December 25 to celebrate when their divine boy was born, and it wasn’t because of anything they’d put in their book.5 It was because folk had been out in the streets for thousands of years already on December 25 celebrating the birth of many other divine boys all born the same day. horus-attis-mithra-krishna-dionysus

And so, rather than fighting the ages-old tradition, the church fathers of what was now a state religion enforced by military arms figured with the full might of the Roman Empire behind them they could simply usurp the heathens6 by main force. Usurp them by adopting their rituals, banning their heresies, burning their books--and trying to bury the memory that they had ever existed.

All of these gods were born, or celebrated bdays, on December 25. They include: Hermes (Greek), Dionysus (Roman), Buddha (creator of Buddhism), Zarathustra (creator of Zoroastrianism), Krishna (Hindu), Jesus (son of God in Christianity & a simple prophet in Judaism), Horus (Egyptian), Mithra (several religious connections), Heracles (Greek), Tammuz (Babylonian & Sumerian), Adonis (Greek).

Which is a nasty enough story, but it still doesn’t explain why December 25 was such a crowded calendar for divine birthdays.  To a modern ear it might sound strange, but the simple explanation is that this day in December was the best day to celebrate one of the most important moments of every year: the winter solstice.

That’s why virtually every early culture in and out of Christendom celebrated it, from China to India, from Buddhist temples to Celtic dolmens, sometimes adding the legends of divine birth to allow their divinity to absorb the power of the moment.

It’s easy to forget this, living as we do in the two-hundred years out of all human history in which the industrial revolution has made it possible for billions to complain about #FirstWorldProblems, but in a pre-industrial society the annual harvest was everything—it was literally life or death.

And in pre-scientific stone-age societies, where all these myths and their rituals were born, it’s easy to forget the cause of the returning harvest was utterly unknown.

It was the result, surmised most cultures, of battles between competing gods; between gods of light (“I am the light of the world,” said Attis, Mithra, Uncle Tom Krishna and all) who every year beat back the darkness, to start the cycle of birth and rebirth again.

Since even the cause of the returning seasons was wholly unknown, making of every new solstice a divine miracle brought by Saturn, Sol Invictus or whichever Saviour figure your worshipped, little wonder that the turning of the winter solstice was a time to get happy and praise your gods – to celebrate that  your gods were beating back the darkness for another year (and remember, most people in these early times wouldn’t see but very few years in their lives, life expectancy being what it wasn’t).

Author Joseph Campbell, (Hero with a Thousand Faces and the Power of Myth) described it brilliantly when he wrote through ritual we are seeking to “feel the rapture of being alive. Rituals and ceremonies help us find the clues to this within ourselves.” Through rituals, he says, we celebrate our passage out of the darkness.  This solstice celebration is perhaps the ultimate example.

And while December 25 isn’t the winter solstice, it was the first day in the Northern Hemisphere that the day began getting noticeably longer. So, time to celebrate with all the rituals at your another victory against the forces of darkness, in the hope they will bring it in again next year.

That we still celebrate this victory today, along with all the trees and the stockings, the Santas and sleighs and mistletoe, and all the hugs and smiles and eating and drinking, and all the revelry and other Pagan trappings of being whole and being alive to celebrate another year with loved ones suggests the whole mythic celebration still has resonance today, even down here in the Southern Hemisphere summer, and even though it’s changed its form a little since the days of ancient Horus.

Just like all good myths should. That’s how they stay alive, even when buried.

So I wish you a Merry Christmas.

A Cool Yule-Feast.

A delightful Noel.

A wonderful Nolagh.

A corking Capacrayme.

A Great Triple Night.

A very happy Natalus Solis Invicti.

And a Salacious Saturnalia.

I’ll see you all in the New Year.


1. This and later posts in the series rely heavily on Thomas William Doane’s Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions, and Joseph Campbell’s Occidental Mythology and  Thou Art That.
2. Until the Romans made Christianity compulsory in 391AD, at which time they decided on a collection of books for their Bible and banned and burned all the rest, early Christian church rituals would often be based around the regular reading and re-reading of one particular Gospel. So the Nativity would only have been celebrated by those who read either Matthew or Luke (since the unknown authors of neither Mark nor John had added this syncretic gloss to theirs).
3. Yet again, the authors of both the earlier Mark, on which these two are based, and the later John show no interest in the subject.
4. Just to further confound things, Josephus expressly states taht as long as Herod the Great lived the province of Judea was exempt from Roman taxation. Ergo Luke's taxation census must have occurred after Herod's death while Matthew requires it to have happened before.
So why add a census to the story?
One reason was to have their hero born in in Bethlehem, and so fulfil scriptural predictions about a Messiah coming from Bethlehem. But they might have plotted it better.
Another might have been that the taxing, for which the census was supposed to be the purpose, inspired the formation of the Zealots, or Nazarenes—with whom some authors speculate Jesus and his brother James were heavily involved. So by associating their boy with the privations involved this was a dog whistle to their colleagues.
5. “…they put into their book.” The Gospels themselves were being subtracted from and added to by copyists virtually all the way up to the fourth century, when Emperor Consantine ordered Christians to stop squabbling and ordered the production of fifty copies of what has become the canonical Bibles, based on the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus.
6. It started gently. Writing in about 390AD, John Chrysostom refers to the massive public Roman celebrations for Sol Invictus, and says, “On this day, also, the Birth of Christ was lately fixed at Rome, in order that whilst the heathen were busy with their profane ceremonies, the Christians might perform their holy rites undisturbed.” Within a century, the public and even private celebrations for Sol Invictus were banned, barred and buried from sight, with the new state religion taking over.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post.

    'it was the first day in the Northern Hemisphere that the day began getting noticeably longer.'

    It was the first day that they could measure the increase in day length with their technology. However, the Romans and those before them like the Babylonians had known for hundreds of years that Dec 25 is not the winter solstice. They couldn’t measure it but they could calculate it. Numerous other cultures (like the Celts) did observe the correct day. By the time they figured it out, Dec 25 had probably been celebrated for thousands of years and would not have been easily changed.

    For a hundred years Mithras (200-300 AD) was close to a state religion in the Roman Empire. He was a composite god composed of Helius, Prometheus (who by the way was also born on Dec 25) and several others. However because his was a mystery cult, today we do not have a very good idea what they believed.


1. Commenters are welcome and invited.
2. All comments are moderated. Off-topic grandstanding, spam, and gibberish will be ignored. Tu quoque will be moderated.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say, it's important enough to put a name to.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.