No matter what the holiday is called, the message is the same.
(photo: The ancient Egyptian Holy Family--the goddess Isis and baby Horus. The Christians would model future depictions of Mary and Jesus after this sculpture. British Museum, photo by Gary R. Varner)
At times it’s rather difficult to mix and match present day religious holiday observances and those of the Pagan past. Of course we do it often at Easter (Ostara or Eostre—named for a Saxon Goddess of spring), Halloween (Samhain), and Christmas (Yule) among others…but it is sometimes a discordant mixture. This is to be expected as the years progress and people begin to lose the specifics behind each holiday.
Certainly Christmas is one of the most important celebrations of the Christian world…and in other cultures where the commercial appeal has taken hold. This time of the Winter Solstice is a time that is also one of the most important among Pagans.
Christmas is celebrated on December 25th not because that was the birth date of Jesus, but because it was the Winter Solstice and a major Pagan holiday. The Church found that by turning Pagan observances into Christian ones they could assimilate the population much more easily. It is more likely that Jesus was born in the spring time. The birth of Jesus was obviously not very important to the early Christians as evidence indicates that the earliest observance wasn’t until 336 C.E. December 25th was the date of the birth of the Persian saviour-god Mithras. The "cult"(1) of Mithras originated around 600 years B.C.E and became very popular with Roman armies who took the religion back to Rome. Mithraism was so popular that many of the "traditional" aspects of Christianity originated in the worship of Mithras and for sometime Mithraism vied with Christianity as the predominate religion.
Mithras was born to a virgin mother, his birth (in a cave similar to the Christian manger setting) was attended by shepherds, he was the son of the God of Light, the Sun, he did not die but was believed to have ascended to heaven and will return at the end of the world to dispense final judgment and to raise the dead. The feast day of Mithras was called Sun-Day. It should be noted that Constantine, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was a follower of Mithras and it was Constantine who declared Christianity as the official State religion.
Other Saviour Gods born around December 25th were the ancient Egyptian god of resurrection, Osiris the son of the Gods Geb and Nut, and Attis of Phrygia, the son of the virgin Nana, who was the Goddess Inanna to the Summerians. After Osiris was killed by his jealous brother Set, Isis restored him to life on December 25th—regarded as his second nativity.
The Christmas tree became popular at least by the 1600’s in Europe but originally was part of the Roman Saturnalia observance. Saturnalia was an observance of the New Year during January and trees were decorated as well as homes with green garlands. The practice of decorating trees was also observed by the followers of Attis. Barbara Walker wrote that "Roman priests, called dendrophori or ‘tree-bearers’, cut one of the sacred pines, decorated it, and carried it into the temple to receive the effigy of Attis". (2) The pine tree is symbolic of immortality.
Even though we have lost touch with most of the old religious ways and meanings, we should nevertheless be content that regardless of what the holiday is called today it still bears many of the same attributes that it always had and carries the same message. The message which is celebrated is one of hope. The god is born and reborn to perpetuate the fertility of the earth, to provide promise for a future now and after death. Yule marks the ever turning of the wheel of the year, the rebirth of the sun as the Child of Light.
Have a very merry Christmas and Winter Solstice!
1. The worship of Mithras was truly a religion with baptism, a liturgy, religious art, and most of the ritual now seen in the Catholic Church. However, as the dominant religion, Christian scholars always refer to the religion of Mithraism as a "cult".
2. Walker, Barbara G. The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. Edison: Castle Books, 1983, 166