By Mel Lipman. Mel is former president of the American Humanist Association, and founding member of the Humanist Association of Las Vegas. Today Mel provides an in depth look at the Pagan roots of the winter holidays.
In a few weeks we will be immersed in our culture’s celebration of winter. If we don’t dwell too much on the religious aspects of the holiday rituals, we could all celebrate this winter holiday season. Most of the traditions and rituals celebrated in our society today have their roots many years before the purported birth of Jesus.
From the time humans first emerged from their caves, they developed rituals for recognizing seasonal changes. Throughout history there have been thousands of “saviors” and “messiahs” created by people. The savior myth, in which gods who were born of virgins, died, and then ascended into heaven, has been found in nearly every culture around the world. Christmas is simply a relic of ancient sun worship, celebrating the triumph of the sun over darkness.
The winter celebration was one of the most important because the ancients believed the sun was dying and that they too would soon be dead since they could not live without the sun. So, in addition to their solemn prayers to their gods, they developed major celebrations—first, because this would be their last chance to have fun before they died, and several days later to celebrate the sun coming back to life.
For the pre-scientific farmers living 10,000 years ago, the difference between life and death was marked by the success or failure of their harvests. Through the use of magic, myth, fertility rites and rituals, they hoped to appease the sun god who they believed controlled the planting, growth and harvesting of their crops. At the start of the Fall season in September, days start to get shorter until December 22, the day of the year with the shortest span between sunrise and sunset.. 6,000 years ago, the Copper and Bronze age people believed the sun was burning out. For 2 days after December 22, the sun appeared to be “standing still”. They called this period “solstice”, from the Latin word “solitium” meaning “sun standing still”. Science has since shown that the sun never really stood still and that the apparent reversal of the direction of the sun was merely a terrestrial optical illusion. So even the word “solstice” has a supernatural origin, but some atheists and Humanists have adopted the pagan term for their Winter celebration and that’s fine with me.
When the Sun appeared to be burning out, the ancients built huge bonfires on hilltops for the purpose of giving additional strength to the Sun god in his nightly battle with the forces of darkness. When the Sun finally did come up a little earlier on the days after the solstice, there were great celebrations. The tradition of these bonfires remains today in the lights we see on so many homes as a traditional part of this holiday season in every culture.
Let me talk about the origins of some of our modern celebrations, starting with Christmas, which is the most predominant holiday in our culture. The savior myth in which gods who were born of virgins died and then ascended into heaven, has been found in nearly every culture around the world for many years before the purported birth of Jesus. The savior most popular immediately before Jesus was Mitra.
Mitra, God of the Sun, was one of the many Hindu deities revered by the culture of India around 2000 B.C.E. About 1,500 years later, the Persians incorporated this god into their country’s own reloigion, Zoroastrianism, renaming the god “Mithra”. The cult of Mithra gradually gained popularity and was ultimately adopted by Rome as the sun-god “Mithras”. More about Mithras later.
One of my favorite of the pre-christian winter holidays was the Roman Holiday, Saturnalia, which began on December 17. Few cultures knew how to party like the Romans. Saturnalia was a festival of general merrymaking and debauchery held around the time of the winter solstice. This week-long party was held in honor of the god Saturn and involved sacrifices, gift-giving, special privileges for slaves, and a lot of feasting. Although this holiday was partly about giving presents, more importantly, it was to honor an agricultural god. During this holiday, Romans decked their halls with boughs of greenery, and even hung small tin ornaments on bushes and trees. Bands of naked revelers often roamed the streets, singing and carousing—a sort of naughty precursor to today’s Christmas caroling tradition. Saturnalia was also known as the Festival of Lights and candles were commonly given as gifts to be used to rekindle the sun. At the start of Saturnalia, as the days became shorter, the sun appeared to be disappearing, and from December 22 to December 25, the ancient people believed the sun had died. Then, on the 3rd day, the sun began to rise again.
In the 3rd century CE, Roman emperor Aurelian established December 25 as the birthday of the “Invincible Sun”. Mithras was the god of the regenerating sun, and in pre-Christian Rome, Mithras was reborn every year on December 25. At one time, Mithras, like any other proper supreme being, lived in the sky above; that is, in “heaven”. As he watched the suffering of humanity far below, he was touched with compassion, whereupon he descended to Earth to help alleviate some of that suffering. He descended in spirit but he needed a human form to communicate with the people, so on December 25 Mithras was born of a virgin. His birth was witnessed by shepherds who spread the word of his nativity far and wide. Thereafter, his entire stay on earth was full of kind deeds. When he felt he hasd accomplished his mission ion earth, he held a last supper with the closest of his disciples and then returned to his place in heaven. The followers of Mithras believed he would return to earth again near the end of the world, at which time he would judge the sins of humanity. Sound familiar??
By the 3rd and 4th centuries, C.E., Mithraism had spread all the way to Britain and had become a seemingly permanent part of the fabric of Eurasian spiritual thought. As the new pagan followers of the Jesus cults exchanged religions, they brought with them thousands of years of traditional pagan customs and practices. Since the Christians could not overcome the myths associated with Mithras, they simply took those myths for their own god and developed their religion from those myths. The celebration of December 25 was gradually transformed from the birthday of the sun (S-U-N) to that of the son (S-O-N). The festivals and rituals of Mithraism, so familiar to the pagan Christians were incorporated into the birth of the Christian savior-god Jesus. In this way, the myth that may appear quite ridiculous when told from scratch, would appear believable to the pagans who had been indoctrinated with this myth for thousands of years before Christianity.
Some of the many customs and rituals carried into Christianity included the virgin Mary, who was a blend of 2 previous deities. The Roman goddess Diana, virgin goddess of chastity and childbirth and the Egyptian goddess Isis, depicted on tomb walls as nursing her child, the sun-god Horus. The Egyptian phallic sign of life, the “Ankh” became the Christian cross. The three kings, the stable, the manger, and the star of Bethlehem all have astrological origins deeply embedded in ancient Egyptian, Hindu, Chinese, Persian, Greek and Jewish mythologies predating Christianity by countless centuries.
With the established of the Roman Catholic church by Emperor Constantine in the middle of the 4th century C.E., Paganism not only did not die out, but it had a spiritual rebirth under the guise of Christian symbolism, doctrine, ritual and myth. It was the increasing number of pagans converting to the Jesus cults, bringing with them their old gods, that gave Christianity its solid Pagan foundation.
Every facet of Christmas is ultimately Pagan in origin. Even the name “Christ”, which means anointed – (i.e. olive oil on the head) is part of a sun-god ritual – a halo allusion to the brightness of the sun. (And the name “Jesus” has linguistic parallels with other gods—Krishna, Horus, Bacchus, Zeus).
In ancient Egypt, even before Mithra, the death and resurrection of Osiris were celebrated during the solstice by leaving gifts in the tombs of the dead. They also brought date palms into their homes to symbolize the theme of life triumphant. This practice was continued by the Mithrain practice of bringing trees into the home; the Jewish practice of the Succah—which is building a home of leaves and straw within the confines of one’s normal home—and continues today with the practice of Christmas trees. Decorating houses with evergreens was universal throughout the world long before Christianity. During the apparent death and resurrection of the sun, evergreens are a symbol of eternal life.
The world “yule” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon “Yula” or “Wheel of the Year” and marked the celebration of both the shortest day of the year and the re-birth of the Sun. Decorating the Yule tree was a pagan custom in which brightly colored decorations would be hung on a pine tree to symbolize various stellar objects significant to the pagans—the sun, moon and stars. And also to represent the souls of those who had died in the previous year.
The custom of gift giving evolved from the Pagan tradition of hanging gifts on the Yule tree as offerings to the various Pagan gods and goddesses.
I could go on and on about the pagan roots of all of our modern day religious celebrations. Since this country considers itself mainly a “Judeo-Christian” culture, let me briefly go through the roots of the Jewish Christmas known as Hanukkah. I call it the Jewsih Christmas because it would probably not even be celebrated by Jews if it did not fall around the Christmas season. To orthodox Jews, Hanukkah is just a very minor holiday celebrating the military victory of the Macabees. The story of Hanukkah appears nowhere in the Jewish Bible but is briefly mentioned in the Talmud, the rabbinical commentary. Before the Macabees the Jews, as did other cultures, were concerned that the sun was dying out and after the winter solstice, when days started to get longer, fires were lit on each of 8 days to imitate the change, and to encourage nature to continue its good work. The 8 days and the lights were part of Jewish life long before the legend of the holy oil made its appearance. Before the Macabbean victory, the winter holiday was called Nayrot (lights). The Hanukkah lamp practice of lighting one candle the first night, 2 the second, etc. until all 8 on the last night, developed from the magical procedure to increase the intensity of the sun’s fire.
Nayrot was a folk festival that never made its way into the priestly Torah. Since the priests couldn’t sanction any practice not identified with Yahweh or the Exodus experience, Nayrot was not acceptable to them, leaving Torah Judaism without a decent winter festival. Hanukkah is celebrated today as a commemoration of the struggle for religious freedom. How ironic.
When the Greeks conquered Israel the Hellenist rulers were completely tolerant of the Jews and assimilation was encouraged but certainly not required. Jews were becoming more and more secularized under Greek rule. When a Jew accepted a Greek invitation to participate in a Hellenist holiday celebration, Mattathias Macabee killed the Jew. Wanted for murder, Matthathias fled to the mountains and with his 5 sons, led by Judah Macabee, started a guerilla war against the Greeks and against the secular Jews. The Macabees were successful and established the Hasmonean dynasty noted for its religious intolerance toward any non-jew. The Macabees’ theocracy demanded strict religious adherence from everyone.
After their victory, Judah Macabee decided to rededicate the temple shrine to Yahweh. He chose the folk festival of Nayrot as the perfect vehicle for the continuing commemoration of his victory and he renamed the holiday Hannukah (Dedication) and elevated it to official importance. During the 100 years of their rule, the Macabees, over the objection of the Rabbis, pretentiously assumed the title of royalty over the Jews.
When the Macabees Hasmonean dynasty was defeated by the Romans and the rabbis came to rule under Roman guidance, they demoted Hanukah to minor status, since, as a popular folk festival, it couldn’t be eliminated entirely. Later, the rabbis sought to further diminish the importandce of the Macabees by attributing their victory to the intervention of Yahweh, their god. The talmudic legend that focuses on a one-day supply of holy oil lasting for 8 days had a political purpose. It shifted the emphasis from the military skills of the Macabees to the magic tricks of Yahweh.
Hanukah remained a minor holiday, rarely celebrated. But it was revived due to the secular emancipation of the Jews into a Christian world. Jews needed a dramatic winter holiday to compete with Christmas. So they elevated Hanukah to a status even the Macabees never imagined. Suddenly candles, dreidles, potato pancakes and the story of a military victory were dressed up to compete with Christmas carols, Christmas trees, the birth of a god and the excitement of a new year.
For humanist Jews, the Hanukah story is problematic. The Macabees, while liberating the Jews from the Greeks, created a theocracy that was even less tolerant than the Greeks and would not allow the Hellenists or the secular Jews their freedom of religious choice.
In the end, regardless of our religious beliefs, December 25 will always be the birthday of the Sun (spelled S-U-N). And the adoption of that celebration by various religions should not change the character of the holiday as an expression of the determination of people to transcend the difficulties in life with the gentler thoughts of good will and jollity. All celebrations of the lengthening of the day, whether we call it Christmas, Hanukah, Diwali, Kwaanza, Humanlight, winter solstice, or just plain winter holiday—all of these holidays are human celebrations and as Humanists we welcome all opportunities to celebrate and interact with each other.
I like the winter holidays and I don’t care if many people go to church on Christmas day, provided they are willing to allow me to go somewhere else. And there’s the rub. It’s hard to understand how, by including everyone in the celebration of the winter holidays, we are depriving Christians of their holiday. Many different ethnic and religious groups celebrate the winter solstice. Christians do not need the help of governments to keep Christ in Christmas. And Pagans do not need governmental support for their winter rituals. The winter solstice should be a holiday season for everyone to enjoy in their own way, and none should be made to feel as outsiders by unconstitutional sectarian government endorsements or coerced expressions of religiosity by public businesses.