happy birthday, mithras
Why we celebrate Christmas!
Once upon a time, primitive humans living away from the equator recognized some regularities about movements of the sun. When viewed from a fixed point, the place on the horizon where the sun came up and went down changed with the seasons. During winter, the sun rose lower in the sky with shorter days. During summer, the sun rose higher in the sky with longer days.
Our ancestors were primitive. They lacked our scientific understanding of reality, material technology and generationally transmitted cultural knowledge. They were primitive, but not stupid. Even though they lived tens of thousands of years ago, their brains equaled, or nearly equaled, our potential for observation and reasoning. They could see what went on, note regularities, and understand much of what they saw.
Our curious ancestors learned that after the shorter days when the sun was lower and sunrise farthest south on the horizon, the days would become longer. With longer days came spring, the growth of vegetation and more animals to hunt. As our ancestors learned to track sunrise points on the horizon, they would notice that there was a point at which sunrise moved no farther south, after which sunrise would begin to move north, with spring following.
Our cave-man ancestors figured out the winter solstice by reasoning about what they observed. Later ancestors would devise physical solar calendars that could identify which day was winter solstice. These physical calendars, like England's Stonehenge, identified the day of farthest south sunrise.
The winter solstice became a day to celebrate. As the sun waned into winter, plants went dormant, animals became scarce and people went hungry. Knowledge of the winter solstice gave people the hope that the sun was not dying but would return. The winter solstice told humanity that the sun's warmth would again bring spring's resurrection of plant and animal life.
When humanity invented spirits and god, they were associated with meaningful days like the winter solstice. Winter solstice myths included gods that were born in human form, died, and came back from the dead--just like the sun seemed to die and be reborn. Man-gods that died to be resurrected were sometimes linked with fertility gods who died and rose from the dead during spring's explosion of new life. These man-gods were sometimes born and/or resurrected at the winter solstice, other times at the spring equinox (midway between the summer and winter solstices)--Passover and Easter dates.
But how did Christmas become the birthday of Jesus? A bit of history will help us understand. Towards the end of the 200s CE (Current Era), Rome celebrated the birth of Sol Invictus ("the unconquered sun") on December 25th. Sol Invictus was the state religion of Rome. December 25th was then the date of the winter solstice by the Roman calendar.
Romans had long celebrated winter solstice. Older Saturnalia festival traditions of joyous and erotic practices survived within Sol Invictus celebrations. Mithraism was also a very popular Roman religion, particularly with legionnaires and men. Mithras was the ancient Indo-Iranian god of light and protector of oaths. Mithras came into the Roman Empire about 70 CE with Roman soldiers who fought against the Persians or who were recruited from middle eastern areas where Mithraism was active. As a god of light, Mithras was regarded as a sun-god whose birth was also celebrated on the winter solstice, December 25th. Mithras had been born in a stable with animals and shepherds present. The Mithras rituals included the consumption of flesh from sacrificed bulls, sprinkling of holy bull's blood on congregants, breaking and eating loaves of bread with the shape of a cross (a Mithraic symbol) impressed on them, drinking wine mixed with water, altars with crosses, and priests with vestment symbols which were similar to some Catholic and Orthodox priestly symbols.
The popular winter solstice sun-god festivals put Christianity at a disadvantage. The date Jesus was born was unknown, as Paul's letters reveal. Christianity had no competing birth festival. Popular sun-god festivals would also attract Christians. Sometime before 300 CE, Christians began celebrating the birth of Jesus on the winter solstice, December 25th. After Constantine the Great (emperor 306-339) made Christianity Rome's state religion, Christian persecution destroyed the religions of Sol Invictus and Mithras. Some Mithraic symbols and mythology were co-opted into Christianity.
Christmas, then, is Christianity's version of a winter solstice sun-god festival copied from competing Roman religions. The winter solstice, Sol Invictus and Mithras are the real reasons for the Christmas season. The reason for the original winter solstice celebrations is, however, reason itself. Without the power of reason, primitive humans would never have been able to observe the sun's movements and figure out the seasonal day of the winter solstice.
Reason made the season.