The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies
~ Origins of Christmas Traditions ~


The modern “traditions of Christmas” are often attributed to Saturnalia as celebrated during The Golden Age of the Pax Romana in first century Rome. But many of the traditions predate the first century by hundreds of years. The Feast for the Son of Isis and the god Osiris, for instance, was celebrated in Egypt centuries before Jesus the son of God appeared.

The Origins of Christmas Traditions


In Roman mythology, when Jupiter ascended the throne, Saturninus fled to Rome and established the Golden Age, a time of perfect peace and harmony which lasted as long as he reigned. The Feast of Saturnalia was held every year at the Winter Solstice to honor the Golden Age. During this time no war could be declared, slaves and masters ate at the same table, executions were postponed, and people exchanged gifts. It was a joyous time of celebration because it portrayed the idea of equality and recalled a time when all people were on the same level – when there were no kings and no slaves.


A multitude of interesting articles about the origin of Christmas traditions can be found on the Internet, but most show signs that they came from other sources not cited in the articles. The source that struck me as the one best suited for objectively exploring the origins of Christmas Traditions is the one we have borrowed from:


The Origin of Christmas Traditions




There is perhaps no myth in the western world which is more widely accepted - and yet so totally false - as that according to which Jesus the Christ was born on December 25. There is as a matter of fact not the slightest iota of information, even in the form of a legend, which places his birth on that or any other exact date. According to the equally mythical history of Luke, shepherds were watching their flocks on that fateful night and angels appeared to them and sang a wonderful song. The same story had been told concerning Gautama five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and it had been repeated about others who long preceded the advent of Christianity.




The word Christmas derives from the two words, Christ's Mass. In the Catholic Church the great liturgical ceremonial is the Mass. According to the doctrine of transubstantiation the bread and wine administered by the priest become literally the flesh and the blood of Christ during the ritual. By eating and drinking these the partaker becomes divine and immortal because the flesh and blood of Christ become actually those of the communicant in a mystical process. This is substantially the same Eucharistic rite which had been practiced in various pagan mystery cults for hundreds of years previous to Christianity. Christ's Mass was the principal High Mass celebrated in the Catholic Church in the third century. But at that time it did not occur on December 25 nor did it have any relationship to the birth of Jesus until the second half of the fourth century.




The Catholic Church finally decreed a birth date for Jesus primarily for the purpose of converting the communicants of various pagan cults, and this fact was well known to the early Christians who accused the Roman Church which first instituted this date of "idolatry, paganism, and sacrilege" for making December 25 the birthday of Jesus. It is interesting to note that Martin Luther tried to abolish December 25 as a Christian holiday, the English parliament outlawed it in 1644, and the Puritans in Massachusetts did the same. However when the Episcopalian Charles II was restored to the English throne in 1660, he reinstituted December 25 as the birthday of Christ.




Let us then go back into history to see whether we can discover what this holiday really signifies, for in the northern hemisphere it had been celebrated for thousands of years before the coming of Christianity. And it originated from the solar cycle and from the fear of death which came each fall and winter with the declining sun. Savage and primitive man lived very close to nature, and his two great needs consisted in obtaining food and achieving success in rearing his children. It was very, very difficult to wring sustenance from the earth, but he understood that in the spring the grass would begin to grow again. As the days grew longer, the leaves would spring forth on the trees as nature came alive once more after the long winter sleep. And as a result the man was able to obtain food by which he, his woman, and his offspring could survive. Getting food and shelter and avoiding premature and violent death constituted the career of primitive man. And since he believed that by worshipping and placating supernatural powers he might be successful in his objectives, the religion of our distant ancestors was the only science they knew or practiced.


Since the sun was obviously the most important visible object in the universe, and since it was the ultimate source of light, heat, and food, it was inevitable that primitive man should worship the same. It became the object of fear, awe, and reverence among millions, and its movements were observed most closely. When it began to decline in the late summer and the days shortened, the nights grew chilly, and frost and ice covered the earth so that all vegetation died, then the hearts within these people sank in dread and fear. Perhaps the sun would disappear altogether and the earth would be plunged in icebound universal darkness and death.




And so they watched day by day while the great orb sank lower and lower, until at last, behold, it sank no more. For a day or two it tottered at its nadir. But then a wonderful thing occurred as its motion was reversed. It began to rise again, at first almost imperceptibly but with unmistakable certainty. Three or four days afterward there was no longer any doubt -- the Sun God had been reborn; it would soon again soar higher in the heavens, the days would be warmer and longer, the grass and the leaves would again spring forth, and the human race would survive. A few months later when vegetation had burgeoned forth in all its glory, the second great holiday was celebrated everywhere. The Jews called it the Passover; in various countries it went by different names: the Greeks called it the Lesser Mystery, we call it Easter.


And thus in every land the gods were born on or about December 25, and he was reborn or resurrected into a second life about March 21. And in the fall when the crops were harvested another great festival was celebrated. The Jews called it The Feast of Tabernacles; the Greeks called it the Greater Mystery; and we, in our pedestrian way, simply call it Thanksgiving.




Isis was from the beginning a very potent divinity in the Egyptian religion, and as time progressed she became more and more important until she overshadowed Osiris himself who became little more than a passive sacrifice. There arose also an independent Isis-cult which spread all over the Roman Empire and which developed into the most magnificent and awe-inspiring of all the ancient mysteries. In Rome alone there were fifty-eight splendid temples of Isis in which tens of thousands of her adherents found their life-consolation.


At an earlier date the character of Isis had been exported from Egypt and appeared in Sicily, Greece, and Italy under the name of Demeter and Kore. She was the goddess of the grain and the harvests. The Greeks gave her a daughter called Persephone who became the queen of the underworld. The cult of Kore spread far and wide, and at Alexandria a magnificent temple was built for her in which the Festival of the Maiden was celebrated on January 6. Preceding the dawn of that day the worshippers played flutes all night long; in the morning the high priest appeared at the portals of the temple and announced that the Virgin had just given birth to the Aeon, or the Holy Emanation. This was known as the Epiphany, or the appearance of the divinity, the savior god. And it is most interesting and pertinent to note that January 6 was the day in which the wheat became ripe for the harvest in Egypt. Isis or Kore had given birth to the Savior who symbolized the grain.




The Mazdean religion which existed for thousands of years before Christianity was based on the worship of the sun. And its successor Zoroastrianism worshipped a powerful deity called Ahura-Mazda, the God of Eternal Light. One of the great divinities in the religion was Mithra, who was the god of battles and the mediator between Ahura and the human race. He was also the savior-god who performed great feats which saved mankind several times. His greatest act was the slaying of the bull from which all good things on earth were derived. The holy day of the cult was Sunday, which the Christians began to celebrate as their Sabbath in the fourth century. According to the myth he was born in a cave of a rock of a virgin on December 25. At his birth shepherds came and sang songs to herald his appearance.


The Mithraic cult arose as a separate religion about 175 BCE, and it became one of the most virulent competitors and enemies of Christianity in the ancient world. All night before the morning of December 25 its devotees kept vigil before their Mithraemus, and as the first stream of sunlight draped the earth, the high priest of Mithra emerged from his inner sanctum and announced in a loud voice to the kneeling multitude: "The god is born." And then there was unrestrained rejoicing followed by a feast commemorating the last meal which Mithra celebrated with his disciples before his ascension into heaven. This was the Last Supper of Mithraism and its sacramental feast, the high mass of the cult which was its principal ritual for five or six hundred years before the Christians adopted it.


Between 100 B. C. and 300 CE Mithraism spread throughout the Roman Empire, even into the British Isles. There were tens of thousands of communicants who celebrated the high feast of Mithra on December 25, the day on which the Sun God, their Savior, was born.




Before Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, there had for centuries been a great celebration known as the Saturnalia which lasted seven days from December 17 to 24. This was the annual week of good will to all and equality for everyone. During this period sexual conduct was uninhibited, slaves and masters exchanged places and traded their normal dress, and the owners waited at table on their slaves. This was to celebrate the shortest day of the year and the arrival of the new sun. This long holiday was concluded by a climatic feast on December 25, known as the Brumalia. Gifts were exchanged and joy and happiness prevailed. After this normal occupations were resumed and everyone went back to work.


In the Teutonic countries for many centuries the Germans and the Scandinavians had celebrated the passing of the winter solstice and the upward swing of the sun. Their Kris Kringle brought presents for all good children and laid them under the Yule tree. He was the granddaddy of our Santa Claus who drives his reindeer from the far north and climbs down chimneys to fill the stockings of all obedient boys and girls with many wonderful goodies.




Among the early Christians there were three very different doctrines concerning Jesus:


1) He was born of Mary and Joseph in the ordinary course of nature and was only made divine by spiritual adoption at his baptism.


2) The doctrine of the Gnostics who said that Jesus was never born, was not in fact human at all, and had no earthy parents. He was a spiritual being sent by the Supreme God for a brief ministry to deliver the message of salvation and redemption.


3) The doctrine which was became the doctrine of the Catholic Church: Jesus was born of a virgin, similar to the myths found in virtually every mystery cult for centuries.


And so January 6 was accepted almost universally as the date of the Epiphany, and a great many churches, especially in the East, began teaching that it was also the physical birthday of Jesus. In various Catholic countries this is still the case.




In the Latin countries, however, the cults of Isis, Mithra, and the Zoroastrians were extremely powerful. It is not surprising, then, that the Christian God would be drawn into the orbit of the immemorial solar myth. In the year 354, Bishop Liberius of Rome decreed that the birth of Jesus was to be celebrated on December 25 instead of January 6. The worshippers of Mithras had been doing precisely the same things for five hundred years and the Osirians for four thousand years.


December 25 gradually became more and more popular as the birth date of Jesus. The Church at Antioch adopted it in 370, Constantinople in 380, Alexandria in 432, and Jerusalem in 549. The Mass of Christ or Christ's Mass was eventually celebrated almost universally on December 25.


By such means the immemorial Pagan rejoicing which celebrated rebirth of the various and life-giving Sun became the birthday of "Jesus." It is one of those marvelous events which demonstrates how human emotion and physical need are translated into religious doctrine and mythical history, for the race of man lives not by reason but by the yearning of its aspiration.


Borrowed from The American Rationalist – 1963

(modified, condensed, and typos corrected).


December 20, 2010

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