-A Christian feast commemorating the birth of Jesus.
-An annual church festival (December 25) and in some States a legal holiday, in memory of the birth of Christ, often celebrated by a particular church service, and also by special gifts, greetings, and hospitality. [www.Dictionary.com]
The celebration of Christmas has caused some controversy in recent years, for a variety of reasons. Many have been concerned that Christ is too often left out of Christmas; replaced by trimmings and presents and fudge. Others have battled over whether we should allow manger scenes on public property or allow the school choir to sing Christmas carols that actually contain a message about Jesus Christ. On the other hand, a growing number of Christians have been arguing that we should not celebrate Christmas at all because there is no command to do so in the Bible and because the celebration has pagan roots.
What stand should we take? How should we approach Christmas in the light of history and in the light of the Bible? This week we'll look at the history of the winter solstice and other pagan celebrations, and continue next week with the Jewish and Christian roots of this favorite of holidays.
The Pagan History:
Many pagan religions throughout the millennia have worshipped the sun as the source of light and warmth and life. As darkness deepened in the winter and the shortest day of the year approached, many pagans of yesteryear feared that the light might die altogether. Once the winter solstice hit, however, and the hours of sunlight began to increase once again, there would be great celebrations over the return of the sun and the accompanying hope for a future spring. In the northern hemisphere, these celebrations would occur toward the end of December.
Tammuz, the son of Nimrod and his queen, Semiramis, was identified with the Babylonian Sun God and worshipped following the sinter solstice, on about December 22-23. Tammuz was thought to have died during the winter solstice, and was memorialized by burning a log in the fireplace. (The Chaldean word for "infant" is yule. This is the origin of the yule log.) His rebirth was celebrated by replacing the log with a trimmed tree the next morning.
The Roman god Saturn's celebration fell on December 17 and lasted for seven days. Romans would gaily decorate their homes in evergreen boughs and candles, and would give gifts to one another. It was a time of visiting with family and friends, and of often-rowdy merry-making.
December 25 was also considered to be the birth date of the Iranian mystery god Mithra, the god of light and contracts. A once-minor god of the Persian pantheon, Roman soldiers adopted Mithra as the manly man's hero, a divinity of fidelity, manliness, and bravery. Women were excluded from the caves where men worshipped Mithra through secret rituals.
Mithra came to be identified with the sun-god Helios and became known as 'The Great God Helios-Mithras.' Several Roman emperors formally announced their alliance with the sun, including Commodus who was initiated in public. Emperor Aurelian (AD 270 to 275) blended a number of pagan solstice celebrations of such god-men/saviors as Apollo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, and Theseus into a single festival called the 'Birthday of the Unconquered Sun,' celebrated on December 25th.
There are a few rumored similarities between the legends of Mithra and the story of Christ. Mithra was said to have been born in a cave, with shepherds attending, (although there were no men on earth at the time (?)). Other legends have him being born from a rock by a river under a tree. According to Persian mythology, Mithra was a moral god, upholding the sanctity of the contract even when the contract was made with one who was sure to break it. Initiates into Mithraism would be 'baptized' with the trickle of the sacrificial bull's blood that would flow into a pit. This blood was said to cleanse the initiates from any impurities.
The few actual similarities between the Persian Mithra and Jesus Christ are superficial and are nothing compared to the major differences between the two. The comparisons that are fairly close - that Mithra was born of a virgin, that he was buried and rose again, are based on Roman versions of Mithra that post date Jesus Christ and not the original Persian stories of the god. That a god who was (in the Persian tradition) born from a rock could also somehow be born of a virgin demonstrates the adaption of the story by the Romans after the time of Christ.
Tertullian (AD 160-220), the early Church writer, noticed that the pagan religion utilized baptism as well as bread and wine consecrated by priests. He considered Mithraism to have been inspired by the devil, who wanted to mock Christians and lead others to hell.
While Tammuz and Saturn, Mithra and the Unconquered Sun may have once been celebrated at the end of December, few people even are aware of them anymore. There are no shrines to Tammuz set up in town squares, nor are carols being sung around the neighborhood in honor of Mithra. Whatever celebrations that pagans once had (and still have) at the end of December, Christmas is a decidedly Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of our Savior.
As the Christmas season gets into full steam, let's certainly avoid the temptation to worship pagan gods (wherever those temptations might yet lurk), but let's do focus on rejoicing that God sent His Son to be a man like us. He was laid in a manger as a baby and later had no place to lay his head (Matt 8:20), yet he is the King of Kings (Rev 17:14) and God the Father has given him a name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow (Phil 2:8-11). Rather than fearing the pagan history of this time of year, let's take advantage of the current cultural opportunity to worship and bring glory to Christ at a time when people are most open to his being the "reason for the season".
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Related Links: The Origins of Our Christmas Traditions - Koinonia House