As Christmas swiftly approaches, parts of the world with Christian roots are becoming enchanted with various traditions centered around the story of Christ’s humble birth, as well as secular and non-Christian related Winter Solstice traditions. Whatever one’s faith or lack thereof, it’s hard to ignore this festive time of year, and the dominant story of the world’s largest religion, woven into the carols, ornaments, and decorations it’s strewn with.
Yes, twinkling lights, glittering decor, and snowy landscapes saturate the collective psyche, in a celebration that blends themes of warmth, love, hope, forgiveness, destiny, generosity, and a central event with such significance that we use it as the demarcation point of our entire calendar.
Not only is Christmas the end of every year, but also the yearly anniversary of the end of the old world Before Christ, and the birth of the new Anno Domini phase of the human story. The axis of Western history literally rests on this event which we celebrate every December 25th.
Yet there is much more to this story than the surface images of Winter festivity and the stable-born divine son, surrounded by star-struck wise men and poor shepherds. Indeed, virtually every aspect of Christmas has deep roots in traditions which preceded their adoption into Christianity and it’s birth story; even aspects of the Christmas story itself may be more mythical than historical. Even Santa Claus, sometimes criticized as a fanciful creation of Coca-Cola, has his roots as Sinterklaas (St. Nicolas), dating back to the Middle Ages, or arguably even pre-Christian European traditions.
So, what exactly are the roots of the Christmas story, and what should we make of them? Do they invalidate our beloved holiday, or is it possible they might give it even deeper meaning?
Perhaps most famously “exposed” in the First portion of the Zeitgeist film, it’s long been known among scholars that elements of the story of Christ’s life told in the bible exist in many pre-existing traditions, and that certainly includes the circumstances of his birth. It’s virtually undeniable that aspects of the Christmas story are mythological and astrological. Biblical literalists may argue that these stories were created by demons to trick mankind, but to most rational people unwilling to make such leaps to preserve their beliefs, the realization of Christmas’s mythology is unavoidable.
Religious history is littered with Christ and Christmas prototypes. Of the many Gods or demi-Gods said to be born on December 25th, some of the most famous are Mithras, Apollo, Horus, Osiris, Heracles, Dionysus, and Adonis. Those whose births were foretold by heavenly phenomena like stars or comets include Yu, Lao Tse, Buddha, Mithra, and Osiris. Those who were said to have been born by divine conception, often to a virgin, include Pharaoh Amenkept III, the sun god Ra, Horus, Atis, Dionysus, Perseus, Helen of Troy, Buddha, Mithra, and even Ghengis Khan. The study of Jesus in comparative mythology is an area continually explored by historians and scholars.
The figure which probably has the most similarity to the Jesus story is Hinduism’s Lord Krishna, who is said to be: God in the form of a man, the second person of a divine trinity, prophesied by wise men and stars to be born of divine conception to a (possibly virginal) member of a royal lineage (and the prophecy was fulfilled), one who performed miracles, cast out demons, was killed by being hung on a tree, then died and descended to Hell before rising again to visit disciples and ascend to heaven, as witnessed by many followers, and was also referred to as a “lion” of his tribe, plus many other correlations. Their biggest difference, perhaps, is that Krishna’s life is believed to have taken place anywhere from 200-3,200 years before Christ’s.
However, this doesn’t mean that Christ was never born, or never existed. Indeed, there is some historical evidence that Jesus existed, and even if it’s not strong enough to convince some skeptics, “The majority of New Testament scholars and historians of the ancient Near East agree that Jesus existed as a historical figure. [wikipedia]” The existence of mythological elements of Christ’s story are too often used inappropriately as evidence that he never existed, while they are merely evidence that his story was mythologized in the process of Christianity’s spread into pagan Europe, at the most.
While the story of Jesus’s birth can be traced to the religious mythologies of various ancient civilizations, much of the traditions of Christmas have their roots in more rural pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice, particularly from Northern Europe.
Yule or Yuletide was the Norse/Germanic tradition of cutting down and burning a large log, known as the Yule Log, while feasting for however long it took the log to burn, which could be up to 12 days around the Solstice. Many believe this to be the origin of the 12 days of Christmas. The related Midwinter (Winter Solstice) was also considered to be a time, like Halloween, in which the veil between the spiritual and natural world was thinner, and thus carried religious and supernatural significance.
The lives of ancient Pagan people are believed to have revolved mostly around the agricultural significance of the seasons’ changes in the Northern hemisphere, and the supernatural significance they also took on, being literally matters of life and death. Winter Solstice was a time where preparations for the coming Winter “famine months” of January and February came to a climax, with the slaughter of livestock that could not be fed through the Winter, as well as excess food which could not be properly stored. It also so happened to be the time of year when the wine and beer made from crops grown during the Summer months was sufficiently fermented to be drank and enjoyed.
So, due to the presence of excess food, meat, and libations, Christmas traditions that likely sprang in part from Yule/Midwinter include feasting and caroling, the Christmas ham/turkey, gifts, and general fire-side festivity. Even the use of evergreen trees and branches as decorations, revered for their ability to thrive and remain green in the depths of Winter, pre-dates the advent of the Christmas tree in early medieval Germany, with the pagans bringing evergreens into their homes as early as 400 A.D. It seems that what Christmas traditions didn’t come from Egyptian, Greek, Roman, or even Indian mythologies have been inherited from pre-Christian, pagan Europe.
The similar equivalent of Saturnalia existed in Rome, which was spread to most of Europe during the Roman empire; in this case, elements of social chaos and merriment were also added to the general feasting, gladiator fights, gambling, gift-giving, an early form of greeting cards, and general dis-inhibition. The Roman Saturnalia was not unlike an ancient Mardis Gras on steroids, with people wearing costumes and reversing social roles, allowing slaves to become masters and vice versa, and allowing peasants to rule the cities for the week. The feasting and indulgence is also said to have included orgiastic elements, as well, meaning gluttony may not have been the only vice that was indulged.
While these revelations may be troubling to some, the truth is that all of these various traditions were incorporated into Christmas for a reason or a variety of reasons. All of them were tremendously meaningful to the people from whom they were received, and like mythology itself, carry symbolic significance. So, perhaps rather than being disheartened that Christmas isn’t what we thought it was, we should be intrigued to discover what greater meanings might be hidden in this patchwork tradition.
In Universal Co-Masonry, we strive to seek the Light of Knowledge wherever it may lead us, however uncomfortable it may be. So, where might the illumination of Christmas’s symbolism take us? More on that in Part 2, coming soon…
As always, this writing does not represent the official views of Universal Co-Masonry, but is simply the reflections of one Co-Mason.
Featured Image: “Adoration of the Shepherds” (1622), Gerard van Honthorst. Modern secular historians regard the birth narrative in the Gospel of Luke as a legend invented by early Christians based on Old Testament predecessors.