This document is aimed at sparking the intellect, not inflaming the passions, or it is hoped it will be received that way.
Seneca the Roman historian once gave account of Saturnalia, the season of the pagan god Saturn, and his words and sentiment clearly resound of a modern christmas: “It is the month of December, and yet the whole city is in a sweat! Festivity at State expense is given unrestricted licence … should we take off our togas … and have dinner parties … like … the festive hatted crowd … all on pleasure bent ? Remaining dry and sober takes a good deal more strength of will when everyone about is puking drunk.”
His colleague, the poet Martial, also was sick of the commercialised aspects of Saturnalia: “I grow tired of the whole wearisome calculated game of giving presents !”
All this sounds so familiar that we should not be surprised to find that our christmas rush, our gifting, our christmas gluttony, has little to do with the birth of Christ, and is in fact based on pagan traditions 3000 years older than christian mythology. How did this “transubstantiation” of paganism come about ? Let us revisit a little history.
In the Bible, Matthew (2/1) tells us that when Christ was born, Herod was alive, and Luke(2/2) says that Quirinius was Roman governor of Syria, and this puts the birth year at 4BC, since Herod died and Quirinius was appointed governor in that year. Luke (2/2) also tells us that it was the census of Augustus which drove the famous family to Bethlehem. This census was dated at 6BC by the Jewish historian Josephus. But some academics question if the source texts are historically reliable. Barbara Thiering, (Sydney University Theologian), in her book “Jesus The Man”, CH.9, asserts that “Jesus was born not in Bethlehem, but in a building 1 Km south of the Qumran plateau … during … 23 to 5 BC.” Further confusion reigns: Encyclopaedia Britannica states Christ was born in Judea 6BC; Encarta97 puts the year at between 8BC and 4BC; Oxford historian Robin Fox puts the nativity at 14BC; and the Australian Macquarie Dictionary puts Christ’s birthyear at 20BC.
If the year was uncertain, the date can be fixed even less precisely. In fact there was no christmas day for the first three centuries of christianity – until about the time that Constantine proclaimed religious toleration in 313 AD, (an irony for Constantine was a mass murderer and fornicator, even after his “conversion”). By that time christians themselves seem to have forgotten when Christ was born, for two completely different dates were suggested and observed; these were 25 December in the West (Julian calendar), and 6 January in the more cultured and populous East (Egyptian calendar). Barbara Thiering claims the birth date of Christ was 15 Sep 7BC. Astronomer Marcus Chown estimates the Magi’s star (nova) occurred at 20 Mar 6BC. Dr Rudolph Brasch, in “Christmas Customs & Traditions” states that the Gospels do not indicate an actual date for this birth – in fact “Christ’s Mass” was celebrated sometime in April or May.
Somehow, by the end of 4AD, these Saturnalian festivities (17 – 24 December) had become usurped by christian ones. The sun-god Sol Invictus was ideologically eclipsed, as was his birthday of 21 December, the date when astronomers and farmers of the Northern hemisphere knew the sun was “resurrected” to return north. This now became the birthday of Christ, (plus a few arbitrary days to give Dec 25). Other historic pagan events and celebrations were obliterated from the calendar. Gone were the Sumerian trinity of Anu (sky), Enlil (storm), Ea (water); the Babylonian trinity of Shamil (sun), Sin (moon), Ishtar (venus).
Pagan theologies were the model for christian inventions, which mischievously glued their monotheism over older tritheisms by demanding a logic-defying “mystical faith.” The previous notions of a trinity had derived from the Ancient Greeks, who believed their world, Earth, was separated from the Underworld by the river Styx. The Underworld was in turn divided into three, The Elysian Fields (c.f. ‘Heaven’), Tartarus (c.f. ‘Hell’) and The Asphodel Fields (c.f. ‘Purgatory’). The similarities between the two theologies are so stark, that one wonders at the might of the social forces that separated them.
For Greeks to cross the Styx, the newly dead paid Charon the boatman a coin to cross from one to the other side (hence the Roman tradition of placing coins in the eyesockets of the dead). For a stirring challenge to this tradition, go listen to Chris DeBurgh’s song “Don’t Pay The Ferryman.” Also vanquished at this time were the pagan gods of Mithras (light), Tammuz (plantlife), Gibil (fire), Apsu (ocean), Adad (lightning), and other pagan gods.
However, despite all this rewriting of history, the Christian ideologues did not manage to fully eclipse Oestra or Eastres, the goddess of new life and fertility, whose celebration still occurs at the spring equinox (strictly March 21 for the northern hemisphere, but Constantine in 300AD made it a movable feast). From that pagan celebration there still survives modern Easter, with egg gifts (symbolising nesting birds and new life), and rabbits (spring born feeding on the new shoots of grass). The Christians tried to subsume these Easter pagan festivities by “Good Friday” atonements, but with less success.
The Christian “theory of atonement” hardly explains why an innocent person (allegedly Christ – perhaps Barabbas), had to undergo barbaric sacrifice to pay for the sins, past and future, of other guilty parties, who in the end reputedly have to pay for them anyway. In the special case of “original” sin, all parties are said to be innocent of sin (and for infants, also innocent in choice), but are obliged to atone nonetheless. This kind of logic defies even mystical sophistries.
Should one therefore avoid the mindnumbing contradictions involved in “the resurrection of a god who died” who in any case cannot actually die, physically, spiritually, or even metaphorically. In truth, the Christian idea of resurrection is just a corruption of pagan astronomical observations regarding repeating cycles of the sun, moon, and other celestial identities. On a more mortal note, Thiering firmly fixes the death date of a mortal Christ at Fri March 20, 33AD (debate will undoubtedly arise from this claim).
How else has history, science and logic been reconstructed ? One notes the first two biblical gospels, of Matthew and Mark, never mention the nativity, or describe Mary as a virgin (the old testament Hebrew word “almah” was mistranslated as “virgin”, and actually means “maiden”). The first nativity scenes were invented by Luke, about 60 years after the event. The nativity was late adopted as a symbol of Christian faith after the Council of Ephesus, AD 431. Few consider the genetic implications of a virgin birth, for offspring unequivocally possess identical chromosomes to the mother, i.e. Christ would necessarily have been female!
The crib of Christ derived from a later story, by Francis of Assisi who in fact turned a whole hillside of Greccio into a new and life sized Bethlehem “… to recall the little child …” At this mass a nearby child lay inattentive in a manger, and was thereafter incorporated into the liturgical play.
The character of Santa has several origins. One story tells that, in the 4th century AD, Nikolas (later St., or Santa) was an orthodox priest of Myra in modern Turkey, and the myth says he stood outside the home of poor girls in need of a dowry, and threw a bag of money on the stoop (anonymously for politeness). The day of his death – December 6th – became his feast day. On its eve he was believed to visit homes and leave gifts for poor children who put stockings outside their door. Father Christmas on the other hand was a familiar old rogue of the medieval English stage, appearing annually to collect money, rather than hand it around. Swinging a mighty club, he led other actors onto the stage for the play of St. George and the Dragon.
The Christmas tree is neither Roman or Christian, but of German origin. The Germans, even in Roman times, worshipped sacred groves rather than temples, and often selected a particular tree for veneration. In the dead of those long northern winters, the Tannenbaum (or fir tree) was a symbol of enduring life, and of the coming New Year. From this came the Latvian and Estonian “tree celebrations” (1500 AD), when “… on Christmas eve, after a festive dinner, black-hatted members of the local merchants’ guild carried an evergreen tree decorated with artificial roses to the market place where, in a vestige of paganism, they danced around the tree and then set fire to it.” Thus originated the candle-lit Christmas tree. The tune “Oh Tannenbaum” originated in a 12th century Latin drinking song written by Walter de Mapes, a deacon at Oxford; the modern lyrics were written by Ernst Anschutz in 1824.
We should acknowledge that Sol is a principal life sustainer for planet Earth, since all energy deriving from plant food, animal food, wood, coal, petrol, electric power, wind power, tidal power is ultimately just “congealed sunlight” (except nuclear energy from Uranium/Plutonium, since all such heavy elements were born in stellar novae).
At the end of this resource chain, it might be argued, so too we humans are merely congealed solar electromagnetic energy, breathing and eating atoms from recycled lives before us, ultimately born of “star-stuff” elements created in stellar cauldrons many kilometres and years from us. There is great comfort in knowing we are so closely connected to the Universe. In turn, we pass on, and provide both concrete and intellectual life for all that follows.
Perhaps it’s time to reawaken some veneration for good old thermo-nuclear Sol, in recognition of his/her lifegiving energies.
Then have a lucid Saturnalian season reflecting on what Sol stolidly continues, no matter what evil shadows we humans might cast upon this fragile planet.
By Colin Kline