We are buried this time of year in mythology, legend and folklore. It’s good to get it all in perspective by rediscovering a few historical facts.
I have lost count of the thousands of time that we have been told that Christmas celebrates the origin of Christianity — which, of course, is false. Christmas was around for eons before Jesus was born.
The winter solstice comes from two ancient words, sol, the name of a sun god, and stice, meaning still, or the day that the sun stands still, the shortest day of the year.
Since all cultures have been so dependent upon the seasons, the four major festivals centered on the summer and winter solstices and the spring the autumn equinoxes. An equinox — equi, meaning equal, and nox, meaning nights, or equal nights — occurs midway between the winter and summer solstice, when days and nights are equal in length.
Those are the four corners of the celestial year. But with the return of the sun to once again warm the earth and bring forth a resurrection of life, the winter solstice became the greatest of all the festivals.
The ancient festival in Rome was known as the Saturnalia. The emperor Aurelian established an official holiday called “Sol Invecti,” meaning “unconquered sun” in honor of the sun god, Sol. It was held Dec. 24 and 25 and established Dec. 25 as the official solstice. All the other religions that worshiped sun gods also took Dec. 25 as their fixed date for their festivals.
A major one was in honor of the Egyptian divine mother, Isis. Early Christians used to worship in front of statues of Isis suckling her divine child, Horus, the babe that she had conceived miraculously. In 350, Pope Julius I decreed that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the same day as all the other sun gods, Dec. 25.
One of the more interesting myths — obviously related to the Christian myth — is that of Mithra. Mithra went to heaven until he returned a savior for all mankind. A star fell from the sky when Mithra was born, shepherds witnessed the birth and Zoroastrian priests, called “Magi,” followed the star to worship him. They brought golden crowns to their newborn “King of Kings.” His birth was celebrated on Dec. 25. It was called the Mithrakana.
Now, when someone tells you that we just have to get back to the true meaning of Christmas, remember that the true meaning of Christmas is a celebration of nature, the sun, and a return of the sun to warm the earth for resurrection and new growth. This has been the major festival in the life of human beings for at least 6,000 years — and quite possibly the last 15,000 to 20,000 years.
Christmas started at the formation of our solar system with our little planet — the third one out from a minor star named Sol — spinning on an axis that is tilted at a slight angle to its orbital path around the sun.
I like knowing where our celebrations fit into the large picture of our human family.
It relates me to “time past and time future… where past and future are gathered … pointing to one end… which is always present.” (T.S Eliot).