Huddling against the Solstice darkness | Steve Timmer photo
by Steve Timmer
Dec 22, 2013, 8:00 PM

He’s not the only

Reason for the season

You all know the bumper sticker slogan, He’s the reason for the season, or sometimes Jesus Christ is the reason for the season. Well, “war on Christmas” types, this is not entirely accurate. Winter solstice festivals and observances were taking place centuries before the birth of Jesus.

Mesopotamians (you may know them as those pesky Iraqis) celebrated the solstice by supporting the god Marduk in his annual battle with the powers of chaos. At the Zagmuk festival celebrating Marduk’s success, gifts were exchanged. This festival goes back to perhaps 3500 BCE.

Here’s one that will hit pretty close to home, warriors:

Mitra or Mithra or Mithras is an important deity of Persian and Indic culture; he appears in the Vedas as one of the Adityas, a solar deity and the god of honesty, friendship, contracts [a particular favorite of mine] and meetings.

In Persian civilization, where his name was rendered as Mithra, he later came into increased prominence as a major deity of Zoroastrianism. He can be identified with a proto-Indo-Persian deity whose name can be reconstructed as Mitra. Mithraism began as an aspect of the religion of the old Aryan people, preserved in the Persian Avesta and the Hindu Vedas.

In both cultures, he is distinguished by his close relationship with the god who rules over the asuras (Persian ahuras) and protects Rta (Persian asha): Varuna in India and Ahura Mazda in Persia.

Mithra was believed to have been the son of God (Ahura Mazda). According to Persian tradition, Ahura Mazda sent his son Mithra to defend humanity from evil and from the Adversary, Ahriman.

Mithraism entered Europe after the conquests of Alexander the Great and spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire in later years.

The Hellenistic and Roman god Mithras, worshipped by male initiates from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD, combined the Persian Mithra with other Persian and perhaps Anatolian deities in a syncretic cult.

For God so loved the world . . .   .

Guess what time of year Mithra’s birthday is celebrated?

The ancient Greeks celebrated the solstice as the birthday of Zeus, the Egyptians celebrated the birth of the god Horus to Isis. The list goes on and on.

But here’s my favorite echo of Christmas:

[Saturnalia is a] Roman festival to the ancient god, Saturn. In Ancient Rome, the mythical age of Saturn’s kingship was a golden age of happiness for all men, without theft or servitude, and without private property. Saturn, dethroned by his son Jupiter, had joined Janus as ruler in Italy, but when his time as earthly king was up, he disappeared. “It is said that to this day He lies in a magic sleep on a secret island near Britain, and at some future time … He will return to inaugurate another Golden Age.” [sort of a second coming, right?]

The people gave themselves up to wild joy. They feasted, they gave gifts, they decorated their homes with greenery. The usual order of the year was suspended: grudges and quarrels forgotten; wars interrupted or postponed. Businesses, courts, schools closed. Rich and poor were equal, slaves were served by masters, children headed the family. Cross-dressing and masquerades, merriment of all kinds prevailed. [italics are mine] A mock king — the Lord of Misrule — was crowned. Candles and lamps chased away the spirits of darkness.

The Christians, informed by the the Messianic tradition in Judaism that preceded it, believe in a deity who slept a magic sleep and will usher in a golden age with a second coming. And they believe in an anti-lord, too, as described in the Book of Revelation.

Now, some of you, my friends, will remember that Constantine conquered Rome in about 313 CE. And that he was responsible for ending the persecution of Christians in the Edict of Milan, and for sponsoring the Council of Nicaea which made Christianity the official religion of the empire in 325 CE. Christmas was begun to be celebrated around 336 CE, and the timing of the celebration was simply piggy-backed on Saturnalia.

So, what do we make of this? The Christians, like a bunch of pious hermit crabs, hijacked the existing pagan solstice holiday for their own! Now, it made a lot of sense, and I am not at all critical of the date choice, but it does seem a little churlish for Christians to claim Christmas is being corrupted by a failure to properly limit it to the observance of the birth of Jesus.

Personally, I observe Christmas, and I try to keep it, in the words of Charles Dickens, in my heart. With uneven results, as even casual readers here know. But compulsion in religion is poison; compulsion changes it from belief system into authoritarianism. There are so many examples of that around the world presently that no specifics are even necessary.

The “war on Christmas” warriors are only bad at the business of being Christians, they are bad at Christian evangelism. I will continue with a clean conscience wish people “happy holidays,” and hope they will share in some measure in the hope and promise of the season.

So, Happy Holidays, everybody. And, if applicable, Merry Christmas.

Adapted from a post on the Stool in 2005, so some of the links may be dead.

Update: A personal minor deity of mine, Charlie Pierce, had two great posts today, December 26th, each of which was, in my wildest imagination, inspired by this post and by my hymn, Immortal, Invisible Hand Only Wise, written a few years ago:

Jesus is the Reason for the Wheezin’

The Invisible Hand is all Thumbs

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