So is it merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah or merry Kwanzaa? This year, let us celebrate it for what it really is. It was originally the Yule or Yalda festival meant to commemorate the birth of the Sun God Mithra.
Perhaps it had something to do with the Ice Age, which bedeviled ancient Nature Worshippers for so long that the day following the Winter Solstice, when days start getting longer, the day when light is born again, that day, the 23rd of December, was the happiest day of the year for our freezing pagan ancestors and celebrated accordingly.
The Yalda festival was a Mithraic celebration, which finds its origins among the earliest Iranians. But in 53 BCE, when Roman legions, unable to conquer Parthian Mithraists, adopted Mithra the “Unconquered Sun” for themselves, the Yule Tide became an official celebration of the Roman Empire.
Many of the original pagan symbols survive in what has come to be known as Christmas such as: holly, ivy, mistletoe, Yule log, the giving of gifts, decorated evergreen tree, Santa Claus, magical reindeer, etc..
Most Christians know that December 25th is not the actual date of Jesus’ birth. But to call it “Christmas” stretches the limits of irony as early Christians, even some today, did their best to abolish it. Polydor Virgil, an early British Christian, said “Dancing, masques, mummeries, stageplays, and other such Christmas disorders now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them.”
In Massachusetts, Puritans unsuccessfully tried to ban Christmas entirely during the 17th century, because of its heathenism. The English Parliament abolished Christmas in 1647. Some contemporary Christian faith groups do not celebrate Christmas to this day including the Worldwide Church of God (before its recent conversion to Evangelical Christianity) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In fact, I suspect that the last pagan holdouts supported the switch to “Christmas” in an effort to save their celebration from being eradicated entirely by the Holy Roman Empire.
In a compromise, the Catholic Church, in the beginning of the 4th century CE, agreed to celebrate the birthday of Yeshua of Nazareth (later known as Jesus Christ) on December 25th, two days removed from its original Yule date. Eastern churches followed suit and began to celebrate Christmas after 375 CE. Ireland started in the 5th century. The church in Jerusalem started in the 7th century. Austria, England and Switzerland in the 8th. Slavic lands in the 9th and 10th centuries.
Regardless of its origins, it’s a great time to wish friends and family joy, prosperity and good health for the coming year.