Persian roots of Christian traditions
By Ramona Shashaani
December 23, 1999
The following was posted on the ruminations maling list. Thanks to
Shahrzad Irani for forwarding it.
A while ago, I was invited to give a talk at a Christmas party about
the Persian tradition of celebrating the winter solstice on December 21st.
In order to speak intelligently to a spiritually and psychologically keen
audience, I set out to research the subject. I was scrambling to find resource
material when my day was saved by our list co-moderator, Peter Bridge,
who provided me with more references than I had hoped to find in my attempt
to unravel the historical, symbolic and mythic bases behind the Persian
people's celebration of this festive occasion.
What I did not expect to find, however, was a fascinating history of
how Christmas may have its origins in the ancient Persian Mithraic tradition
of worshipping Mithra or Mehr, the sun-god or god of love. With the approaching
winter solstice, I thought it might be appropriate share this history with
While Christians around the world are preparing to celebrate Christmas
on Dec. 25th, the Persians are getting ready to tribute one of their most
festive celebrations on Dec. 21st, the eve of winter solstice, the longest
night and shortest day of the year. In Iran this night is called SHAB-E
YALDAA, also known as SHAB-E CHELLEH, which refers to the birthday or rebirth
of the sun.
In the east more than in the west, lifestyles have often remained more
in tune with nature. This integration of natural rhythms into life cycles
is especially true in ancient Persia and has survived the ages. YALDAA,
like other major Persian celebrations, is focused on the changing of the
seasons. It is as ancient as the time that people organized their lives
around the precession of equinoxes.
The most eminent festive affair is NOROOZ, the Iranian new year, which
occurs with the spring equinox, around March 21st. It is no wonder that
astrology was first inaugurated in ancient Babylonia, a part of the Persian
Empire. Yet YALDAA is chiefly related to MEHR YAZAT; it is the night of
the birth of the unconquerable sun, Mehr or Mithra, meaning love and sun,
and has been celebrated by the followers of Mithraism as early as 5000
Is it a mere coincidence that Christmas and YALDAA are so close in time
and similar in nature? I suggest that the origins of Christmas may be from
According to the Bible, the man Jesus Christ was actually born on January
6, and the celebration of his birthday on December 25th, may in fact be
born out of the Persian Mithraic influence. In the old Persian mythology,
Mitra (Mithra, Mehr), the God of love, friendship, and light, the sun-god,
was miraculously born from a rock by a river or stream on this longest
night of the year.
In his fifth volume of the collected works, Symbols of Transformation,
Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist who broke away from Freud, has
extensively discussed the influence of Mithraism on Christianity and has
portrayed its images and symbols. He quotes Franz Cumont's The Mysteries
of Mithra, p. 149, modified:
"Perhaps no other religion has ever offered to its votaries, in
so high a degree as Mithraism, opportunities for prayer and motives for
veneration. When the initiate betook himself in the evening to the sacred
grotto concealed in the solitude of the forest, at every step new sensations
awakened in his heart some mystical emotion. The stars that shone in the
sky, the wind that whispered in the foliage, the spring or brook that hastened
murmuring to the valley, even the earth which he trod under his feet, were
in his eyes divine, and all surrounding nature evoked in him a worshipful
fear of the infinite forces that swayed the universe (para. 109)."
In praise of the Mithraic sun-god, Jung states:
"The sun. . . is the truly "rational"image of God, whether
we adopt the standpoint of the primitive savage or of modern science. In
either case Father-God from whom all living things draw life; he is the
fructifier and the creator, the source of energy into our world. The discord
into which the human soul has fallen can be harmoniously resolved through
the sun as a natural object which knows no inner conflict . . . It shines
equally on the just and the unjust, and allows useful creatures to flourish
as well as the harmful. Therefore the sun is perfectly suited to represent
the visible God of this world, i.e., the creative power of our own soul,
which we call libido, and whose nature it is to bring forth the useful
and the harmful, the good and the bad. That this comparison is not just
a matter of words can be seen from the teachings of the mystics: when they
descend into the depths of their own being, they find "in their heart"
the image of the sun, they find their own life-force which they call the
"sun" for a legitimate and, I would say, a physical reason, because
our source of energy and life actually is the sun. Our physiological life,
regarded as an energy process, is entirely solar (para. 176)."
With the advent of regional battles between ancient Persians and Romans,
a majority of the Roman soldiers who lamented their brutish ways, came
to find reverence for the Mithraic devotion to nature and beauty. They
exalted Mithra's illustrating of slaying the bull, representing sacrifice
of the animal instinct in order to find the path to the divine. Soon, Mithraism
spread its wings from Persia to the ancient-civilized world in Rome and
many European countries. Consequently, in Europe as in Persia, the 21st
of December was celebrated as Mithra's birthday.
Early Christians took this very ancient Persian celebration to Mithra,
the sun- god, and linked it to Christ's birthday. But in the 4th century
A.D., because of some errors in counting the leap year, the birthday of
Mithra shifted to 25th of December and was established as such.
Hence, in 274 A.D., the Roman emperor Aurelia declared December 25th
as he birthday of the unconquered sun ("natAlis solis invicti"),
which at the winter solstice begins to show an increase of light; he declared
this day as a day of festivities. Later, the church of Rome established
the commemoration of the birthday of Christ, the "sun of righteousness,"
on this same date. Until that time the birthday of Jesus Christ was celebrated
on January 6th. But the religion of most of the Romans and many people
of the European continent was still Mithraism. Pope Leo in the fourth century,
after almost destroying the temple of Mithra in 376 A.D., in his campaign
against Mithraism -- and in the good old Christian tradition, "If
you can't claim it, imitate it" -- proclaimed the 25th of December
as Christ's birthday instead of January 6th, a date, by the way, which
is still celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church and Armenians.
It is also noteworthy that Epiphany, or the "Feast of the Three
Holy Kings" on January 6, commemorates the manifestation of Christ
to the Gentiles, the Magi. The Magi, who were known astrologers, saw a
newborn bright star in the sky and predicted the birth of Christ. From
the religious city of Qum in Iran, they set out to Jerusalem to greet the
infant Christ as the newly born king of the Jews, offering him gifts of
gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Originally, the Magi had been disciples of Zoroaster, who spread his
new religion in Persia long after Mithra. Their name is the Latinized form
of Magoi [Herodotus I, 101]. They were a priestly caste during the Seleucid,
Parthian and Sassanian periods in ancient Persia. Later, parts of the Avesta,
the holy book of Zoroastrians, including the ritualistic sections of the
Vendidad, probably derive from them. As a sacred and powerful caste, Zoroastrians
ruled the Persian Empire in the 6th century B.C.; they continued to have
a dominating religious influence on the subsequent kings of Persia and
were still powerful at the time of the birth of Christ.
The connection of the Magi with astrology and their Persian origin is
all that is known of the Magi ("wise men" in most English Bibles,
"astrologers" in the new English Bible). In early Christian art
the Magi usually wear Persian clothes (e.g., the Catacombs of Priscilla
in Rome, 2nd century). In the Syriac tradition those names are Persian
and they are connected with Persian religious history.
Zoroastrians, after refining and discarding some of the mythical and
"heretical" aspects of Mithraism, retained YALDAA, a Soryani
word meaning "the birth'" The ceremony is traced to the historical
combat myth between the good forces of light against the evil forces of
darkness. This longest night with evil as its zenith is considered ill-fated
by this ancient Persian religion. From this day onward, the good forces
of light triumph as the days grow longer and give more light.
This celebration comes on the eve of the Persian month of "DAY,"
the first month of winter, also the name of the pre-Zoroastrian creator
god, more commonly known as 'Saturn" in the west. In Persia, DAY was
praised and revered as the most powerful God of creation and light, from
which we have the English word "day" (the period of light in
24 hours). In the Roman world, the Saturnalia, from December 17 through
December 24, became a time of merrymaking and exchange of presents, in
honor of the Roman God Saturn.
Ancient Zoroastrians believed that AHURA MAZDA (the good God) created
light, day and sunshine as representations of order and "the ahurAic,"
or good. The day is a time of work, harvest and productivity. They also
believed that AHRIMAN (an equally powerful, but evil god) created "the
night', a time of darkness, cold, hidden secrets and wild predators. Observing
the cyclical changes in the length of days and nights, engendered a belief
that light and darkness, or day and night are in continuous battle. The
triumphant light brought about longer days, whereas the victory of darkness
produced longer nights. It was believed that the greatest battle between
the forces of good and evil was fought on SHAB-E YALDAA, the night before
winter solstice. Since the first night of winter is the longest and from
that night onwards, the days get longer while the warmth and light of the
sun increases, the night of the winter solstice was recognized and celebrated
as the time of the sun's birth or rebirth by Aryan tribes in Iran, India
Fires and lights, symbols of AHURA MAZDA, warmth and lasting life have
always been associated with the winter festival. To remain safe from AHRIMAN'S
harms, in the evening of SHAB-E YALDAA, bonfires are lit outside, while
inside family and friends gather in a nightlong vigil around the KORSEE,
a low, square table covered with a thick quilt overhanging on all sides.
A brazier with hot coals is placed under the table, in the center. All
night, families and friends sit on large cushions on the ground around
the KORSEE with the quilt over their laps. They arrange a special sacred
space wherein the elders tell stories and fairytales or read poetry to
the younger generations. The oldest member of the family says prayers,
asks sun "yazat" to bless them, thanks God for the previous year's
crops, and prays for the prosperity of next year's harvest. Then with a
sharp knife, he or she cuts through a thick yogurt or watermelon, giving
everyone a share. The cutting symbolizes the removal of sickness and pain
from the family.
Snacks are passed around throughout the night. It is virtually obligatory
to eat pomegranates with angelica powder (GOLPAR) and AJEEL-E SHAB-E YALDAA,
a tasty mixture of nuts and dried fruits as a symbol for solving problems,
translated as "opening one's problems" or "knots."
Eating nuts is said to keep illness at bay until the spring. The fruits
are meant to bring more fruits and prosperity in the coming spring and
onwards. More substantial fare for the night's feast include eggplant stew
with plain saffron-flavored rice; or rice with chicken or fish; thick yogurt,
as well as sweets made with carrots and saffron (HALVAA-E HAVEEJ).
The foods themselves symbolize the balance of the seasons; watermelons
and yogurt are eaten as a remedy for the heat of the summer, since these
fruits are considered cold or SARDEE; while HALVAA, the saffron and carrot
sweets, is meant to overcome the cold temperatures of winter since they
are considered hot or GARMEE. Throughout the night of festivities, the
family keeps the fires burning and the lights glowing to "help"
the sun in its battle against darkness.
Ancient Persians also decorated an evergreen tree called SARVE. The
SARVE or "Rocket Juniper" - also known as the cypress tree, being
straight, upright and resistant to the cold weather, was known as a symbol
of enduring hardship, thus appropriate for celebrating Mithra. The younger
ones had their "wishes" symbolically wrapped in colorful silk
cloth and hung them on the tree along with lots of offerings for Mithra
in the hopes that he would answer their prayers.
Again in the same tradition, Luther, the famous German reformer, in
mid 18th century (1756), having learned of the YALDAA SARVE, introduced
the Christmas tree to the Germans. As cypress trees were not widespread
in Germany, as indeed in most of Europe, the chosen tree became a variety
of pine which was abundant in Europe.
In summary, it is not just Mithra's birth time which entered Christianity.
There are many similarities between the Mithraic and Christian traditions.
Nowadays all Christians who celebrate the birth of Jesus, light fireplaces
and candles, decorate trees with lights, stay up all night, sing and dance,
eat special foods, pay visits, and celebrate this festive occasion with
family and friends.
Christmas and YALDAA are just another example of the many common beliefs,
customs, symbols, stories and myths that bind people of different nations
and religions across the globe. Let us honor these manifestations of the
collective unconscious, so that we may be the keepers of light, love, friendship
and peace among the peoples of the world. Enjoy your Christmas holidays,
in its true spirit of love, gratitude, compassion, giving and forgiving,
knowing that it may have its origins in an ancient tradition which, as
Carl Jung says, links us back to "the creative power of our own soul."
As our teacher Rumi suggests,
"Open up your hidden eyes and return to
the root of the root of your own Self."