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Wednesday, December 19, 2007


I have been pondering the story of the “First Christmas”. There was the famous stable (which was evidently filled with constipated animals as there was no poop to desecrate the sanctified event) and there was Mary (who was giving birth without labor pains or bleeding since female bleeding was a notorious Jewish anathema) and there was Joseph who seems to have been regulated to the waiting room. That, presumably, left the baby Jesus to gum through his own umbilical cord since there was no midwife mentioned in the Holy Scriptures. But there was a choir of angles on high singing at the top of their lungs, but heard only by the heavenly host, who were closely attending to every minute detail. But that opens up the core conundrum of Jesus. Was he the son of Mary and Joseph who suffers and struggles to be born and to avoid death and yet eventually dies, as do all men? Or was he the son of God who was just slumming here on Earth until daddy called him home? And what if the rabbi from Nazareth had won over the Pharisees? Then God’s plan of a death on the cross would have been screwed and Joshua Ben Joseph would have been a famous Jewish rabbi and there never would have been a “Christ”. But we would still have had a Christmas. We just would have called it something else.
It is not a coincidence that in the Northern Hemisphere the winter solstice, when the “sol stands still” (December 21 or 22), roughly coincides with the celebration of the birth of Christ, Mithras, Osiris, Apollo, Baal, Dionysus, Horus, Helios and the feast of Saturnalia. In fact, like the American “Presidents’ Day” Monday holiday scheme, the multi-deity Romans referred to December 25th simply as “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”, to avoid insulting any of the cults and “mystery religions” that peppered the capital of the world, each holding their own celebration of the birthday of the one true god. And there must have been a Roman rabble rouser or two preaching against the “War on Saturnalia” or similar such horse manure.
But all this religious fervor is concentrated at this season simply because the earth is tilted off its true axis by 23 ½ degrees, which causes the length of daylight to vary over the course of each orbit around the sun. With no theory of gravity or elliptical orbits the ancients had to explain why the days always got shorter and then got longer again. And so something magical must happen on the longest night of the year, else the nights would just keep getting longer. The birth of a god on this night must have seemed an obvious explanation, at least more obvious than claiming the world had a 23 ½ degree axial tilt.
To many in the 3rd century CE that obvious magical event, attended to by Magi priests, was the birth of Mithra. He was traditionally depicted in his subterranean temples in the act of slaying a bull, assisted by other creatures drawn from the Zodiac. By slaying Taurus, the constellation visible directly above Orion the hunter in the Northern skies from mid-winter into March, Mithra thus provided a logical reason why the cold and dark of winter would begin to recede. With “proof” visible in the sky, it was a hard argument for the Christians to counter. Their tale of three Magi attending the birth of the Christ thus showed that even devout followers of Mithras had been spontaneously converted to the true faith.
But the one thing we know from Christianity’s own record of their messiah is that he could not have been born in December. In Luke 2:8 the New Testament says that the night of Christ’s birth, “…there were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night”. But by November any shepherd with two neurons to rub together would pen up their flocks in doors over the cold 14 hour nights, to protect them and keep them fed and warm. A real Jesus might have been conceived under the sign of Taurus, but if so he was probably born in late summer or fall. So why later insist that the birth of Christ had happened in December?
The answer is competition. Competition forced Christianity to first move the location of Christ’s birth to the city of King David, Bethlehem, allowing them to imply that Jesus was of royal Jewish blood, and then to drop the restriction of circumcision to allow pagans to easily convert directly into the new faith. Competition for converts encouraged the Christian adoption of the popular belief that Mithra would forgive all sins and, after death, grant eternal life. And it was competition that inspired Christianity’s compromise with the most joyous and attractive celebration of the “pagan” year: Saturnalia.
The god Saturn was the grandfather in both the Roman and the Greek Pantheons. It was his temple that held the Roman treasury. But by 50 CE Seneca the Younger could write, “It is now December, when the greatest part of the city is a bustle….everywhere you hear the sounds of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business…” By then, what had started under the Republic as a single day of respect for the old man on December 17th, had gradually grown into a more than a week, described by Catullus as “…the best of days”, marked by gift exchanges (saturnalia et sigillaricia), parties, family gatherings, special holiday clothing complete with a peaked cap, feasts with holiday treats and public religious spectacles. And a special holiday greeting was adopted; “Ho, praise to Saturn!” which would later reappear as St. Nicolas’s merry greeting, “Ho, ho ho.”
Saturn is interesting for Christians for a couple of other reasons. First, as a younger god he seems to have had a lot in common with the vengeful, jealous figure described in the Old Testament. Age mellowed him. And second, of course, is the original day of rest devoted to him, Saturday. But there is also the astrological symbol for Saturn, a combination of a scythe (he was the god of farmers and the harvest) and the female symbol (he was also the god of fertility). Put those two together and you get something that looks like a cross with a tail on it, something the Kabbalists and Gnostics found very meaningful.
But then those guys found meaning in everything.
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