The New Testament provides no specific date for the birth of Jesus. If it occurred as the Gospel of Luke tells us, as shepherds were watching over their fields by night, it probably wouldn’t have taken place in December. Too cold. So why do most Christians observe December 25 as Jesus’ birthday? The most plausible answer is that in ancient Rome, as Christianity was emerging as a new faith, its calendar was influenced by other up-and-coming belief systems bunched together by adherents of traditional Roman religion as “mystery religions.”
One of these was the worship of Mithras, an Indo-Aryan deity (the Mitra of Vedic religion, the Mithra of the Persian Avesta) associated with the heavens and light. His cult entered the Roman Empire in the first century BCE and during the formative decades of the Christian movement was a formidable rival to the latter, with temples from Syria to Britain. Given his solar associations, it made sense to believe that he had been born on the darkest day of the year, the winter solstice. That falls this year on December 21 but the Romans celebrated the birth feast of Mithras on December 25, ordered to do so by Emperor Aurelian in 274 CE. Christian texts from 325 note that the birthday of Jesus had come to be observed on that same day, and the Roman Catholic Church has in modern times acknowledged that the December 25 Christmas quite likely derived from Mithraic practice.
Mithras, the story went, had been born of a virgin. Virgin-birth stories were a denarius a dozen in the ancient world, so this similarity to the gospel story isn’t surprising. But Mithras was also born in very humble circumstances in a cave, and upon his miraculous birth found himself in immediate proximity to the bovine. In his case, not mellow manger beasts but a wild bull. In the Persian version of the myth, this bull had been the first creation of Ahura Mazda, another, greater god of light. (Ahura Mazda, in the history of Persian religion, gradually becomes conceptualized as something like the Judeo-Christian God. But his worship in the Zoroastrian tradition probably predates the Jewish conception of Yahweh as universal deity. Quite likely the Zoroastrian conception of God influenced the Jewish one.)
Mithras serving Ahura Mazda subdued the bull, confining it in the cave, and later slaughteed it. The blood of the slaughtered bull then generated vegetation and all life. This myth surely has something to do with cattle-worship among ancient Aryan peoples, which of course survives to this day in India. In Rome the Mithras cult involved such rituals as drenching the Mithras devotee in bull-blood, and having believers in secret ceremonies consume in the form of bread and wine the flesh and blood of the fabled slaughtered bull. A communion ceremony, if you will. Mithras died and was entombed, but rose from the dead. In some accounts, he does so on the third day.
The Mithras cult was affected by earlier religious traditions. Anyone studying mythologies in historical perspective knows that any particular god might have numerous connections across time and space. The Sumerian fertility goddess Inana becomes the Babylonian Ishtar becomes the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus. Inana grieving for her husband Tammuz, who had died after being gored in the groin by a bull, follows him to the netherworld. There are differing stories but in one she achieves his resurrection; in another, the resurrection of both is accomplished by the god of wisdom Enki, on the third day.
The Romans were very familiar with myths about virgin births, births marked by celestial signs, gods born in humble circumstances, newborn gods barely escaping death. The Mithras cult, arriving from Persia in the first century BCE and popular among the Roman soldiers, was accepted nonchalantly in a society which had its devotees of Isis, who had rescued her brother-husband Osiris from the netherworld; Attis, who immaculately conceived by Nana, was gored by a wild boar but resurrected on March 22 (note the proximity to Easter); and the gods of other mystery religions. When the worship of Jesus Christ came along, spreading from Roman Palestine to Jewish communities throughout the empire, and attracting non-Jews as well, they added it to this exotic collection of devotional options. The early Christians for their part were surely influenced by beliefs and practices of other cults.
Many find insights and truths in myths. Joseph Campbell said that “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.” Sigmund Freud felt the stories of Oedipus and Elektra illuminated human psychological development. But he regarded religion as a delusion. Those suffering from the delusion see their own myths as the definitive story, and resist any attempt to explain those myths as derivative from or comparable to others. Thus the Church Father Justin Martyr (ca. 100-65) in his Apologia (I, 66) claimed that “wicked devils have imitated” the Christian communion ceremony “in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.” He noted the obvious similarity between Mithraic and Christian practice, and probably realized that the Mithraic rite long preceded the Christian one. But he could not acknowledge Christian borrowing. The Mithraic practice was devilish, while the Christian sent down directly from God and bearing no relation to previous earthly ones was holy.
The Eucharist is one thing. It is mentioned in the gospels and in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where it’s referred to as “the Lord’s supper.” So even if it reflects Mithraic borrowing, it at least has scriptural authority. It’s based, the believer knows, on God’s Word dictated down through the power of the Holy Spirit into the pen of the inspired scribe. But Christmas celebrated on December 25 is a completely non-Biblical tradition, and realizing that, various Christians over the centuries have actively opposed its observance. The Puritans controlling the English Parliament in the 1650s outlawed it, ordering churches closed and shops open this day. In Plymouth, Massachusetts, a law passed in 1659 stated, “Whoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas and the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.”
The use of Christmas trees to mark the occasion has often come under attack. What does a pine tree have to do with the birth of Jesus? Nothing, but it has a lot to do with Attis, into whose temple in Rome each March 22 a pine tree would be carried and decorated with flowers and carvings. Its entry into Christian practice probably comes from Celtic and Germanic pagan customs; the Druids in Britain, for example, used evergreens in connection with winter solstice rituals. The Norse god Odin hanged himself on the yew tree named Yggdrasil, pierced by his own spear, to acquire wisdom. There is a legend that in the eighth century St. Boniface, who converted the Germans to Christianity, found pagans worshipping an oak tree sacred to Thor, and when he had it cut down there sprouted in its place a fir tree that he took as a sign from God. But the practice of bringing such trees into the home only began in Germany during the Reformation in the sixteenth century, with encouragement, according to legend from Martin Luther. German Hessians brought the custom to America during the Revolution, but it did not become popular until the nineteenth century and even by 1900, only one in five U.S. families had one. The majority came to do so during the next two decades.
Holly? Used in Druid and Germanic winter solstice rituals. Yule log? More Druidism. Christmas stockings? Well, no paganism there. Legend is St. Nicholas (Santa Claus is from the Dutch Sint Niklaas), bishop of Myrna (in what’s now Turkey) in the fourth century and a very kindly man, discretely dropped pouches of coins down the chimney of an impoverished nobleman’s home. They miraculously dropped into stockings hung there to dry by his several daughters who needed dowries to marry. The point is, all these customs are the products of an explainable human history.
So too, the beliefs that produce the holiday. The babe born of a virgin, in a stable, heralded by an angelic host, visited by Magi (Persian Zoroastrian astrologers) following a star, targeted for death by an evil king. None of this would have struck the average Roman as entirely original, but the vague familiarity of the stories may have lent them credibility. It appears that the Christian movement, highly diverse in the first few centuries, was able to incorporate narratives and practices from other traditions into itself that gave it a comparative advantage by the early fourth century. In 313 Emperor Constantine legalized and patronized the faith. Soon thereafter an already formidable empire-wide administrative apparatus merged with state power, and heresies and paganisms were outlawed and largely suppressed. But Christianity continued to incorporate new influences such as the above-mentioned Christmas practices. Few Christians (or others) nowadays know of Mithras, but today much of the world unwittingly celebrates his birth.
My wife and kids and I as usual have up a beautiful tree, honoring not only what’s allegorically worthwhile in the Jesus story but in the host of innocent paganisms that fell victim to official Christianity. I’ve always seen the tree, intruding as it does into the inner sanctum of the Christian home, as paganism’s quiet revenge. So here’s a glass of wine, raised in honor of the hero of the day, transforming eucharistically even as I partake. Happy birthday, Mithras! As the days grow longer and the nights grow shorter, we thank you, Sun God, for the miracle of photosynthesis you performed to bring us this sacred tree. We thank you for the promise of springtime, which we have faith will arrive without fail, as the landscape predictably dies and resurrects year after year. And we thank you for shining century after century over our delusional imaginations.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org