|[This article was originally written for the Atheists United radio program that was
broadcast on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles. Later it was adapted to an article that
appeared in the Fall 1985 issue of Free Inquiry magazine.]
Every December we experience the greatest media blitz of nonsense and balderdash
outside of a presidential election. Newspapers and broadcasters repeat their obligatory
editorials about the deplorable "commercialization" of Christmas. They moan that "we
seem to have lost the true meaning of Christmas and perverted it into a pagan holiday,"
and so on.
The pope prays for peace. Charlie Brown again goes in search of the "true meaning" of
Christmas. Tiny Tim again leads old Scrooge on the path to righteousness. And we are
treated to the further adventures of Rudolph, the Littlest Angel, the Grinch, and the
Little Drummer Boy. If Christmas had not existed, Walt Disney would have created it.
We have been told hundreds of times that Christmas is a celebration of the beginning of
Christianity and that it all started on the evening of December 24, exactly one thousand,
nine hundred and eighty-five years ago, in a stable in the little town of Bethlehem – and
everything will be slanted to convey the impression that Eyewitness News was there to
There isn't a word of truth in any of this mythology. So how did this winter celebration
called "Christmas" actually come about?
If it didn't originate nineteen-hundred and eighty-five years ago, when did Christmas
start? It goes all the way back to the formation of our solar system. It just happens that
our little planet – the third one out from a minor star named Sol – spins on an axis that's
tilted at a slight angle to its orbital plane around the sun. This means that for half of the
orbit the upper half of the planet faces the sun, and during the other half of the orbit the
lower half faces the sun. This causes our solar year to have four seasons. When the
Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun, we have summer here in America, while
those in the Southern Hemisphere are having winter, and so on. From our point of view,
as summer approaches, the sun comes up a little earlier each morning, moves a little
farther north each noon, and sets a little later each evening. Finally, at some point, the
sun stops its northward migration and turns around and begins heading south for the
winter. When the sun reaches the northernmost apogee, that is called the summer
solstice, and it is the longest day of the year. The word solstice comes from two ancient
words: Sol, which was the name of a sun god, and stice, which meant "still." So it is the
day when the sun stands still. The winter solstice, therefore, is the shortest day of the
year. It naturally follows that midway between the summer and winter solstices, there
comes a time when days and nights are equal in length. And these are called the
equinoxes. "Equi" means "equal," and "nox" means "nights." These celestial points give
the year four corners. It takes about six weeks for changes in the sun's position to have
an effect on the weather systems of the world. So, instead of the winter solstice marking
the middle of winter, it is used to designate the beginning of cold weather. The vernal
equinox marks the beginning of the spring thaw. The summer solstice marks the
beginning of hot weather, and the autumnal equinox marks the beginning of harvest.
Ancient people were very dependent on the seasons. That is why all cultures in all parts
of the world have held their major religious festivals on these four occasions.
In the days of the Roman republic, the calendar was numbered from the founding of
Rome – which, according to the present calendar, would be 753 B.C.E. And March 15,
called the Ides of March, was designated as New Year's Day. However, this was a lunar
calendar rather than a solar calendar, so the months rotated throughout the year. One
year March 15 might be in the summer, and a few years later it would be in the winter.
Greece, and all of northern Europe, operated on a solar calendar, with the new year
starting on the winter solstice. When the Romans invaded Greece in the fifth century
B.C.E., they realized the advantages of a solar calendar. In 153 B.C.E., New Year's
Day was moved to January first, since Janus was the two-faced god of doorways and
Finally, in 46 B.C.E., Julius Caesar switched from a lunar to a solar calendar. He divided
the year into 365 and one-quarter days, with twelve "moons," or months, all of which
had either 30 or 31 days, except February, which had 28 – and 29 every fourth year.
New Year's Day was still on January first.
The major festival of the year in ancient Rome was called the "Saturnalia," and it
centered on the winter solstice. When the Julian calendar was first devised, the solstice
fell on December 25. But the Julian calendar had an error of eleven minutes. The year is
actually 365 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and a few seconds. So by the third century C.E.
the solstice had crept backwards to approximately December 23.
At this time, the emperor Aurelian established an official holiday called "Sol Invicti" –
meaning unconquered sun, in honor of the Syrian sun god "Sol," and also in honor of
himself, since the emperors were regarded as the divine incarnation of Apollo. This
holiday was held on December 24 and 25. And it more or less established December 25
as the official solstice. All other religions that worshipped sun gods also accepted
December 25 as a fixed date for their celebrations. And the major festivals of the
Egyptian earth-mother Isis were held on December 25, January 6, and March 5. The
earliest Christians assumed that Christ was born and was resurrected on the same day –
March 25 – which was assumed to be the vernal equinox. Later Christians celebrated the
birth of Christ on January 6, along with the festival of Isis. By the fourth century, many
Christians were referring to December 25 as the day of the "unconquered son" – in
defiance of the emperor, and January 6 was then called "Epiphany," when either the
magi were supposed to have visited or Christ was baptized, or maybe both.
In 325 C.E., which is when the Catholic Church was officially organized, it decreed that
the resurrection of Christ was determined by the vernal equinox – which is still
celebrated today as "Easter," named after the goddess of spring. In 350, Pope Julius I
decreed that the nativity should be celebrated on the same day as all other sun gods,
namely December 25. But many churches did not want to be associated with the pagan
religions, and to this day the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the birth of Christ on
January 7 – the day after Epiphany.
New Year's has been celebrated at every time of the year by various cultures. Months
have varied in number and length. And weeks have varied from four days to ten days in
In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine established our seven-day week – based on
In the sixth century, Pope John counted backward to the presumed date of Christ's
birth, calculated from the reign of Pontius Pilate, and renumbered all the years in history
as B.C. and A.D. The year 753 A.U.C. (ab urbe condita, meaning after the founding of
Rome) was then called .A.D. 1. B.C. and A.D. are now being replaced, at least by
secularists, by B.C.E (before the common era) and C.E. (of the common era).
Throughout the early Middle Ages, most of Europe disregarded Roman practices and
continued to start the year with the equinox – March 25. England, however, retained the
practice of starting the year on the solstice – December 25.
By 1582, the eleven-minute error in the Julian calendar had thrown the year ten days out
of sync with the sun, which was very upsetting to the Catholic Church, since the
calendar determined all their feast days. At that time, the pope was the most powerful
person in the world. So Pope Gregory had the authority to establish his "Gregorian"
calendar. He deleted ten days from that year, which pushed the solstice back to
December 22, where it had been when the Catholic Church was founded in 325. But by
then, the connections with Christmas had long since been forgotten, so it remained on
December 25. Then Gregory modified the rule about how often leap-year must occur so
the calendar wouldn't drift out of sync again. The Gregorian calendar also retained the
Italian tradition of January first as New Year's Day. England and America finally
accepted the Gregorian calendar in 1752.
The Christian calendar, however, is not the only one. There is the Chinese calendar,
dated from the founding of the Chin dynasty. There is the Jewish calendar, dated from
the creation of the earth according to biblical accounts. There is the Muslim calendar,
dated from the time Muhammad left the city of Mecca. And future calendars may well
be dated from the time we first set foot on the moon.
In view of the connection between the solstice and the new solar year, it is obvious that
the babe in the manger and the babe in the diaper with a New Year's banner around his
chest are really the same – a symbol of the reborn sun god. The sun god was always the
most important in any polytheistic culture, and the winter solstice always marked his
death and resurrection, or rebirth. Some of the major gods who celebrated their
birthdays on December 25 were Marduk, Osiris, Horus, Isis, Mithras, Saturn, Sol,
Apollo, Serapis, and Huitzilopochli.
In Mesopotamia, Marduk was the chief god. He was a sun god who battled against the
forces of cold and darkness. The world had to be renewed each year. So a new king
was supposed to assume the throne each year – this new king being free from sin.
In theory, the old king was killed and sent to the underworld to help Marduk in the
battle. But, in practice, a good king was hard to find. So a criminal was selected as a
During the end-of-year festivities, they recited their creation myth, then held military
exercises symbolizing the great battle that was going on between the sun and the forces
of darkness. Their surrogate king was crowned and accorded all the honors of royalty.
But on the day of the solstice, both the surrogate king and an effigy of the god of
darkness were burned in a huge bonfire.
After the bonfire, the people exchanged gifts, held feasts, and visited friends and
relatives. This was called the "Zagmuk" festival.
The Persians and Babylonians held a similar celebration, which they called the "Sacaea."
The main difference was that masters and slaves all exchanged roles. For one day, the
slaves were allowed to command, and the masters obeyed. And in addition, they
selected two criminals who had already been condemned to death; then they flipped a
coin and gave one of them amnesty. The other was treated as the mock king, and then
executed. He was not tossed on the bonfire, however. He was crucified, hanged, or
In Egypt, the death and the resurrection of Osiris was celebrated during the solstice by
leaving gifts in the tombs of the dead. They also brought date-palms into their homes to
symbolize the theme of life triumphant.
In Central America, the pre-Columbian Aztecs had an interesting recipe for Christmas
cookies: they were not made for children, but of children! For their New Year
celebration, they made up a huge fruitcake mixed with the blood of children who had
been sacrificed to the sun god. They made this cake in the shape of a life-sized man
representing the sun god, named Huitzilopochli. On the solstice, the symbolic god-figure
was then torn apart and eaten, somewhat like the Christian "Eucharist" ceremony.
In northern Europe, the Druids and Vikings built huge bonfires on hilltops. The purpose
was to give additional strength to the sun god in his nightly battle with the forces of cold
and darkness. When the sun finally did come up a little earlier on the day after the
solstice, there was a great celebration.
In Rome, the most popular religion among soldiers during the time of Julius Caesar was
called "Mithraism." According to their holy books, Mithras killed the cosmic white bull.
When he did so, the bull became the moon, and Mithras' cloak became the night sky
and stars. The blood of the bull gave birth to all life on earth.
After the creation, Mithras withdrew to heaven until he returned as a savior to mankind.
The "Acts of Thomas," the "Oracles of Hystaspes," and the "Chronicle of Zugnin" are
books that tell the story of Mithras. They tell how a star fell from the sky when Mithras
was born, how shepherds witnessed the birth, and how Zoroastrian priests, called
"Magi," followed the star to worship him. The priests had prophesied the coming of a
savior for many years, so they brought golden crowns to the newborn "King of Kings."
The shepherds told them that a blinding beam of light came down from the sky and cut
into the side of a rocky cliff. This beam of light carved out the figure of Mithras, who
emerged full-grown and armed with a knife and a torch – the god of war and light.
As a sun god, his birth naturally was celebrated on December 25, which was called the
Mithraism was a "macho" religion. Only men were admitted – and they had to prove
their toughness. Their initiation ceremonies were a cross between Marine boot-camp and
a Hell's Angels beer-bust. They met secretly in caves at night. Their regular ceremonies
consisted of baptism, whipping, bondage and obedience training, blindfolding, escaping
the bonds, finding their way out the cave, and a simulated death and resurrection. They
periodically held a communal holy meal. And on December 25 they held a drinking
As you have already deduced, many of our modern myths are descendants of these
previous festivals. But our most immediate ancestor was the Roman Saturnalia.
Saturn was an Italian fertility god, and therefore the god of agriculture. But as the
science of astronomy and calendar-making gradually improved, people began to lose
their fear of the approaching darkness. So the bonfires gradually gave way to candles
and decoration with evergreens. The Saturnalia lasted from December 17 until the
solstice, on December 25. This was a time of feasting, drinking, gift-giving, family
reunions, slaves and masters exchanging roles, and general merriment.
The Saturnalia was the most important festival throughout the Roman Empire, and it
had been going on for thousands of years even before the emperor Aurelian established
December 25 as a state holiday. So, when you hear someone say that "we ought to get
back to the true meaning of Christmas," just remember that the original meaning is a
pagan celebration of nature. And, when they go on to denounce the "creeping
commercialization of Christmas," remember that the week of feasting and gift-giving,
climaxed by Sol Invictus, naturally meant business for merchants – so for more than
four thousand years the winter solstice has always been "commercialized."
"Santa Claus" is a contraction of "St. Nicholas," who was archbishop of the sea-port of
Myra, in Asia Minor, during the time of the Nicene Council. He died on December 6,
326. Since he was bishop of a seaport, he became the patron saint of sailors – and
therefore of all travelers, most of whom were merchants. Later he was adopted as the
favorite saint of the Russian Orthodox Church and, eventually, of fishermen as far away
as Lapland and the Arctic Ocean.
Legend says that he was the son of wealthy parents who had left him a fortune, but his
Christian beliefs dictated that he should give it all to the needy. His most famous story is
about a poor father who had three daughters, but he had no dowry for them and was
going to have to sell them into slavery. St. Nicholas heard of their plight and one night he
tossed a bag of gold into the window of the first daughter. With this money she was able
to buy a husband. But nobody knew where the money came from. The next night he did
the same thing for the second daughter. On the third night, the father hid in the bushes
to see who was leaving the gifts. Sure enough, St. Nicholas tossed the last of the bags in
the window and, when the father tried to thank him, he made the father promise never
to tell where the money came from. But he did.
St. Nicholas was frequently depicted as carrying these three bags of gold. And, as the
patron saint of merchants, this symbol of three golden spheres eventually became the
symbol of the pawnbroker – a merchant who would give you assistance and protection
when you needed help.
Another famous story tells of a man who sent his two sons to get the bishop's blessing.
But, while they were sleeping in a hotel, the innkeeper crept into their room, killed them,
and stole their money. God had communicated these events to the bishop in a vision. So
the saint resurrected the two boys, whereupon the innkeeper confessed his sin and
In the Middle Ages, the church had complete control over the government, and all
drama was forbidden, except for three types of plays: (1) miracle plays – about the lives
of the saints and their miracles, (2) mystery plays – acting out stories from the Bible and
the "mysterious ways of God," (3) morality plays – contemporary stories illustrating
some principles of Christian doctrine.
Children loved to perform miracle plays about their favorite: St. Nicholas. They would
march through the streets in a parade, led by St. Nicholas on his horse, wearing his red
bishop's robes and his miter, as he dispensed coins, candy, and trinkets to children in the
crowds. This pageant still takes place in Austria. But in America the bishop's red robes
have been redesigned into a kind of pants-suit, the miter has been replaced by an alpine
stocking-cap, and we call it the Santa Claus parade.
In northern Europe there was a god named Odin, Woden, or Wotan. He was a warrior
god at first, but later became a god of wisdom and the creator of man. In order to learn
the secrets of the universe, Odin had to suffer, die, and be resurrected. So he had
himself crucified on a tree, where he hung for nine days. At the end of that time, he had
someone finish him off by sticking a spear in his side. After this sacrificial death, he was
resurrected. And he came back from the Great Beyond with the runic alphabet and the
ability to read and write.
Odin wore a large floppy hat and rode a white horse. He was accompanied by a band of
robbers, demons, and cut-throats. And during a thunderstorm you can still hear them
Odin and his army arrive every year around the end of October in what is called the
"Raging Rout." If November arrives during good weather, the next year will be a good
one. But if the weather is "raging" the year will be bad. During the Raging Rout the army
of Odin plays many dirty tricks – and this is one origin of our Halloween tradition of
December 6 commemorated the death of St. Nicholas. And on that day, the Norse
goddess Perchta inspected all the households to see that everything was shipshape for
the long winter. The housewives cleaned their houses and set a meal for Perchta. If she
approved, it would bring good luck for the year. If the wife failed inspection, it brought
bad luck. Odin always accompanied Perchta on these tours of inspection, and since he
arrived on St. Nicholas Day, Odin gradually became identified with St. Nicholas.
In northern Europe, then, St. Nicholas wears a broad-brimmed hat and rides a white
horse. He arrives on the evening of December 6; he is accompanied by the Christ child,
St. Peter, and one small angel. When he enters the house he gives all the children an
examination. If they have been good, they are rewarded with gifts; if not, they get a
bundle of switches.
In Holland, children still put their shoes outside the door on December 6, stuffed with
hay for St. Nicholas' horse. If they have been good, the horse eats the hay and St.
Nicholas fills their shoes with presents.
In the Scandinavian countries, children believe that elves and gnomes leave the gifts.
And these are distributed on December 13, the feast day of St. Lucia. She was a Sicilian
maiden who was noted for her kindness to the poor. So in the morning, a girl dresses in
a white gown and wears a crown of candles. She is called "Lucia Bride." She wakes
each member of the family by singing them a carol and presenting a gift.
The American version of Santa Claus dates back to 1822. Dr. Clement Moore was a
professor at a theological seminary in New York. He had heard stories about the visits
from St. Nicholas as practiced in northern Europe. These stories had been told to him by
a Dutch friend, who was chubby and jolly, had a white beard, and smoked a long Dutch
pipe. Inspired by his friend and his stories of Nordic elves and flying reindeer, Dr.
Moore wrote a poem, as a Christmas present for his children. It was called "A Visit from
St. Nicholas." A friend got his permission to publish it in an upstate New York
newspaper. It was then picked up by other publications and widely circulated. In 1863,
Thomas Nast, a famous political cartoonist, drew an illustration for the poem in Harper's
Illustrated Weekly. Dr. Moore had described him as "dressed in fur from his head to his
foot." But Nast remembered that a bishop was supposed to be dressed in red. So he
drew him in a red suit that was only trimmed in fur.
Epiphany, January 6, is still the most important festival day in some countries. It was
originally one of the feast days for the Egyptian earth mother, Isis. On that day, in
Greece, the bishop tosses a cross into the harbor, and boys dive for it. Whoever
retrieves it is assured of good luck throughout the year.
In Spain, children put their shoes outside, stuffed with hay and carrots for the camels of
the three kings on their way to Bethlehem. In the morning, the fodder would be gone
and they would find gifts in their shoes.
In Italy, children put out their shoes on Epiphany Eve, hoping that "Befana," their
female Santa Claus, would leave presents.
Mexican children also receive their present on Epiphany.
In France, children receive gifts on Christmas Day, but adults exchange presents on New
In Germany, when a baby was born, it was customary to give any older children a
present to keep them from being jealous of the attention paid to the new baby. This
present was called a "child's foot." The Christ child was considered to be a new baby
brother to all children – so all children received presents. A figure called "Father
Christmas" sometimes distributed these gifts. Or sometimes it was a child dressed as an
angel who represented the Christ child.
Russia avoids endorsing anything related to Christianity; so January 1 is their day for
feasting, family reunions, and gifts from "Grandfather Frost."
December 26 is St. Stephen's Day, and on this day in England, the village priest would
open the "poor box" of the church and distribute money to the needy. This was called
"Boxing Day," and it gradually became customary to give Christmas boxes to servants,
tradesmen, and others.
Decorating houses with evergreens was universal throughout the world – for obvious
reasons. During the apparent death and resurrection of the sun, evergreens are a symbol
of eternal life.
In northern Europe, it was thought that evergreens were a potent talisman for warding
off the witches and demons of the Raging Rout. So wreaths and boughs of evergreens
were placed everywhere. Even the smoke from burning evergreens chased away evil
spirits. So farmers would carry a brazier of smoking branches around the house, making
sure that all their livestock were blessed with "holy smoke."
In addition to greenery, incense, and lights, another good method of scaring away evil
spirits was with noise – horns, bells, gunfire, and – eventually – firecrackers. This was
particularly important on New Year's Day, to be sure the new year started out with good
Certain evergreens, like holly and mistletoe, were considered to have all sorts of magical
properties, and many legends are connected with them. The wreath of holly was
supposed to represent the crown of thorns worn by Christ and the red berries
represented the drops of blood.
According to Norse legend, the son of Odin and Frigga was named Balder. He was the
god of sunshine and light. He had a premonition of death, so his mother asked every
element of nature to promise not to harm him. But she forgot the mistletoe. The evil god
Loki made an arrow and tipped it with mistletoe and gave it to Hodar, the blind god of
winter, who accidentally shot Balder. Immediately the sun ceased to shine, and all the
gods tried to revive him. After three days, he was resurrected from the dead and the sun
shone once again. Frigga's tears of happiness became mistletoe berries, and she kissed
each person who walked under it. She decreed that the mistletoe would never again
harm anyone, and that anyone who walked under it should get a kiss.
The Druids took mistletoe even more seriously. There was an elaborate ritual for
gathering it that sometimes included human sacrifice. They also considered it to have
magical properties; it was worn as a good luck charm and placed over doorways to ward
off evil spirits. Again, those who entered through the doorway received a kiss as a seal
In some European countries, families made a pyramid-shaped framework and covered
that with various types of greenery and decorations. Then they placed their presents
under the pyramid.
The Christmas tree itself has no definite origin. Trees have been decorated and
venerated since prehistoric times. Throughout the ancient world it was noticed that
wherever a sacrificial victim had been buried, trees and shrubbery flourished. So, where
sacrificial blood was spilled, sacred groves grew. It was felt that these sacred trees
contained the spirits of the victims. So when someone wanted a favor from the gods,
they offered presents to the tree.
In the Mediterranean area, the Cybelene cultists had a procession through the city during
which they carried the sacred pine tree on which the god Attis had been crucified. This
tree was then taken to the Cybelene temple, where it was decorated. Attis was another
sun god who was born of a virgin, crucified, and then resurrected each spring.
During the Saturnalia, Romans trimmed trees with trinkets and small masks of Bacchus,
also known as Jesus Dionysus. Sometimes they placed twelve candles on a tree,
representing the signs of the zodiac, with an image of the sun god at the top. The Roman
poet Virgil once wrote a description of how these trees were decorated and hung with
The Druids and Vikings also decorated trees, by hanging gilded apples and animal-
shaped cookies on it in honor of Odin and his son Balder.
During the Middle Ages, December 24 was called Adam and Eve Day. And the "tree of
life" was carried through the town, decorated with apples.
So that's the true story, boys and girls, and it's much more interesting than the
commercial Christian version, isn't it? Happy Solstice to one and all!
|THE WINTER SOLSTICE AND THE
ORIGINS OF CHRISTMAS