By Barbara G. Walker
Freedom From Religion Foundation
December, whose name means “month number 10,” holds a date that ancient people often regarded as the most significant, perilous time of the year: the Winter Solstice.
Two thousand years ago it occurred around Dec. 25, but the phenomenon of precession has now placed it closer to Dec. 21. Sunlight seemed to weaken and retreat farther into night as the Solstice loomed, and the ancients feared that a time might come when it would keep going and fail to return: an unthinkable disaster that would destroy all life on Earth. That’s why early in human history, rituals were devised to make sure of the sun’s solstitial rebirth and renewal.
Rituals are invented according to the principle of sympathetic magic: to make something happen, you symbolically imitate it. If rain is needed, you pour water. If you want to hurt an enemy, you mutilate his image. For success in hunting, you do dances imitating the kill. If you want the divine sun to be reborn, you light lamps and stage birth rituals. When Christians adopted the solstitial birth-day, they gave it the same hopeful title that Persian worshipers of Mithra had used centuries before: Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.
Throughout the Roman empire, the worship of Mithra was more widely popular than Christianity for the first four centuries of the so-called Christian era. In 307 C.E., the emperor officially declared Mithra “Protector of the Empire.” His birth was witnessed by shepherds and by the “wise men” or priests known as Magi: magicians. Mithra celebrated a Last Supper with his 12 disciples (the 12 signs of the zodiac), died and rose again at the spring equinox, and originated a sacramental meal known as mizd, (Latin missa, English mass) in which his worshipers ate bread marked with a cross. They looked forward to salvation in the Last Days, when the apocalyptic battle will result in the conquest of the devil of darkness. The temple of Mithra on Vatican Hill was seized by Christians in 376 C.E., but the bishops of Rome adopted even the Mithraic high priest’s title of Pater Patrum, later Papa, or “pope.”
In the Near East, it was said that Bethlehem was where the god Adonis was born of the virgin Myrrha. Her sacred plant, myrrh, was used as an aphrodisiac in the rites of Adonis in his later role as consort of Aphrodite, and thorny twigs of myrrh made up his crown of thorns. Some early Christians referred to Jesus’ mother as Myrrh of the Sea; other versions of her name were Marina, Mara, Maya, or Mari-anna, possibly all tracing back to Maya, the Virgin Mother of Buddha, five centuries earlier, said to have been derived from the sound of a baby’s cry. All over the world, the syllable Ma is ubiquitous in the names of Mother Goddess figures.
Another contributor to Christian symbolism was the Phrygian god Attis, whose cult became very popular in Rome. Born of the usual virgin mother to bring back the light and the growing season, Attis was called “Most Holy God, Who Holds the Universe Together” and greeted with the phrase, “Hail, Bridegroom, Hail, New Light.” He was crucified on a pine tree, which was said to be green all year round due to the infusion of his holy blood. Celebrants carried pine boughs in his rites. Europeans continued to adore the winter greenery of the pine all the way up to Victorian times, when the Christmas tree was officially adopted in England thanks to Victoria’s German consort, Prince Albert.
In Northern Europe, an evergreen widely revered as a symbol of ongoing life was the holly, sacred to the underworld Goddess Helle, or Hohle, or Hel. Her name gave us the English word hell, though her underworld was not a place of torture but simply a place of the dead, prior to any rebirth. The red berries of the holly represented drops of the goddess’ life-giving blood, an idea dating all the way back to the primitive perception of female blood as the source of all life. Holly and other evergreens were common in wreaths and other solstitial decorations.
The Yule log, lighted like other sacred fires to assist the rebirth of sunlight, also commemorates a very old tradition. Customs arising from the worship of many virgin-born pagan saviors around the beginning of the Common Era continued to be practiced even after their original intent was long forgotten.
America’s most popular symbol of the season, Santa Claus, had a somewhat questionable background. He was described as a fourth-century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. An official Christian version of his legend said that he gave three bags of gold to three women to “save” them from prostitution. Later, Nicholas became identified with the Italian city of Bari, where some bones said to be his were installed to serve as a focus of pilgrimage in the 11th century. Many adherents of St. Nicholas had taken over the old temples of the sea god Poseidon, popularly known as “the Sailor,” a title inherited by Nicholas who became patron saint of sailors. His Bari temple was also dedicated to a female consort known as Befana, “the Grandmother,” who annually filled children’s stockings with presents and who was worshiped with gift-giving ceremonies. It was a common habit to give children gifts and treats on holy days, so they would always remember the importance of such occasions.
St. Nicholas “the Sailor” was revered by the maritime Dutch, who called him Sinter Klaas, later Latinized as Santa Claus. Dutch immigrants brought him to America, where he was transformed into today’s jolly redcoated symbol of the Winter Solstice, fat with feasting and overflowing with gifts, especially gifts for children. All religious ceremonies that were perceived as important evolved into “Feast” days, so that even if people went hungry at other times they were obligated to provide as much food as possible on these occasions. On some level, the life-essential function of eating had to be demonstrated to the deities on their special days, so that food would continue to be provided. Sympathetic magic is still with us — and at the time of the Winter Solstice we still delight in it.
Today, we are fairly sure that the sunlight will return in a few months’ time to its former strength, and that eating a god’s symbolic flesh will not necessarily make us immortal, and that Santa Claus is not real (even though we teach our children to think so while they are young). But the magical fantasies of the Solstice continue.