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The Reason for the Season
"Bottom line is Christmas is about Christmas," said Erin Ryan, president of the Redding Tea Party Patriots. "That's why we have it. It's not about winter solstice or Kwanzaa. It's like, 'wow you guys, it's called Christmas for a reason.' "[1]

Of course, Erin Ryan is wrong. What Christmas is about, for Christians, is something called "normative inversion."

Sol Invictus Take the picture on the right. This is Sol Invictus (the "Unconquered Sun"). You may not know about him if you're not a Pagan. He is a victim of normative inversion. You won't have to look hard on the Web to find pictures of Sol Invictus being used on Christian sites to represent Jesus. Pagans will understand why this is; Christians may not. It's all in the spiky halo-thingie, called a "radiate crown" - it belonged to Sol before it was stolen for Jesus.

We’re all of us in the Western World familiar with the old saying, “The Reason for the Season.” And we all know what a certain segment of society says this means. Bonnie Ricks, writing for the Christian Post, says in unequivocal terms:

As we near the time of Christmas, we see the decorations going up. the people madly shopping for gifts. the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season. Now is the time to stop and reflect just why we really celebrate this time. As Christians, we are the only ones who know the real meaning of Christmas and why it is a time of celebration and what that celebration means to all who will believe. If there were no Jesus, there would be no Christmas.[2]
She is as wrong as Erin Ryan is, but her message is hardly unique. It is commonplace and can be found repeated almost anywhere Christians gather. It reaches absurd levels when repeated by conservative talkshow hosts like Bill O'Reilly, who has upped the ante in '09 by asking investigative journalist John Stossel to "investigate the war on Christmas." But not everyone is fooled. As Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post writes,
Bill O'Reilly has been, on a yearly basis, one of the most fervent and shrill public figures, wailing about the supposed War On Christmas, because he is precisely dumb enough to believe that Christianity, which has enjoyed an unprecedented run of absolute, total success in the United States - such that every single person who's run the country has been a Christian (and such that it's the only religious holiday in the world that's allowed to put their decorations up TWO MONTHS IN ADVANCE) - is actually fundamentally threatened each time a shop clerk opts to say "Happy Holidays." O'Reilly likes to cast himself as some sort of speaker of truth to power, but it's really all about his pinheaded sense of victimhood.[3]
These same Christians repeatedly talk about “restoring the true meaning of Christmas” as though it has been lost. But what is Christmas? It just happens to be the twenty-fifth day of December - the day that was chosen by fourth century Christians to be a very special birthday celebration, that of the man chosen by them to be called the divine son (of the once Northwestern Arabian and now Jewish God) YHWH.[4]

But it’s not like the ancient world was not full of divine beings. The ancients were polytheists after all. And divine birthdays were not unknown. A notable one, and one which already happened to lay claim to this particular day, was that of Mithras, a solar god out of Persia who had come to be worshiped in particular by the Roman army. Mithras came to be associated with the ancient Roman sun god and December 25th, the date of the Winter Solstice, was the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or "the birthday of the unconquered sun" - who might be known as Sol (Helios in Greek), Mithras, or Apollo.

Some Christians today are challenging this fact, including the reactionary new Pope, Benedict XVI, who claims that a December 25th date was determined simply by calculating nine months beyond March 25th, regarded as the day of Jesus’ conception (the Feast of the Annunciation). The more likely explanation is that once December 25th had been "appropriated" from Paganism, the Church simply counted back nine months to arrive at March.[5]

Other Christian commentators are even advancing the claim that Pagans stole Christmas from the Christians! Christian revisionism is nothing new (the Bible, after all, is one gigantic work of revisionism) but for the Pagans to have stolen the date of December 25th would be to argue not only that somebody had heard of Christianity before the third century (few had) but that the entirely of past Pagan history had never occurred. Thinking in a vacuum is not likely to provide sound explanations.[6]

Sol Invictus Not only were Mithraists not the only Pagans to hold this time of year sacred but we have the testimony of Christians themselves as to why Pagan holy days were appropriated, the process spoken of above called “normative inversion”: “The most efficient way to erase a memory is to superimpose a countermemory; hence, the best way to make people forget an idolatrous rite is to replace it with another rite.” Maimonides (1135-1204), the medieval Jewish scholar who lived in both Spain and Egypt and who wrote in Arabic, illustrated the principle in his Guide of the Perplexed, and as Assman notes, “The Christians followed the same principle when they built their churches on the ruins of pagan temples and observed their feasts on the dates of pagan festivals.”

This was justified in their eyes because idolatry is an epidemic which must be cured. John Spencer (1630-1693) agreed with Maimonides “in seeing the principle and overall purpose of the Law as the destruction of idolatry.”[7] Susan Roll writes, repeating the old maxim, “History is written by the victors: the position prevailed will be recorded for all time as the normative version.”[8] It is this normative version that today’s Christians are so vociferously defending.

The Christians, of course, recognized this. We have the testimony of Dionysius Bar-Salibi, twelfth century bishop of Amida, for example:
The reason, then, why the fathers of the church moved the January 6th celebration [of Epiphany] to December 25th was this, they say: it was the custom of the pagans to celebrate on this same December 25th the birthday of he Sun, and they lit lights then to exalt the day, and invited and admitted the Christian to these rites. When, therefore, the teachers of the church saw that Christians inclined to this custom, figuring out a strategy, they set the celebration of the true Sunrise on this day, and ordered Epiphany to be celebrated on January 6th; and this usage they maintain to the present day along with the lighting of the lights.
As Ramsay MacMullen remarks, “By similar inventions other popular pagan celebrations were directly confronted with a Christian challenge.” [9]

More telling, perhaps, is another example. In Egypt and Arabia Pagan processions carried an image of the sun in the image of a newborn child, while priests chanted “Korah [Kore], the virgin, has given birth to Aion!” (Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.18, 9). Glen Bowersock, somehow, comes to the unusual conclusion that this is a sign of Christian influence (Christianity wishes it had been so influential!).

But unfortunately for apologists and Pope alike, January 6th was the date on Christmas was originally celebrated. And we don’t have to rely on a 12th century bishop for this fact. We can go back further, to Epiphanius (ca 310-403), who tells us so (Pan. LI.22.3-7 and 29.4-7) On around 428 CE John Cassianus (Collationes X.2) reported that Epiphany in Egypt is 'by ancient tradition' believed to be the time for both the baptism and the birth of Jesus.”[10] As it happens, January 6th is still Christmas Day in the Orthodox Church.

Gregory Other Christians of the day were proponents of normative inversion. Among them was Martin of Braga, author of De Correctione Rusticorum (literally, On the Castigation of Country-dwellers – the title says it all). In this work, Martin rants about people celebrating Pagan holidays as Pagans. His solution? He makes a call for the replacement of Pagan practices with Christian ones. The bishop of Javols in about the year 500 also made use of this tactic, “the transference of ritual from one religious loyalty to another” in the words of one scholar.

The greatest example we know of is that of Pope Gregory, who made normative inversion official church policy in a letter sent to England (then sliding back into Paganism) in 601:
the temples of idols in that nation should not be destroyed, but that the idols themselves that are in them should be. Let blessed water be prepared, and sprinkled in these temples, and altars constructed, and relics deposited, since, if these same temples are well built, it is needful that they should be transferred from the worship of idols to the service of the true God; that, when the people themselves see that these temples are not destroyed, they may put away error from their heart, and, knowing and adoring the true God, may have recourse with the more familiarity to the places they have been accustomed to. And, since they are wont to kill many oxen in sacrifice to demons, they should have also some solemnity of this kind in a changed form, so that on the day of dedication, or on the anniversaries of the holy martyrs whose relics are deposited there, they may make for themselves tents of the branches of trees around these temples that have been changed into churches, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasts. Nor let them any longer sacrifice animals to the devil, but slay animals to the praise of God for their own eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all for their fulness, so that, while some joys are reserved to them outwardly, they may be able the more easily to incline their minds to inward joys. For it is undoubtedly impossible to cut away everything at once from hard hearts, since one who strives to ascend to the highest place must needs rise by steps or paces, and not by leaps.
Just as holy places – lakes in particular, but also temples, could be captured, so could holy days. Christmas is the greatest of these captured days.[11]

And the Epiphany itself, on January 6th? Again, the process of normative inversion can be seen at work: January 5/6 was observed as the date of the epiphany of Dionysus, none other than Aion himself. In Orphic circles, Phanes, the god emerging from the cosmic egg, was seen as the new Aion, who was reborn every year in a continuing cycle. Both Osiris and Adonis were also equated with Aion. And Jarl Fossum argues that the idea of virgin birth might have arrived in Alexandria in advance of Christianity.[12] Of course, there will always be doubters. Despite the not inconsiderable evidence, Susan Roll finds it possible to argue that “no historical causality can be conclusively proven.”[13]

We might ask about the divine child while we’re at it. Certainly that, at least, is original to Christianity! But wait! Fossum tells us,
The motif of the birth of the child god is quite widespread; obviously it has a great psychological appeal. The image of the newborn child symbolizes the possibilities of the future and, hence, paves the way for a change of personality. The image of the child is therefore charged with potential.[14]
And the ancient world literally abounded with divine children. We have, for example, the myth of Attis, who was the young male consort of Cybele. Having conquered death, Attis is a god of fertility, associated with the cycle of death and rebirth.

Sol Invictus He was reborn every spring. In case there is a question of “who was there first”, Cybele came to Rome in 204 BCE (Livy, 29.14.13). This date is uncontested. So popular was this celebration that the story of Attis was being enacted in the fourth century and even under the Christian empire remained a holiday on the imperial calendar, as did Mithras’ birthday on December 25.[15] Both the idea of reborn gods and December 25th were well established in Pagan culture in the century before Jesus’ birth and both are well attested.

And what are the Christian origins of Christianity? They lie in the fourth century. There is no evidence at all of anything earlier than this, whatever claims are made to the contrary. The first mention dates from 354 in a document called the “Philocalian Calendar” ("Codex-Calendar of 354") which incorporates material apparently going back to as early as 336.[16] In earlier times, it seems Christians were no more interested in when Jesus was born than where he was buried, a deplorable lack of curiosity that is unfortunate for scholars and believers alike today.

One noted Christian author, Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis 1.21; 145.6; 1146.4), even went so far as to say curiosity about the date of Jesus’ birth was “gratuitous curiosity.” When possible dates were mentioned, they most certainly did not include December 25th. Instead, we find mention of March 28, April 2 or 20.[17] It seems a logical conclusion to draw then that if December 25th was selected as Jesus’ birthday that it was chosen purposely to conflict or supersede the Pagan holy day. After all, if Christians either didn’t care about the date of Jesus’ birth, or if they normally put it in the spring, Pagans could hardly have stolen the idea from Christians!

December 25th received only grudging and scattered acceptance, mostly in the West, with the East resisting (December 25 is still meaningless in Armenia). In 350, Pope Julius I ordered Christmas to be celebrated on December 25. Christmas arrived on December 25th in Constantinople in 380 and it’s not until 386 that we find John Chrysostom, in Antioch, ordering Christmas to be celebrated by the Christian community there on December 25. December 25 did not come to Alexandria until 432. The Church of Jerusalem stubbornly refused to celebrate that date until the seventh century! Not only was December 25th not originally Jesus’ birthday, but when it was declared so, nobody wanted it. That, in a nutshell, is the true history of Christmas.

But skip ahead seventeen centuries and now Christians can talk about “taking back Christmas” and claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season”! We might well ask in what universe this might be true. It is certainly not true in ours, as we have shown.

And not only do some Christians challenge the validity of Christmas’ Pagan origins, some seek also to downplay it. John Baldovin:
…liturgical communities have traditionally taken the skeletal structure of the existing local liturgical cycle, the main feasts and seasons, and used them as the framework for the celebration of Christmas within their own cultures. A good example of this is the connection between the Feast of the Unconquered Sun at Rome on December 25 in the late third and early fourth centuries and the Christian celebration of Christmas. Even if the origin of this dating of Christmas may lie elsewhere than the pagan solar feast, a theory that has recently been rehabilitated, Christians did make use of the counter-symbolism of Christ the “Sun of Righteousness” for their own purposes. Such a cooptation of the pagan winter solstice and sun worship was not a betrayal of Christianity but rather the sensible adaptation of Christian faith to the existing culture. After all, if God has truly and irrevocably entered into the human condition and human history, then Christian faith can legitimately make use of the symbolism that the world provides. This insight is at the root of Christian sacramentality. To celebrate Christ, the light of the world, in the darkest days of the year – at least in the Northern hemisphere – makes a great deal of sense; it is not the survival of paganism but the recognition of God in nature and history.[18]
We’ve looked at the day. What about the ritual structure? We see where the lights come from above. We still use those, though they’ve lost their sacred meaning. And Christmas trees? Of Germanic Pagan origin – used in midwinter festivals. Of course, trees had long been used in Pagan religions. Jeremiah 10:2-4 condemns the use of trees being cut down and adorned with silver and gold, and poles dedicated to YHWH’s consort, Asherah (a consort stolen from El, the Canannite god upon whom YHWH is modeled) was represented by poles. However, arguments that Jeremiah was condemning “Christmas trees” is not entirely accurate; he was condemning “idolatry.” Even so, we see where the origins of Christmas trees come from – Paganism. The tree as it came down to us via Germanic Christianity,[19] represented Yggdrasil, the World Tree, for the Germans and Norse, and it was decorated just as statues of gods and goddesses were decorated – out of devotion. This decoration of trees also took place in the Roman Saturnalia (December 17-23).

But there is more: “Two popular observances belonging to Christmas are more especially derived from the worship of our Pagan ancestors—the hanging up of the mistletoe and the burning of the Yule log.” So wrote Robert Chambers in his 1832 Book of Days, and James George Frazer in The Golden Bough holds that "the ancient fire-festival of the winter solstice appears to survive" in the Yule log custom.[20] It seems that what Christians tend to think of as the components of “their” holiday are no more Christian than the day itself. Even hymns are not originally Christian but were part of Pagan worship, as were processions (Christmas Day Parade, anyone?). And garlands? The Emperor Theodosius I took special care to mention garlands when he banned Pagan practices on November 8, 392:
"No one, under any cirumstances, is permitted to sacrifice an innocent victim nor, as a less serious sacrilege, to worship one's lares with fire, one's genius with uncut wine, one's penates with perfume, to light lamps, waft incense, or hang garlands."[21]
It seems without Pagan practices on this holiest of Pagan holidays, Christians would be without traditions of any kind.

So, we might ask, “What is the problem?” As French scholar Franz Cumont wrote in 1911, “We dislike to acknowledge a debt to our adversaries, because it means that we recognize some value in the cause they defend.”[22] But there is more to it than that. There is the issue of legitimacy. Able to disguise so much before the Enlightenment opened our eyes, Christianity has, since then, suffered from the same sense of inferiority it experienced during the Pagan era.

The simple truth is that Christianity is a derivative religion. It is syncretic and offers not a whit of anything new or original, either in its liturgy (stolen from Mithraism) nor its symbolism (god child and Christmas, as noted above), and as for moral teachings, those come from Judaism (or yes, Paganism). Much of the Jewish myth it has inherited were not even original to Judaism but derive from older, Pagan sources, including the Creation Myth and the story of the Flood – which come therefore to Christianity third-hand. In truth, the only thing Christianity has brought to the table is a rabid and unreasoning intolerance, not only to everything outside itself but quite often to forms of itself. Even Jewish sects, no matter how violently they disagreed, did not kill each other

We are living through an era of Christian reaction to the Enlightenment. It may seem delayed – and it is, in some sense – but the forces of the Enlightenment have at last succeeded in backing Christianity into a corner. Losing converts at an astounding rate, it has reacted as any group might, by striking back. There are more works of Christian apology on the market today than at any time since the second century, and the fact that Christianity feels so compelled to explain itself is evidence enough that it is treading water. Add to this a rather unhappy fact for Christians: Neo-Paganism being the fastest growing religion in the world, and modern day Pagans of whatever ethnic tradition want to take back their religion – and their holidays. Christianity could cover up the lie in an age when nobody could read and Scripture was restricted to the priesthood, but the truth can no longer be hidden.

Of course, the best way to deal with the exposure of lies is to tell yet more lies. “December 25 wasn’t really Pagan at all”; “The Pagans stole OUR holiday! Yes, that’s the ticket!” The problem with such assertions is that they have no support in the historical record. We have the words of the early Christians themselves in this regard. We know when Christmas began to be celebrated, and we know Pagans were celebrating a multitude of deities on this day for hundreds of years beforehand. We know there were other savior gods, other child gods being reborn every year.

But history and Christianity have never gotten along comfortably. Even today, Christians make some absurd assertions, easily disproven through appeal to various media. Michele Bachman (a Fundamentalist Christian) serves as an example: her well known claim that the media should investigate certain members of Congress for un-American activities was later disclaimed by her, with the explanation, “it’s an urban myth”, this despite the fact that she can be watched making that statement![23] Something as inconvenient as “fact” can have little meaning for those who live and die by ideology, whether political or religious.

However much Christians complain, they have no moral claim to Christmas. No right to be protective of it, and no rational reason to claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Through normative inversion, Christianity has played a trick on history. But history has caught up with the lie and an informed populace is onto the game. The reason for the season are the gods of polytheism, the cycle of death and rebirth, and a celebration of the fact that with the passing of the shortest day of the year and the rising of a new sun, renewed life is on the way.

Christians can claim that they have the "true sun" but Pagans know this for the lie it is. To return to the complaint of Mrs. Ryan above, Christmas is on December 25 because that day was too valuable to be left to Pagans - it had to be stolen, and through a process of normative inversion, remade into a Christian holy day.

This renewal of life was taking place long before any monotheist walked on the earth, and it was a joyous celebration long before Jesus was born. The reason for the season is Pagan, and always will be. To cry foul now is no different than a car thief, caught red-handed, crying that it is his car. It is not. It is our car, and we have come to take it back.

Notes:
[1] Amanda Winters, "Redding woman's Christmas carol initiative picks up allies," December 8, 2009, Americans United for Separation of Church and State http://www.redding.com/news/2009/dec/08/redding-womans-christmas-carol-initiative-picks/ .

[2] The Christian Post, December 3, 2008, http://christianpost.com/article/20081203/the-reason-for-the-season.htm

[3] "O'Reilly's War on Christmas Goes Retail," November 6, 2008. The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/11/06/oreillys-war-on-christmas_n_141896.html. And as Linkins points out, this is a real insult to people who actually are experiencing persecution because of their religion (Hint: that would include us Pagans). For O'Reilly and Stossel, see Crooks and Liars, December 9, 2009 http://crooksandliars.com/david-neiwert/its-time-year-again-oreilly-recruits

[4]For YHWH’s origins, see J. David Schloen, “W.F. Albright and the Origins of Israel”, Near Eastern Archaeology 65 (2002), 59. This northwest Arabian origin is certainly suggested even by the Old Testament itself; Judges 5.5 and Psalms 68.8, as Lane Fox points out, “refer to him in words which probably mean the ‘One of Sinai’ See Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (NY: Vintage Books, 1991), 53.

[5] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 108; cf. p. 100

[6] See William J. Tighe, Calculating Christmas, 2003 and Alvin J. Schmidt, (2001), Under the Influence, HarperCollins, 377-9.

[7] Jan Assman, “The Mosaic Distinction: Israel, Egypt, and the Invention of Paganism,” 52. John Spencer, De legibus hebraeorum ritualibus et earum rationibus, libre tres (The Hague, 1686). For a discussion of the importance of Maimonides’ explanation for idolatry see Guy G. Stroumsa, “John Spencer and the Roots of Idolatry,” History of Religions 41 (2001), 1-23. Against these apologetic notions see P.A. Février, “Natale Petri de Cathedra,” CRAI 1977, 551.

[8] Susan K. Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas (1995), 273.

[9] Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (Yale University Press, 1997), 155, quoting from the Latin of G.S. Assemani, Bibliotheca orientalis Clementino-Vaticanae 2 (Rome 1721), 164.

[10] Glen Bowersock, Hellenism in Late Antiquity (University of Michigan Press, 1996). Jarl Fossum, “The Myth of the Eternal Rebirth: Critical Notes on G. W. Bowersock, Hellenism in Late Antiquity,” Vigiliae Christianae 53 (1999), 307. Fossum, 313, argues that “it is palpable that Bowersock is too quick in finding Christian influence in religious evidence from late antiquity.” Aion as Eternity exists in Stoic, Aristotelian and Platonic thought.

[11] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion. From Paganism to Christianity (University of California Press, 1997), 49, 53-54, 254. Pope Gregory to Mellitus, Abbot in France, 601 CE. As Fletcher observes, "Thus could traditional ritual places and activities be �aptured'by the transfer of ritual allegiances."

[12] Fossum, 311, points out that “There was a tradition to the effect that Hera renewed her virginity every year by bathing in the spring of Canthus (Pausanias II.36.2).”

[13] Susan K. Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas (1995), 33.

[14] Fossum, 314.

[15] Michele Renee Salzman, “The Representation of April in the Calendar of 354,” American Journal of Archaeology 88 (1984), 46-47.

[16 The Philocalian Calendar also mentions “December 25th "N·INVICTI·CM·XXX" - "Birthday of the unconquered, games ordered, thirty races.” For an online copy of the document see Tertullian.org, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/index.htm#Chronography_of_354

[17] Friedrich Solmsen, “George A. Wells on Christmas in Early New Testament Criticism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 31 (1970), 278.

[18] John Baldovin, “The Liturgical Year – Calendar For a Just Community,” 104. Cited in Roll (1995), 56.

[19] For which see James C. Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity (NY: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[20] Chambers book is available in an online edition through Google Books, http://books.google.com/books?id=K0UJAAAAIAAJ. Frazier, The Golden Bough, 736. Frazier’s book is available online at Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/3623

[21] Pierre Chuvin, A Chonicle of the Last Pagans, tr. by B.A. Archer (Harvard University Press, 1990), 1-2.

[22] Franz Cumont, Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism (New York: Dover, 1956 [1911]), xvii.

[22] Thanks to YouTube, her original comments can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bT01mC9xSA. Her denial that she made those comments can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6Exo7sWvIg


 


Sidebar Notes

The true meaning of "Christmas" is not what Christians think it is

Normative inversion is replacing one memory by superimposing another