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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 107

Letter from America: From Christ to Christmas – a historical analysis – Part 2

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

No one would dispute that what we call today Christianity – in all its manifold and often irreconcilable forms – is the result of a prolonged, gradual, often haphazard process involving much trial and error, much uncertainty, much schism, much compromise, much improvisation, much a posteriori accretion – and a great deal of historical accident. At every turn in the coalescence of Christianity, there are random factors, arbitrary elements, distortions and modification dictated by chance or by simple social and political expediency.

Now let’s discuss the date of Jesus’s birth. Interestingly, theDePascha Computus, an anonymous document believed to have been written in North Africa around 243 CE, placed Jesus’s birth on March 28. Clement, a bishop of Alexandria (d. ca. 215 CE), thought that Jesus was born on November 18. Based on historical records, Fitzmyer, however, guessed that Jesus’s birth occurred on September 11, 3 BCE, which is probably closer to the actual than any other Christian claims, especially when we recognize that in Luke 2:8 we are told that when Jesus was born “there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night”. December is too cold for such shepherd activities in either Bethlehem or Nazareth of Palestine (places associated with birthplace of Jesus). By mid-October shepherds would bring their flocks from the mountainsides and fields to protect them from the cold, rainy season that followed.

As can be seen from the above, none of these dates agrees with December 25. So, how did this date come to be celebrated later on as Jesus’s birth date?

For the answer we have to dig into the Roman history. In ancient Rome, the pagan Romans used to celebrate the Brumalia, a winter solstice festival that lasted almost a month from November 24 until the Saturnalia, a midwinter festival in December 17-24 to mark the sun's new birth from its solstice. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for any evil deed. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the Saturnalia festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed that by sacrificing this person they were essentially destroying the forces of darkness. We are told by Lucian, the ancient Greek writer, poet and historian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia), that during this festival, in addition to human sacrifice, other customs included: widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; rape and other sexual license; and consuming human-shaped biscuits.

For the cult of Sol Invictus, as noted above, the most celebrated day of the year was December 25, when the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or "Birthday of Sol Invictus", the birth (or rebirth) of the sun, when the days began to grow perceptibly longer was observed. The cult of Sol Invictus also meshed well with that of Mithras, a survival of the old Zoroastrian religion imported from Persia.

In the interest of unity in his empire, Roman Emperor Constantine deliberately blurred the distinctions between Christianity, Mithraism and Sol Invictus. Although he was baptized in his deathbed, to him, Jesus was a human being and not God. So great was Constantine’s favor to Christianity that Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, one of the leading theological figures of his day and a close personal associate of the Emperor, considered Constantine as the reincarnation of Logos, a Messiah-like figure.

Christian doctrine, as promulgated in Rome at the time, had much in common with the cult of Sol Invictus anyway; and thus it was able to flourish unmolested under the sun cult’s umbrella of tolerance. There is no record of early Christians observing Sunday as the day of the rest until 321 CE when Constantine promulgated a law ordering the law courts closed on the ‘venerable day of the sun.’ Now, in accordance with Constantine’s edict, it adopted Sunday as its sacred day. Until the 4th century, moreover, Jesus’s birthday had been celebrated on January 6.

It must be remembered that no complete version of the New Testament (NT) survives which pre-dates the reign of Constantine. The NT, as we know it today, is largely a product of the Nicaea and other Church councils of the same epoch.

In the 4th century when Roman emperors adopted Christianity as the state religion, the pagan festivals of Saturnalia and Brumalia were too deeply entrenched in popular custom to be set aside by Christian influence. Since no particular date was mentioned in the gospel accounts, the date of Jesus’s birth was set by the Church under Roman Emperor Justinian in 354 CE to coincide with the last day of the pagan midwinter festival (i.e., December 25). This was a clever move by the Church that allowed pagans to accept the new faith without making too much compromise. By then, Emperor Constantine had already recognized Sunday, which had been the day of pagan sun worship. The influence of the pagan Manichaeism, which identified the “Son of God” with the physical Sun, gave these pagans of the 4th century, now turning over wholesale to Christianity, their excuse for calling their pagan festival date of December 25 (birthday of the Sun-god) - the birthday of the “Son of God.”

From the above brief analysis, it is clear that today’s Christians got their Christmas from the Roman Catholics who got it from the pagan Romans. The pagan Romans in turn got it from ancient Egypt where the cult of Osiris was vibrant. The Egyptian mythology tells us that Osiris, the king of ancient Egypt, was married to Queen Isis. The myth described Osiris as having been killed by his brother Set who wanted Osiris's throne. Isis briefly brought Osiris back to life by use of a spell that she learned from her father. This spell gave her time to become pregnant by Osiris before he again died. (In another version of the story, Isis is impregnated by divine fire.) Isis later gave birth to Horus. As such, since Horus was born after Osiris's resurrection, Horus came to be known as a representation of new beginnings and the vanquisher of the evil Set. This combination, Osiris-Horus, was therefore a life-death-rebirth deity, and thus associated with the new harvest each year. Afterward, Osiris became known as the Egyptian god of the dead, Isis became known as the Egyptian goddess of the children, and Horus became known as the Egyptian god of the sky or the “divine son of the heaven”.

There is a remarkable similarity between the myths of Osiris and Jesus. Osiris, the god of the afterlife, was reborn as Horus, the son of Isis. Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge finds possible parallels in Osiris's resurrection story with those found in Christianity: “In Osiris the Christian Egyptians found the prototype of Christ, and in the pictures and statues of Isis suckling her son Horus, they perceived the prototypes of the Virgin Mary and her child." Biblical scholar Professor George Albert Wells asserts that Osiris dies and is mourned on the first day and that his resurrection is celebrated on the third day with the joyful cry "Osiris has been found". In his book – Human Sacrifices, anthropologist and historian Nigel Davies asserts that "the agony of Osiris was a sacrifice with a universal message. As the one who died to save the many, and who rose from the dead, he was the first of a long line that has deeply affected man's view of this world and the next." He further argues that the passion and sacrifice of Jesus Christ is linked conceptually to Osirian and other traditions in the Ancient world.

After the death of Osiris, Isis propagated the doctrine of the survival of Osiris as a sprit being. She claimed that a full-grown evergreen tree had sprung from a dead tree stump, thus symbolizing the springing forth of the dead Osiris unto new life. She claimed that on each anniversary of his birth, Osiris would visit the evergreen tree and leave gifts upon it. December 25 was the birthday of Osiris, reborn as the son Horus. That explains how Christmas got its origin. Over the generations Osiris came to be known as Baal, the Sun-god, amongst the Phoenicians, and as Jupiter in ancient Rome. The names varied in different countries and languages, but the worship of this false god continued.

According to Stephen Nissenbaum, professor history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.” The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern caroling), etc. Since Jews were identified as Christ-killers, for amusement of the public, Jews were forced by the Catholic Church to race naked through the streets of Rome.

An eyewitness account from Pope Paul II’s reign in 1466 reports, “Before they were to run, the Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for spectators. They ran… amid Rome’s taunting shrieks and peals of laughter, while the Holy Father stood upon a richly ornamented balcony and laughed heartily.”

As part of the Christmas carnival throughout the 18th and 19th centuries CE, rabbis of the ghetto in Rome were forced to wear clownish outfits and march through the city streets to the jeers of the crowd, pelted by a variety of missiles. When in1836 the Jewish community of Rome sent a petition to Pope Gregory XVI begging him to stop the annual Saturnalia abuse of the Jewish community, he responded, “It is not opportune to make any innovation.” On December 25, 1881, Christian leaders whipped the Polish masses into Anti-Jewish frenzies that led to riots across the country. In Warsaw twelve Jews were brutally murdered, huge numbers maimed, and many Jewish women were raped. Two million rubles worth of property was destroyed by frenzied Christians.

Because of its known pagan origin, Christmas was banned by the Puritans and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. But nowadays the festivity is widely celebrated wherever Christian community lives. In Egypt, the Coptic Christians celebrate the Christmas day on the 7th of January, corresponding to the 29thof "Kiahk" - a Coptic month.

December 25 – Christmas Day – has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1870. Popular customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends and, of course, waiting for Santa Claus to come. Christmas around the world has become more of a cultural and commercial phenomenon than a sacred religious one.

In spite of its pagan origin and associated make-beliefs and customs, Christmas is observed by faithful Christians around the world as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a spiritual leader whose teachings form the basis of their religion. Jesus, the son of Mary, surely was one of the greatest teachers of all time. In Islam, he is revered as a Prophet and mighty Messenger of God.

It took nearly two millennia for the official church to admit that Jesus was not born on 1 C.E., I wonder how long we have to wait before the same church also admits that December 25 is not the date when Jesus was born!

>>> concluded.

- Asian Tribune -

Letter from America: From Christ to Christmas – a historical analysis – Part 2
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