Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Birth of the Sun!

by Chris Masterjohn

In 46 BC, Julius Caeser reformed the Roman Calendar, making December 25 the date of the winter solstice.  In the northern hemisphere, this day marks the progressive increase in the length of days, and thus marks an annual celebration of light coming into the world.

The astronomical solstice progressively drifted away from this date through the centuries, and the calendar we now have is adjusted so that the astronomical solstice occurs December 20-23.

There often arises a futile debate about whether the date of Christmas was modeled after "pagan" festivals of the sun.  The debate is futile because the evidence is such that one can conclude whatever one wants to believe.  The Emperor Aurelian declared December 25 to be the feast of Sol Invictus, the invincible sun, in 274 AD.  Hippolytus of Rome may have testified to this day as the day of Christ's birth as early as 202 AD, over 70 years before the festival of Sol Invictus.  For a discussion of conflicting manuscript evidence, see here.

Hippolytus didn't base his reasoning on "pagan" festivals, but he did base it on astronomy.  He believed that Jesus was conceived on the same day he died, and that he died on the Passover.  The Passover, of course, begins on the first full moon after the vernal equinox, and thus such belief necessarily places the birth of Jesus some nine months later on or close to the winter solstice.

(This is true of the belief of Hippolytus even if textual evidence from the Gospels may seem to contradict it as an historical fact, such as Luke's account of shepherds watching over their flocks in the fields by night, which would have been unlikely to occur in the winter.)

Surely neither the Emperor Aurelian nor Hippolytus invented the winter solstice!  The Book of Malachi, which called the coming Messiah the "Sun of Righteousness," predates them both by centuries.  The Egyptians saw the sun as the emblem of Horus yet millenia earlier.  To a Jew or a Christian (and many others), God created the sun to rule the day and the moon and stars to govern the night long before there were any people on earth to interpret their meaning.

Debating which tradition came first seems silly to me because all of us, whether we believe in God, many gods, or no gods, agree that the sun itself predates human beings.

Whether we are celebrating the bodily incarnation of the Sun of Righteousness and Light of the World, or are celebrating the season in some radically different way, we are all living under the same sky and all bear witness to the astronomical fact that in the northern half of the earth the days will henceforth become longer and our lives will become progressively more illumined.

Even if we see neither symbolism nor divinity in the heavens above, we have the sun itself to shower its material gifts upon us.  Even for those of us who grumble when the snow falls, the solstice is a promise of the warmth to come the following spring.

So I will put this my way, in hopes that each friend and reader may take of it whatever blessings she or he wishes:


Merry Christmas!


Thank you all for your readership, and for contributing your questions, comments, and insights, and for your many gifts of friendship.  May this season bring light and warmth into your hearts.

Read more about the author, Chris Masterjohn, PhD, here.

24 comments:

  1. Merry Christmas, Chris! A few months ago on Lindsay's blog I said that Christian metal sucked, but since then I found a band that I like. They have a sweet Christmas medley http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fx-eW1lhMT4

    Cheers.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The most lucid (pun intended) argument I have seen on the true meaning of Christmas! Well done, and merry Christmas to all!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Mr. Masterjohn I send you gianormous wishes of good cheer inthe new year
    Xo deb

    ReplyDelete
  4. Dear Chris, thank you for your illuminating blog!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Pagan, from the Latin paganus: peasant; pagus: village, rual district. In ancient Roman times those living in the country, farmers, were paganus or pagans. The Christian religion gained first in the cities. The farmers would bring their produce into the cites and, for a time, they still worshipped the old gods, ergo pagans became the name for pan-deists of the old Roman religions, which then became the name of any person or people who were not Christians.

    Solstice, from the Latin solstitium (sun + stitium, past participle of sistere, to stand still). And, by the human eye only, the sun seems to stand still for a few days before starting its journey back north, with life-giving warmth. (Yea! We're not going to have eternal winter. Let's party!) (http://earthsky.org/tonight/southernmost-sun-brings-december-21-solstice)

    I believe this is why the Romans and other pre-Christians held there Saturnalian or solstice celebrations on or about December 25th. They had to be sure the sun was coming back, so to speak.

    By the way, I'm a pagan, just a peasant living in a rural district.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Nice info, Chris. I won't quibble over the origins of Christmas itself, but it's true that Christmas celebrations today owe a lot to pagan solstice celebrations; for example, the all-important Christmas tree, the practice of gift giving, and the Yule log. Syncretism at its best! It's a natural human thing to celebrate this darkest time of the year and toast to the return of the sun.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Very nice- one of your best posts. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=El2szcbFf40

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi Chris, Merry Christmas to you. There is a pretty good article in the January/February 2012 WELL BEING JOURNAL written by Dr Uffe Ravnskov called "The Real Cause of Heart Disease". He has a convincing argument that infectious microbes problably start the whole cascade of events that lead to oxidized LDL that then help to form pustules in the artery walls. Pretty interesting. Just wondered what your take on it was.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Responses to Stabby, Margaret, Debbie, Ed, and Mountain Malcolm.

    Hi Stabby,

    Thanks, that wasn't bad! Merry Christmas!

    Margaret,

    Thank you very much for your kind words. Merry Christmas!

    Debbie, ginormous wishes back atcha! xoxo

    Ed, thanks, the post likes you too!

    Mountain Malcolm, you're welcome, thanks for your appreciation!

    ReplyDelete
  11. DM Mitchell,

    I have no expertise on the etymology of "pagan," but this is what Peter Brown says in The Rise of Western Christendom (2nd edition, 2003):

    "In the late fourth century, polytheism received its modern name. The word 'pagan,' paganus, began to circulate among Christians. This word emphasized the marginal status of polytheism. Usually, paganus had meant "second-class participant" -- civilian as opposed to regular soldier, lower as opposed to high official. The Spanish priest, Orosius, who wrote his History Against the Pagans at the behest of Augustine, in 416, added a further touch to this language of exclusion. Cultivated polytheists, urban notables, and even members of the Roman Senate, were told by Orosius that theirs was a religion of countryfolk, of pagani, of men of the pages, of paysans, paesanos -- that is, a religion worthy only of illiterate peasants."

    He seems to be saying that the sense of rurality was a later sense given by Orosius and the word originally connoted second-class status. It's worth noting that Orosius was the west, where the cities were a more dominant stronghold of Christianity, but that's not so of the east, where the countryside was a greater stronghold, especially the wilderness, and where the cities were strongholds of the "pagan" culture of classical times. Brown even notes the irony of Orosius's characterization, in that there were plenty of "pagans" in the cities. Either way, when people say that Christmas is "pagan" in origin, I don't think anyone interprets this to mean "rural."

    Happy rurality! :)

    Chris

    ReplyDelete
  12. Responses to Tom, Anonymous, and Jackie.
    Hi Tom, I don't know enough about the history of these practices to agree or disagree, but I would find it surprising if no one in the pre-Christian era, especially in rural lands full of trees, had thought of decorating a tree or burning a log, and I would find it surprising if any human society anywhere didn't have some tradition of gift giving. And I think Christians would be a cruel and unusual sort of people to shun all of these practices just because they weren't the first ones to get in on the fun. Anyways, Merry Christmas!

    Anonymous, you're welcome and thank you.

    Jackie, Merry Christmas! I'll try to check it out when I can. Thanks!

    Chris

    ReplyDelete
  13. Merry birth of The Son and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Thanks Ann, Merry Christmas to you too!

    Chris

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hi Chris,

    The phrase "sun of righteousness" - sometimes also rendered as "sun of justice" - is quite interesting, I think. If I remember right, in ancient Semitic religion, the sun god is pictured as some sort of celestial judge. The wording in Malachi may have been influenced by this Semitic mythological background. The use of mythological imagery, of course, is not limited to the book of Malachi but can be found in other Old Testament books such as Isaiah.

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

    Roel

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thanks for your thoughts, Roel. To you as well.

    Chris

    ReplyDelete
  17. Why not just take this full circle and just say all Religion on earth started from the study of the sky. The Sun mon and stars is the birth of God's and religion. Just imagine what a wonderplace place earth would be nowadays if everyone understood this.

    ReplyDelete
  18. That seems like an over-interpretation, though no doubt study of the sky was an incredibly important part of most religions. I fail to see, however, how this would produce a wonderful place on earth.

    Chris

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No rediculous Religion.. Clear to me. The resurrection has been Plagiarized, copied, and re-done with most famous Mystical "Gods" in the past (Study "horus" - one of the first). Which is a direct reference to the Winter Solstice when the Sun "rises once again" Ya, I guess this a little too deep for most people. Nice article!

      Cheers!

      Delete
    2. Hi Anonymous,

      I'm aware of Horus, and the connections between Horus and the sun, and Jesus and the sun, were made quite explicitly. This is clear to me. What is unclear to me is how this becoming popularly recognized would somehow make the world a better place, when there is no social or ethical morality that can be attached to its significance. It is difficult for me to envision any dramatic social transformation occurring as the result of some recognition that has no systematic implications for human behavior attached to it.

      In any case, thanks for your comments. Cheers. :)

      Chris

      Delete
  19. God is the Sun. Or would you prefer the Demonizing scripture and big business we call the bible or the Koran, or the ____?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think we've now exhausted the limits of this conversation. Thanks for writing. Chris

      Delete
  20. quote: "What is unclear to me is how this becoming popularly recognized would somehow make the world a better place, when there is no social or ethical morality that can be attached to its significance"

    What I meant was. How could you possibly not see a better world if everyone clearly understood Religion and God for what it is - Early reasoning for the natural world around us. Its our rediculious Human brains "fault" we made up the "Devine". I don't think my dog or cat is worried about heaven and hell - just appreciates the fact that the sun rises and gets fed in the morning. Lucky little bastards!!! LOL The question I'm most interested in is "At what point in Human evolution did "dilusional thought" start? Scary thing, - Religion....

    ReplyDelete

To create a better user experience for everyone, comments are now moderated. Please allow up to one business day for your comment to post. In order to avoid the appearance of spam, please avoid posting links, especially to commercial destinations, and using all-caps.