Due to the obliquity of the ecliptic, the Earth's equator is inclined at 23° 27' to its orbit, tilting the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere alternately towards the Sun, as the Earth revolves around it yearly, giving summer and winter, with spring and autumn in between. The ecliptic is the apparent great circle of the annual path of the Sun in the celestial sphere, as seen from Earth. It is so named because eclipses occur only when the Moon is on or near this path. The plane of this path, called the plane of the ecliptic, intersects the celestial sphere at an angle of about 23° 27'. The celestial sphere comes from an ancient belief that all the stars were printed on the interior surface of a giant sphere with Earth at the center. Today it's used metaphorically, meaning the apparent celestial sphere. The two points at which the ecliptic intersects the celestial equator are called equinoxes. The Sun is at the vernal equinox about March 21, and the autumnal equinox about September 23. Halfway on the ecliptic between these points are the summer and winter solstices. The Sun arrives at these points about June 21, and December 22 respectively. Today the equinoxes and solstices mark the official beginning of these seasons in the northern hemisphere. The solstices are the two points on the ecliptic at which the Sun is farthest from the celestial equator. The solstice north of the celestial equator is called the summer solstice, and the solstice south of the celestial equator is called the winter solstice. Of course, in the southern hemisphere, the actual seasons are reversed from the official name. The name "solstice" means "Sun stands still" because at these times the Sun changes little in declination from one day to the next, and appears to stay in one place north or south of the equator.
During the winter, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, so the northern hemisphere experiences a period of prolonged cold. By "winter", I mean the official winter, around the winter solstice. Of course, the southern hemisphere experiences summer at that time. The winter in temperate zones is a period of prolonged cold. Temperatures drop below the freezing point of water. Without liquid water plants can't grow, so plants go dormant. The absence of green leaves causes a food shortage among animals, which causes many to hibernate or migrate. It's a time where it's easy to starve or freeze to death. Imagine a group of primitive humans living in such an environment. Even if they had agriculture, life would be very difficult. You can't produce food during the winter, so you have to produce an oversupply of food during harvest, and then save it all up so you'll have enough to survive the winter. Hoping you have enough food to survive the winter is risky business indeed. Primitive people knew nothing of the real cause of winter, and invented imaginative stories to explain it. For instance, there is the Greek Myth of Persephone, in which she spends half the year in the Underworld, autumn and winter, and half the year on Olympus, spring and summer. Primitive people had to possess a vast knowledge of astronomy to know when to plant and harvest their crops. Thus, they of course would be familiar with the winter solstice, which was the depth of winter, although today it's officially the beginning of winter. They considered the winter solstice to be when the Sun was farthest from Earth, or at its dimmest. It was when life was at its harshest.
Primitive people were at the mercy of forces they could not understand. Their survival depended on things over which they had no control. They attached a supernatural significance to these things that they did not understand and on which their survival depended. If whether or not you will live or die is at stake, you will do absolutely everything you can to survive. Even if there's nothing you can do, it's worth it to do whatever you can. From the point of view of these people "doing whatever you can" involves simply begging the supernatural forces involved to enable them to survive. Therefore, on the winter solstice, primitive agricultural people throughout the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere would get on their knees and plaintively beg for the gods to spare them. The winter solstice became surrounded with elaborate rituals in which the people would go through a big show of devotion to the gods, hoping that this would please them so they would take pity on them, and enable them to survive the winter. For instance, at Stonehenge, two stones line up with the precise point on the horizon at which the Sun rises on the winter solstice. At Newgrange in Ireland, sunlight reaches the end of the passage tomb on the winter solstice. These sort of people usually primarily worship some variation of the Mother Earth Goddess. They would pray to her to bring the world back to life. These rituals were not happy. You were pleading with the supernatural forces that be to help you through this difficult time.
One group of people whose deity associated with the winter solstice was not female were the Romans. Their winter solstice was associated with Saturn, the God of Agriculture. If this is a period of time in which you can not engage in agriculture, then it is logical that you would pray to the God of Agriculture in order to rectify the situation. Later, when the Romans made contact with the Greeks, Saturn was associated with the Greek god Cronos. In Greek Mythology, Cronos was Zeus' father. The first line of Hesiod's Theogony reads, "First there was Eros. Then there was Nyx". These beings presumably created Oranos, the father sky god, and Gaia, the mother earth goddess. Oranos and Gaia had a son Cronos and a daughter Theia. Cronos castrated his father and became the new father sky god. Theia became his wife and the new mother earth goddess. They had many children: the Titans, the Gods, and the hundred-handed creatures. Cronos predicted his son would do to him what he did to his own father. Therefore he swallowed each of his children as they were being born. However, when Zeus was born, his mother replaced him with a rock in swaddling clothes, which Cronos swallowed. Zeus grew up on Crete. Zeus later fed his father a poison which caused him to vomit up his other children, Zeus' brothers and sisters. Then Zeus castrated his father and became the new father sky god. Zeus' sister Hera became his wife. The Roman name for Cronos is Saturn. The Romans added on to the story by saying that after Saturn was dethroned by his son Jove, he moved to Italy and reigned over a Golden Age. Since Saturn was already associated with the winter solstice, they decided that at that time, they would try to recreate this Golden Age. This festival became known as the Saturnalia.
The Saturnalia started on December 17 and went on for seven days until December 23. The Golden Age that Saturn ruled over was supposed to be a time of great plenty and prosperity. People would try to replicate this during the Saturnalia. During the Golden Age, people didn't have to work so during the Saturnalia, all business stopped. The Golden Age was a time of peace so during the Saturnalia, all military operations were suspended. During the Golden Age, all men were equal, so during the Saturnalia, slaves were granted temporary freedom for the duration of the festival. The slaves were given the places of honor at their master's dinner table, and were served and waited on by their masters. The Saturnalia was a time of good will, devoted to banquets and the exchange of visits and gifts. People would give gifts to each other wrapped in brightly colored decorative paper. All executions were postponed until after the Saturnalia. Originally, the Saturnalia was a devoutly religious holiday. As time went on, it became less religious, and more of a celebration. The original religious significance was lost and it was viewed as a party. By the first century B. C., it was a secular holiday. As time went on, the Saturnalia involved not just the seven days of the festival itself, but several days of preparation. A Roman senator complained that the holiday had become "overly commercial" and consumed the entire month of December. Also, one of the days of the Saturnalia was devoted to children.
The Romans were always very superstitious people, and were very open to adopting other people's beliefs. This was especially true during times of crisis when many people felt their old beliefs weren't working for them. The eastern part of the Roman Empire, around what is now Turkey, the Middle East, and Egypt, was always a hot bed for mysticism and the occult. They were famous for believing heavily in mysticism. Later, this sort of eastern mysticism became popular in Rome. Many Romans felt that since the East had been the location of many ancient cultures, the people there possessed some ancient knowledge that the Romans did not possess. The east seemed mysterious and exotic which was appealing. Especially when the Empire was in decline, these eastern cults became incredibly popular in Rome. New cults sprung up to meet the demand. People were looking for any type of guidance. There were charlatans who took advantage of this. One of the eastern cults were the Pythagoreans who believed that certain numbers were magic. There actually sprung up a cult devoted to the Egyptian goddess Isis, and containers of Nile water were brought to Rome.
One of the most successful of the eastern cults was the Mithric cult. Mithra was originally the Persian God of Light and Wisdom. He appears in the Avesta, the prayer book of the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrianism was founded by the Persian religious prophet Zoroaster (630 B. C. - 550 B. C.). Its basic tenets consist of monotheistic worship of Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom, and an ethical dualism between Truth , "Asha", and Lie, which permeates the Universe. The doctrines of this ancient belief, and a record of the customs of the earliest period of Persian history are preserved in the Avesta.
In the Avesta, Mithra appears as the chief yazata, or good spirit, to the world. He was supposed to have slain the divine bull, from whose dying body sprung all the plants and animals beneficial to humanity. After the conquest of Assyria in the 7th Century B. C., and of Babylonia in the 6th Century B. C., Mithra became the God of the Sun. The Greeks identified Mithra with Phoebus, whose Roman name was Helios, which contributed to the spread of his cult. Mithraism was introduced into Rome in 68 B. C. by Cicilian pirates whom Pompey had captured. It spread rapidly through Italy and the provinces. According to the Mithric cult, the holiest day of the year was December 25, which was the day on which Mithra was born. Throughout the Empire, followers of Mithra would solemnly mark this sacred day as the day on which the great savior was born, who was destined to save all of humanity. According to the story of Mithra's birth, he was born in humble circumstances. Shepherds came to pay tribute to the future savior. There’s an image of shepherds huddled around and kneeling before this divine infant. His followers considered December 25 to be sacred since they claimed that this was the exact day on which this occurred. The similarities between the Mithric cult and early Christianity are so striking, it surprises even me. The Mithric cult had the ideals of humility and brotherly love, baptism, the rite of communion, the use of holy water, the adoration of the shepherds at Mithra's birth, the adoption of Sundays and December 25, Mithra's birthday, as holy days, the belief in the immortality of the soul, the last judgment, and the resurrection. The architecture of their temples was so similar that an archeologist can't tell if a temple was for Mithra or Christ. There is absolutely no historical or archeological evidence that the character of Jesus was based on any real person to have ever lived.
All of these things were established aspects of the Mithric cult by 100 B. C. Therefore, later the early Christians must have simply stolen them all. Why did they do this? The reason is obvious. If you’re trying to start up a cult, you want to get as many members as possible. Therefore, you want to make it as easy to convert to your cult as possible. The more similar the beliefs and practices of your religion are to the religion of the people whom you want to convert to your religion, the easier it will be for them to convert. You want to make it as similar as possible, so the transition will be as unwrenching as possible, so they will be more likely to convert. Therefore, the early Christians adopted many of the aspects of the Mithric cult, to make it as easy as possible for followers of Mithra to convert to Christianity. They wanted to maximize the likelihood of members of the Mithric cult converting to Christianity, so they could get as members as possible. They took the birth of the leader on December 25, and the holiday on that day commemorating this event. They called it "Christ's Mass" or "Christmas". With the classical world in decline, Christianity spread through the Roman Empire like wildfire. In the second century A. D., Telesphorus, an early Christian in Rome, declared that public church services should be held to celebrate "The Nativity of the Lord and Savior". In 320 A. D., pope Julius I and other religious leaders specified December 25 as the official date of the birth of Jesus.
The Greek word for Christ begins with the Greek letter "chi", which looks like "X". For that reason, the letter "X" was a symbol for Christianity. It could also represent the cross that Christ was crucified on. This fell into disuse, but it did come down to us as the word "Xmas" for Christmas. The three wise men or magi were probably inspired by analogous figures in the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament. The reason Bethlehem was selected as a birthplace is because the Old Testament King David was born in Bethlehem, and it was prophesized that the Messiah would be descended from King David. The people making up the story of Jesus wanted to associate him with King David, so they had him born in the same place.
The Star of Bethlehem was originally imagined to be a comet. The fact that there was no comet in the sky at this time isn't relevant because we’re talking about a fictional comet that was imagined to exist. The Gospel of Matthew describes the Star of Bethlehem as hanging over Bethlehem, which is terminology typically used for comets. Keep in mind that throughout most of history, the word "star" was used to refer anything in the sky. Meteors were called "falling stars". The reason for the comet's inclusion in the story is because comets were always considered portents of momentous events. Comets are rare spectacular phenomena. When primitive people would see one, they would think it was put there for a reason. Comets were taken as omens. If you see one, that means a big thing was about to happen. This became so deeply ingrained in people's minds that if you were to make up a fictional story about a major event, you would include a comet. Otherwise, people would think, "It couldn't have been that big a thing if it didn't even warrant a comet". Thus a comet was included in the story of the Nativity. The 14th century artist Giotto, in his painting "The Adoration of the Magi", now hanging in the Scrovesni Chapel in Padua, Italy, portrays the Star of Bethlehem as Halley's Comet. The modern Christmas carol "Do you see what I see?" says the star "has a tail as big as a kite". The Star of Bethlehem was also probably influenced by the fact that a star was mentioned in the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament.
As Rome became a Christian society, the holiday of Christmas was associated with the Saturnalia, and assimilated many of its characteristics. Later, Christianity spread into northwestern Europe, into what became Spain, France, Britain, and the Germanic states. The Celtic and Germanic people living in those areas were still practicing the ancient rites surrounding the winter solstice. These rites and practices were also assimilated into Christmas. The Christians did this for the same reason that centuries earlier they had imitated the Mithric cult. By making Christianity more similar to the religions of the Celtic and Germanic people, they make it easier for these people to convert to Christianity.
During the summer, the world is green. During the winter, it is not. Therefore, from the point of view of Celtic and Germanic people, the problem with the world on the winter solstice is that it is not green. Therefore, they try to encourage the world to become green again. If they could find a plant that was green, they would use it as an example of what the other plants should be like. Essentially, they would find a plant that was still green in the winter, hold it up as an example for the other plants, point to it, and tell the other plants, "You should be like this". Therefore, evergreen plants were given special significance. Examples include pine trees, fir trees, holly, ivy, and mistletoe. Therefore, these plants figured prominently in the winter solstice rituals of the Celtic and Germanic people. Therefore, these plants have always been associated with Christmas. Also, in ancient Egypt, they would bring palm fronds into their houses on the winter solstice, which they considered the anniversary of when the god Osiris was killed by his brother Set.
Holly and ivy were associated with the Mother Earth Goddess in two different ways. First of all, they have to do with the natural world. Wild plants and green foliage were examples of nature’s bounty and the fertility of the Earth. Second of all, they had to do with fertility in the sense of human reproduction which was also associated with the Mother Earth Goddess. Holly was associated with male, and ivy was associated with female. Holly and ivy together was a combination of male and female, which was a powerful combination. Also, holly by itself was considered a combination of male and female. The leaves of holly are long and thin, and thus phyllic. The red berries symbolized female since the red color was a reference to blood resulting from menstruation or loss of virginity. Any combination of male and female is considered magical and powerful. A triangle pointed up is a phyllic symbol. A triangle pointed down is a yonic or gynecological symbol. The combination of these is the Star of David, which is a fertility symbol. The number three symbolizes male, and four symbolizes female. You have 3 + 4 = 7 and 3 x 4 = 12, and 7 and 12 are magic numbers. Agriculture and human reproduction were considered analogous to each other. You place a seed in the ground, and it magically transforms into a plant. You place semen in a woman, and it magically transforms into an infant. These two transformations were analogous. Thus human reproduction fell under the domain of the Mother Earth Goddess. Thus holly and ivy were associated with the Mother Earth Goddess in two different ways and were displayed in rituals for the winter solstice. Later, these were appropriated by the Christians. The Christians said that the pointed leaves of holly symbolized the crown of thorns, and the red berries symbolized the blood of Christ as he hung on the cross. The fact that holly is green and red is why green and red are considered Christmas colors today.
From the point of view of these primitive people, the problem facing the world at the winter solstice is that it is too cold. Since heat comes from the Sun, the Sun was therefore to blame. For some reason, the Sun was failing to warm the Earth. The Sun had grown distant, dim, and cold. There was a belief that the Sun was dying. They tried to call back the dying Sun. Often they would build a fire to show the Sun what it was supposed to do. This was similar to using evergreen plants to show the other plants what to do. You build a bonfire, point to it, and say "You're supposed to do this". This also involved the idea that you were helping the Sun to warm the Earth. Celtic people had the practice of the Yule log. You take a log from a sacred tree such as an oak. From that, you build a sacred fire that is kept burning throughout the year. All other fires are lit from it. Once a year, you get a new log, and light it from the previous fire. The Yule log was supposedly supernatural, and was used to help the Sun warm the Earth during the coldest months, especially on the winter solstice. The Christians adopted the Yule log, claiming the light from the fire symbolized the everlasting light of salvation, etc. In medieval southern France, they had a Yule log, and part of the wood was saved to make part of the plow. As late as the 19th Century, people would put an extra large log in their fireplace on Christmas as a special treat. Most celebrations marking the winter solstice, and many Christmas traditions, somehow involve fire. The Mithric cult used fire to celebrate Mithra’s birthday. Hanukkah involves lighting a menorah. Today, in Mexico and the American southwest, they light "luminaries" or "farolitos" which are rows of candles which line pathways on Christmas Eve. Candles of all sorts are frequently used at Christmas. Even modern Christmas lights are descended from this concept. In many places in Europe, bonfires are a traditional way to celebrate Christmas, and this is done today in Louisiana.
A common Christmas tradition in medieval England was wassailing. It was done throughout the season and especially on New Year’s. It became identified with a type of drink called lambswool which was a mixture of hot ale, roasted apples, sugar, and spices. It was served in a large wooden bowl decorated with ribbons and garlands. Whenever there was a party, it would be passed around among the participants. There was also a custom where young men and women would go from house to house with the wassail bowl, and drink to the health of all the inhabitants. Everyone in the household was supposed to drink from the bowl. Also, each household was supposed to add a small amount of ale and other ingredients to the bowl so it wouldn’t be depleted. In Devon and Somerset, on Twelfth Night, there was a tradition of apple tree wassailing. Cider was drunk from the wassail bowl and then sprinkled on apple trees to ensure fruitfulness during the coming year. The word "wassail" comes from the Anglo-Saxon words "waes" and "hael". "Waes" is a form of the word "is". We use it as a past tense of the word. "Hael" is a form of the word "health". Thus "wassail" means "is health" or "I hope you is in health", meaning you’re toasting to the person’s health. The English invented a folktale to explain the origin of wassailing. A beautiful Saxon princess named Rowena presented Prince Vortigen with a bowl of wine, toasting him with the words "Waes hael".
The medieval church invented elaborate calendars of holidays surrounding both Christmas and Easter. The fourth, third, second, and first Sundays before Christmas are the first, second, third, and fourth Sundays of Advent respectively. According to medieval tradition, Jesus was born on Dec 25, and held court in the manger for 13 days from Dec 25 to Jan 6. The 12 days of Christmas were Dec 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, Jan 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. The next day Jan 6, was the Epiphany. The night before the Epiphany, Jan 5, was Twelfth Night. The three wise men, later elevated to kings, saw the Star of Bethlehem on Dec 25. They then followed the star. It’s unclear what this means since stars and comets rise on the eastern horizon, travel across the sky, and set on the western horizon. At any rate, it took them 12 days to reach the manger from wherever it was they left from when they were when they first saw the star. They were on route from Dec 25 to Jan 5, and reached the manger on Jan 6. On that day, they presented the Christ Child with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Frankincense is fragrant gum resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia, and is used for burning as incense. Myrrh is a gum resin with a sweet smell and bitter taste, obtained from the bark of trees of the genus Commiphora. It has various uses including embalming dead bodies, and thus is the perfect gift for an infant. Also, it was said that on the Epiphany, animals had the ability to talk. According to some stories, Jesus was circumcised on Jan 1, and baptized on Feb 2. According to this view, our calendar system is actually dated according to Jesus’ circumcision. An enormous amount of folklore grew up around the three kings. They were given the names of Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. Often, one of them was portrayed as a black man.
In ancient Greece, during the winter, they had the festival of Lenaea, in honor of Dionysus, where women would go into the forest, get drunk, and dance with wild abandon. In the modern calendar, this festival would have taken place around what we now call the Epiphany. The Roman Saturnalia was a wild party. It was a time of role reversals, where slaves were given the place of honor at their master’s table. This general atmosphere was carried over into the medieval Christmas, and was especially associated with Twelfth Night and the Epiphany. They would bake a special cake for the evening called Twelfth Night Cake. Baked into the cake would be a bean, a pea, and some coins. Whoever found the bean in their slice would become the Lord of Misrule. The Lord of Misrule was a mischievous figure who commonly presided over banquets, revels, masked balls, and plays in medieval and Renaissance Europe. The Twelfth Night Lord of Misrule was a combination of jester and king. He could supposedly order anyone to do anything whatsoever. He could take the highest ranking person present, and have them do something utterly ridiculous or humiliating. In medieval England, groups of people called “mummers” put on masks and performed plays. Today, in Spain and Italy, gifts are given to children on Twelfth Night. In France, on Twelfth Night, they still eat a special cake called the Galette de Rois.
You've probably noticed by now that Twelfth Night had a very striking resemblance to Mardi Gras. This is not a coincidence. The entire Epiphany season lasts from the Epiphany itself to Mardi Gras. In that sense, Mardi Gras could be considered part of the Epiphany. In many places today, the Carnival Season is considered to last from the Epiphany to Mardi Gras, with the largest celebrations at the very beginning and end of this season. On Mardi Gras, they also have a wild crazy atmosphere, a satirical king, and a special cake with things baked in it. Today, sometimes the king cakes they have on Mardi Gras contain a small plastic baby that supposed to represent the Christ Child. The medieval Christmas had this same Mardi Gras atmosphere. Combine that with the practice of wassailing, and references to fertility, and for many people, Christmas was a time to get horribly drunk and engage in other socially unacceptable behavior. This is part of the reason why the Protestants would later be against Christmas. Vestiges of this early wild side of Christmas were retained, in mild form, in the Victorian Christmas, in the practices of the kissing bough, and kissing under the mistletoe.
In medieval Europe, they liked the idea of a low person being treated like a high person. The story of the Nativity is like that. You have an infant, and not just an infant but an infant in a manger surrounded by animals, and several kings are kneeling before him, giving him expensive gifts, and he’s being exalted by angels. Portraying one of the three kings as black is another example of someone they would consider very low, being treated like a high person. The Lord of Misrule is another example of a low person being treated like a high person. This idea could be the manifestation of the frustration of the poverty stricken masses in a highly stratified society with little possible social mobility. Another example of poor people being given unusual power on Christmas was a custom in medieval Europe in which rowdy bands of poor people would pound on the doors of wealthy people and demand that they hand over their best food and drink. This actually was an important safety valve for public discontent. Without this, frustration and resentment will build up until it exploded in violence. It was actually in the long term best interests of the rich people for it to be released in a semi-controlled fashion. The lord of the manor could make up for a year of oppression by simply handing over a few casks of wine to the rabble at the gate. You can see a subtle reference to this practice in the modern song "We wish you a merry Christmas" where it says "Bring us some figgy pudding, and bring it right here. We won’t leave until we get some." Another Christmas song says "Down come butler, bowl, and all."