By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
“25th December was declared as the birthday of Jesus only much later after Christianity expanded and gradually replaced the other festivals traditionally held around that date. The birthday of Jesus was not known to religious leaders who gradually dispatched the other well-known festivals into oblivion. Indeed, the popular festival used to be the birthday of Mithra, the Persian god. He appealed much to the Romans who occupied the entire region – militarily and politically. The sun was the symbol of Mithra, and the embodiment of friendship and loyalty which the god stood for made him popular among the Roman military class…”
End-of-year rejoicings are reminiscent of political power and religious influence exerted by the Roman Empire when rulers endorsed decisions taken by the Church in Rome. The Roman calendar was extended to all Europe, and later European expeditions across the world followed by colonization spread the adoption of the Roman calendar worldwide. Otherwise, much before the advent of Christianity the major civilisations like India and China had their own calendar which marked end-of-year festivities on different dates of the year. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, held in December on the lands of Israel, predated the birth of Christ.
Today Christmas is looked forward to, prepared and celebrated in Christian countries and down the ages has crossed cultural borders. Even if they don’t believe in Santa Claus, children are too happy to lay down their wishes for gifts at the foot of Christmas trees decorated with twinkling garlands and small colourful figurines and paper gifts. Young kids and adults joyfully participate in the magic of that special day and everyone is given a gift. Churchgoers do not miss the midnight mass while atheists, agnostics and the rest of them are just fine with the festive atmosphere. Non-Christians in multi-ethnic societies go along with the gift giving ritual.
25th December was declared as the birthday of Jesus only much later after Christianity expanded and gradually replaced the other festivals traditionally held around that date. The birthday of Jesus was not known to religious leaders who gradually dispatched the other well-known festivals into oblivion. Indeed, the popular festival used to be the birthday of Mithra, the Persian god. He appealed much to the Romans who occupied the entire region – militarily and politically. The sun was the symbol of Mithra, and the embodiment of friendship and loyalty which the god stood for made him popular among the Roman military class. ‘Mit’ in Sanskrit means friend and there is striking similarity with the Hindu Vedic god Mitra. The Romans spread the cult of Mithra all over Europe.
In Rome itself, it was called Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun, a Latin name which gained linguistic and religious acceptance among local folks. Sol Invictus was added to the pantheon of Roman gods borrowed from Greek mythology ever since the invasion of ancient Greece by the Romans. Sol Invictus thus cohabited with the other gods, and the cult went on even after Christianity was introduced among the other cults till one emperor decided that only the celebration of Jesus should replace that of Mithra on 25th December. In ancient Persia, fire associated to the sun became the symbol and cult of Zoroastrians, a religion set up by the founder, a contemporary of Buddha and Confucius in the 6th century before Christ.
Let us remember that Judaism was the prevailing religion in Israel and Jesus was indeed Yeshua (there is no ‘j’ sound in Hebrew), a charismatic Jewish preacher at the synagogue who carried his teachings to greater lengths with a significant Oriental touch. Compassion and love were at the core of his sermons. All historians agree on the point that the rabbi Yeshua never meant to start a new religion.
Yeshua’s companions got into conflict because of an unfortunate misunderstanding with the rabbis at the synagogue who actually asked them to come and see them at a later time. What was only a postponement of a meeting was misinterpreted as a refusal of their request and an abrupt dismissal, according to available sources. The determination of Yeshua’s followers to start another religion was regarded as a provocation and considered as an attempt to subvert Judaism, a schism and heresy which angered the established authorities at the synagogue.
Similarly, more than fourteen centuries after the birth of Christianity in its original form of Roman Catholic Church, the beginning of Protestanism angered the established Catholic Church and was considered as a heresy which should be severely punished. Persecution of Protestants ensued. The massacre of Saint Barthelemey in France was one such example. Protestantism carved out a place for itself over the centuries and survived despite its early violent beginnings. Under the banner of Christianity, both sects shared the worship of Christ together with the Orthodox Church which never recognized the supremacy of the Roman Church for historical reasons.
To any keen observer and lover of history, it seems that lots of upheavals and turning points resurface every seven or fourteen centuries. To understand the present one, one should understand the past not only in matters related to religion but in all spheres of ideas and knowledge. It is the only rational and clear way to make sense of today’s world, the maturity and immaturity in the development of thoughts — philosophical, religious, political etc.
However, though Judaism discarded other cults and was imposed as the official religion which marked the beginnings of intolerance, the other religions which developed in the region followed in its footsteps but with much more aggressivity because of their missionary and competing character. Judaism was inherently non-missionary.
Over the centuries, thanks to knowledge and the Enlightenment, Judaism and Christianity became accepted and are observed by their followers based on what appeals to them; all the unacceptable dogmas by modern standards are simply brushed aside, and only what meets the spiritual needs of the people survive in their minds and hearts today. That’s the interesting, elevating and positive side of it all.
The Winter Solstice related to the position of the Sun in the Celtic tradition in Europe is still remembered. May Jews in Israel and the world celebrate Hannukah in peace. And let compassion and love, the core teaching of Jewish preacher Yeshua enlighten the world. To those who value the teachings of Jesus, and all children and adults who revel and recreate the magic atmosphere every year, a very happy Christmas.
* Published in print edition on 21 December 2018