Keep the Mithra in Christmas!

All right, people, it’s smackdown time.

My wife likes to watch this show called Drop Dead Diva. I know very little about it except that it involves someone dying and coming back to life in someone else’s body and now they’re a lawyer, or something like that. I also know that the other night, while I was studying for my final, I caught a moment of courtroom drama in which the prosecutor shocks the defense with some piece of evidence that makes the accused’s guilt all but certain. The defense, of course, had no idea this was coming.

This happens in courtroom shows all the time – the prosecution rocks the defense back on its heels with a stunning piece of previously unknown evidence. OMG! What will happen next?

In real life, what would happen next is that the defense would ask the judge to rule the evidence inadmissible and/or call for a mistrial, and the judge would almost certainly grant it. Because failing to provide a full disclosure of the state’s evidence to the defense, though certainly dramatic, is also prosecutorial misconduct and therefore tends not to happen much in real life.

So of course, I felt obliged to interrupt my wife’s enjoyment of this show to remind her of this fact, at which point she reminded me that it’s a show about someone being dead and coming back to life in someone else’s body, which also, last I checked, is not something that happens very often either. Touché.

Nevertheless, the feeling I get when TV shows and movies portray flagrantly unethical practices as commonplace occurrences to enhance courtroom drama is the same feeling I get when I’m cruising along on my Facebook wall, and I see this:

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People, this has to stop.

I’ll let the Encyclopædia Britannica take it from here:

In the 3rd century, the Roman Empire, which at the time had not adopted Christianity, celebrated the rebirth of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) on December 25th—this holiday not only marked the return of longer days after the winter solstice but also followed the popular Roman festival called the Saturnalia (during which people feasted and exchanged gifts). It was also the birthday of the Indo-European deity Mithra, a god of light and loyalty whose cult was at the time growing popular among Roman soldiers.

There you go. Dec. 25: Probably not the birthday of Jesus. Definitely the birthday of Mithra.

But let’s look at this a little more academically:

Early church fathers prioritized Easter as the preeminent Christian celebration. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Origen (185-232) went so far as to say only sinners celebrate their birthdays, not saints. Around 200, Clement of Alexandria noted some Egyptians celebrated Jesus’ birth on a precise day: May 20. Another ancient text, written in 243, places Jesus’ birth on March 28 because that was the day God created the sun. In the east, Clement noted, some celebrated the Epiphany on Jan. 6 (they still do), though it wasn’t clear what specifically the Epiphany was, other than a revelation of God’s glory: Some did indeed celebrate the Nativity or the visit of the Magi; others celebrated Jesus’ baptism or the miracle at Cana. As Britannica notes above, there is no evidence that Christmas was celebrated on Dec. 25 until the middle of the fourth century, and even then, Augustine of Hippo, writing in the fifth century, omits it from his list of significant Christian feast-days.

Here’s the thing: It’s no coincidence that Christmas occurs so closely to the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year. In premodern rural cultures, the lengthening of the days (i.e., the “rebirth” of the sun) was a significant sign of hope for the coming spring and reason to celebrate. The parallels between the rebirth of the sun and the birth of the Son were simply too easy for the church to ignore them – and indeed why should it have? Non-Christians sometimes use the pagan origins of Christian holidays as a weapon against Christianity, but I don’t understand this. To me, it’s a positive point: Why not use an already existent holiday that celebrates hope and light to celebrate the birth of the true Hope and Light of the world? It makes perfect sense.

Further, it’s an example of some of the ways in which the early medieval church surprises us in its progressivity. It did not reject the celebrations and feasts of its surrounding culture (though there were certainly factions calling for that); rather, it adapted them, understanding that condemnation wins fewer converts than a measure of accommodation on non-essential issues. This was explicitly the argument of Pope Gregory I the Great, who sent Augustine (not the more famous one from Hippo but the one who came to be known as Augustine of Canterbury) to England to evangelize the Saxons in 596. As Ferguson explains in Church History Vol. 1:

What was clearly inconsistent with Christianity was to be destroyed, but what could be taken over or adapted to Christian purposes was to be used in such a way as to provide as much continuity in the religious life as possible. Gregory’s mission policy meant to Christianize holy places and times.

Of course, this policy eventually went by the wayside, in favor of Crusades, Inquisitions and baptisms at swordpoint. Nevertheless, for at least the first 600 years, the instinct of the church was to adapt and accommodate rather than condemn and destroy. Christmas is merely an early, effective example of this sort of Christianization.

Dec. 25 has been a Christian holiday for at least 1,600 years, but it wasn’t ours to begin with, and the people who wrote the Bible didn’t celebrate it; huge swaths of Christendom still don’t, in fact, preferring Jan. 6 instead. Understanding this history can perhaps help us loosen our grip a little on the importance of “keeping Christ in Christmas” and emulate better the spirit of grace and inclusivity that lies behind its existence in the first place.

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5 comments on “Keep the Mithra in Christmas!

  1. It did not reject the celebrations and feasts of its surrounding culture (though there were certainly factions calling for that); rather, it adapted them, understanding that condemnation wins fewer converts than a measure of accommodation on non-essential issues.

    A similar point occurred to me when hearing about matters like this in class the other night that this looks quite a lot like the current understanding of inculturation as essential to true evangelization in the missionary field: ie, that the church in Europe, say, is not to export its culture and customs along with the gospel, but is rather to work with the people who live in the mission field as they jointly figure out what the gospel looks like when lived out and attested to in the local culture.

    • Paul says:

      Yes, that’s what I thought when we were learning about this. We lost our way in the ensuing centuries, but it’s interesting to me that we are essentially figuring out all over again the lessons we already knew.

  2. [...] “Dec. 25: Probably not the birthday of Jesus. Definitely the birthday of Mithra.” [...]

  3. [...] thinking about how God takes our imperfect, flawed understanding and makes it more perfect. One is this blog post discussing how the medieval Church piggybacked on winter solstice celebrations to celebrate [...]

  4. Arkenaten says:

    It is amazing, though not surprising, that so many christians really have no cue about the origins of their religion, and what is hilarious is historical records show that the ‘oldster’s didn’t know that much either and were obliged to make stuff up – like Christmas.

    No wonder those with their hands on the theological tiller have always been reluctant to encourage believers to truly educate themselves about what they have been inculcated to believe.

    Surely, if every single Christian took the time to really study>/em> the bible and the history of their faith Christianity would be in a dreadful state fairly quickly and critical thought would soon take centre stage.

    If Christianity were truly open to rationality pretty soon there would be no Christians.

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