Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Sol Invictus

Was December 25th the default date for Christmas because of a Roman Saturnalia or because of deliberate copying with Mithraism?

Connected with the Winter Solstice was Mithraism, an early competitor to Christianity. Mithras, a favorite of Roman soldiers, was connected to the Sun, which, because it returned every December 25th, was called Sol Invictus [Latin: "Unconquered Sun"]. Mithras' was celebrated on December 25th, called Dies Natalis Solis Invictus [Latin: "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun"].

Mithras being born from
a rock, 2nd century
The first few centuries of the Common Era debated over the divinity of Christ and the extent to which Christ was God and/or human. By the 4th century, the divinity had been largely agreed upon, but since Christ became human, it was important to pick a date of birth. December 25th was settled upon.

A persistent idea that the iconography of Christ was based on Mithras is interesting, but inconsistent, as the picture here suggests. True, both religions involved a communal meal (Mass, the Last Supper), and a sacrifice, but Christ was not said to be born from a rock bearing a sword and torch, nor did he perform Mithras' other great feat, killing a bull.

And association of Christianity with the Sun did not require "imitation" of Mithraism. After all, Constantine converted when he saw the sign of the Cross over the Sun at Milvian Bridge, and the book of Malachi mentions the "sun of righteousness," associated with Jesus. Early churches were oriented toward the Sun, and some early Christian graves in the Roman catacombs have sun imagery on them, from before the Church settled on the Winter Solstice-related date for the Nativity.

One theory says that the persecuted Christians celebrated on the 25th to conceal their subversive worshipping among the pagan Roman festivities. By the time the 25th of December had been chosen by Christianity, however, Constantine had made Christianity an official religion in the Roman Empire. Also,
...while the winter solstice on or around December 25 was well established in the Roman imperial calendar, there is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedated the celebration of Christmas. [S.E.Hijmans, The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome]
Also, the Feast of the Annunciation, when the angel told Mary that she had conceived, is on March 25th. (Note: March 25th for many cultures was the start of the New Year, since it marks the point after the Vernal Equinox when days become longer than nights.) Putting the birth of Christ nine months after the Annunciation just made sense, a theory accepted by the Church of England Liturgical Commission.

So how early was Christmas celebrated on December 25th? Tomorrow we will look at the earliest known reference.

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