We all have our favorite Christmas memories; fruitcake and family gatherings and beautifully wrapped presents beneath the tree. Christmas is a time of celebration and love and the birthday of the Christ child.
But did you know that long before Christmas, another famous December holiday was celebrated by our ancestors, and for much the same reason?
Modern day Christmas is a celebration of the birth of the Son of God, and is celebrated on December 25. The Winter Solstice was a celebration of the birth of the Mid-Winter King, and is still celebrated in many countries around the world on or about December 22, including North America, Europe, China and Japan.
Long before the birth of Christ, the Winter Solstice celebrated the births of other remarkable babies who were born as gods incarnated into human flesh.
One of the earliest (and most famous) of these man-gods was Osiris, born at midwinter, he was later killed by his jealous brother, and reborn on December 25.
In the sixth century BC, Mithras (an Iranian/Persian and Roman deity) was born in a cave attended by shepherds. It is said that before Mithras’ mortal life was ended, he had a last supper with his followers in which bread and wine were shared. It is also said that Mithras did not actually die, but ascended to heaven, and that he will return to earth one day.
Born of the god Zeus, and the mortal woman Leto, Apollo (whose earlier renderings show him with a halo) was sometimes depicted as a shepherd with a lamb draped over his shoulders.
The Phrygian god Attis was born in a cave at midwinter, though it’s not clear whether his mother was the great goddess Isis or the great mother goddess of Rome, Cybele. Attis, unfortunately, was said to have gone mad because of his mother’s passion for him, so he castrated himself under a pine tree. He became known as the god of the pine. Followers of Attis would cut down a pine tree and decorate it at the Vernal Equinox.
It is said that the birthday of Jesus was not even fixed as December 25 by the church fathers until the fourth century. Since there was no birth date information available, they borrowed from the great midwinter festivals that were already accepted around the world. And what better time to choose than when the Sun itself is reborn and light comes back into the world.