Sun, 30 Dec 2007 20:17:31
By Tahereh Ghanaati, Press TV, Tehran
Everywhere we look we see them - the trappings of Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ. Much of the world is decked out in its glittering holiday splendor for one of the most joyous occasions on the Western calendar.
But was Jesus really born on December 25th? The answer is most likely, 'NO'! The fact is that no one knows when Jesus was actually born.
The New Testament does not say. But it does give us a strong clue that the event did not take place on Christmas Day. According to the Gospels, angels announced Jesus' birth to shepherds, who were watching their flocks at night.
There is only one time during the year, in which Palestinian shepherds tend their flocks at night and that is during the spring when it is lambing time. Thus Jesus' birth most likely took place some time around the Vernal Equinox. So why has most of Christendom settled on December 25th?
The celebration of Christmas dates back to the Fourth Century, A.D. - the year 354, to be exact - when the early Church Fathers settled on December 25th to commemorate the birth of Jesus. On this day, a special Mass was held, known as 'Christ Mass', hence, the word 'Christmas'.
However, the fact remains that by settling on December 25th as a 'convenient date', the Church Fathers were inadvertently acknowledging that it was not the actual date of Jesus' birth which leads us to another question?
Who was believed to have been born on that date? The answer may be surprising. The man, who the ancients believed to have been born on Christmas Day, was a legendary Iranian hero.
The ancients believed that December 25th (according to the Julian calendar) was the birth date of Mithra, the legendary Iranian warrior-cum-superhero, who represented Ahura Mazda (God) in his age-old battle against Ahriman, or Satan.
This war between good and evil, between the forces of light and those of darkness, was believed to last through the millennia, culminating in a cataclysmic confrontation on Judgment Day. On that day, it was believed that the forces of Ahura Mazda, led by Mithra, would be granted entry into Heaven, whereas those spirits supporting Ahriman would be consigned to the depths of Hell.
Mithra, who had earlier been worshiped as a sun god, was reintroduced in the latter 7th and early 6th century B.C., by the Iranian monotheist, Zarathustra (Zoroaster), who hailed from the Persian province of Bactria.
Zoroaster related how Mithra led an exemplary life and was therefore chosen to lead the forces of Ahura Mazda in the Great Battle over the fate of Mankind and the world.
Since Mithra had previously been worshiped as the sun god, his birthday fell on the day on which the sun is annually reborn, the Winter Solstice. The present Gregorian calendar designates December 21st as the Winter Solstice, but according to the old, Julian calendar, this event occurred on December 25th.
Ancient Iranians celebrated the birth of Mithra in a number of ways. One was by lighting hilltop bonfires on this night, which is the longest of the year.
One might think that this is all very interesting, but it doesn't really answer the question as to why Christmas is celebrated on Mithra's birthday. The answer can be given in one simple sentence. It was politically expedient.
By the Second Century A.D., both Zoroastrianism or Mithraism and Christianity had gained a considerable following in Rome. Actually, Zoroastrianism had been introduced to the Empire's Capital a century before Jesus Christ was born and this religion of a warrior hero rapidly made inroads among the ranks of the Roman military.
In fact, a number of Roman emperors converted to this Persian religion and in 273 A.D., the Emperor Aurelianus introduced a new state holiday - 'Natalis Sol Invictus', or the birthday of the 'Invincible Sun'. This day, the birthday of Mithra, was celebrated on December 25th.
However, as Zoroastrianism grew in Rome, another Eastern religion was introduced and quickly closed the gap. That religion was Christianity. Though historians estimate that in 200 A.D., there were only around 200,000 Christians throughout the Roman Empire, the religion experienced phenomenal growth.
Within fifty years, it had grown to such an extent as to alarm Rome's rulers, who considered it a threat to the State. In a vain attempt to suppress the religion, various emperors launched a series of persecution campaigns.
Two of the worst were ordered by Decius (249-251 A.D.) and Diocletian (303-305 A.D.); yet, these attempts proved unsuccessful. They were unable to stem the tide.
Christian doctrine, which prohibited the worship of any other gods, but the One God, was considered subversive by the Roman State, because loyalty to the State entailed worship of the emperor as a living deity.
The new religion continued to gain ground among the Roman populace and with barbarians eating away at Rome's far-flung frontiers, the empire's rulers soon found themselves in a quandary.
To what extent could they depend upon the loyalty of the Roman people when every day, growing numbers of them were rejecting the beliefs on which the state had been founded? There was only one way to assure the loyalty of the Romans.
That was to legitimize their religion - Christianity and convince them that the battles - and enemies - of Rome were also the battles and enemies of Christ. Thus, in 313 A.D. the Roman emperor, Constantine, the First issued the Edict of Milan, legitimizing Christianity.
Constantine's consequent conversion to Christianity and his calling of the Nicean Council, among other moves, led to Rome's formal adoption of Christianity as the State religion In 380 A.D., the emperor, Theodosius went even further, by decreeing Christianity the only religion tolerated in the empire.
These steps assured the loyalty of the majority of the people, but what about that of the military, which was still primarily Zoroastrian?
The answer was to incorporate Zoroastrian holidays and teachings into Christianity. Hence, December 25th, the birthday of Mithra, was declared the birthday of Jesus Christ and a number of other Iranian Mithraic traditions were incorporated, as well, each with a plausible reason.
Liturgies were written in which Jesus was referred to by the title, 'Light of Lights', which had formerly been reserved for Mithra.
Christians began worshiping on Sunday, which was considered sacred by ancient Zoroastrians and a number of churches were erected on the sites of former Zoroastrian fire temples, or 'Mithraeums'.
As a matter of fact, such a temple was discovered a few years ago by archaeologists beneath the high altar of Saint Peter's Cathedral in Rome.
Still another Zoroastrian tradition that was incorporated into Christianity was the kindling and maintaining of an 'eternal light' over Church altars.
Therefore, out of political necessity and in order to save their empire, Roman emperors, nearly two millennia ago, forever altered the course of western culture.
Rooting out countless Greco-Roman customs, they replaced them with Persian traditions, born in the heart of Iran. One of the most notable of these is Christmas.