By Fereydoun Vahman
A large percentage of the world population is celebrating Christmas and the New Year. Although the birth of Jesus and the start of the Christian New Year are a week apart, the two events have been closely linked throughout the centuries. The beginning of the new year dates back to the Julian Calendar established by the Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar in 45 BC, to reform the Roman Calendar. There is ample historical evidence to showing that events that took place a century before Jesus’s birth were intertwined with the Christian calendar.
While most Christians, including some Eastern Orthodox Christians (e.g., Greeks and Syrians), celebrate Christmas on December 25, others including Copts, Ethiopians, Georgians, and Russians observe January 6 as the birth date of Jesus. It, therefore, begs the question: who in Palestine had the spiritual hindsight 2,000 years ago to record the birth of an infant born in a poor family to an unknown woman named Mary? Who had the intellectual vision at the time to predict that the infant Jesus would grow up to become a Messiah who would change the world? The answer is obvious: no one.
There is no mention of Christ in ancient Roman historical sources. Christianity was considered a superstitious cult until the 4th century when it was finally recognized as a religion. Palestine and Asia Minor were part of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire.) Roman officials and soldiers through the empire worshiped and made offerings to their Gods. Except for the Jewish religion, which had a long and well-established tradition and history in the region, all other spiritual and mystic sects including Egyptian beliefs were practiced in secret.
In the 1st century AD, Mithraism, also known as the Mithraic mysteries, gained popularity with Roman soldiers stationed in Asia Minor who introduced the religion to Rome and other parts of the empire. It soon became a religion of choice among the Roman aristocracy. The God Mithra was revered in Zoroastrianism, and throughout the ancient Persian Achaemenid Empire (550 BC – 330 BC). Many scholarly works have been written on the connection between Mithraism and Zoroastrianism. The branch of the Mithraic religion which started in the Western Roman Empire and spread to Eastern Europe is indirectly related to Zoroastrianism. These traditions eventually influenced the Babylonian and Chaldean religions, which led to the gradual formation of a sophisticated and eclectic belief system in the region.
Mithraic temples were built in underground caves. A temple comprised a large prayer chamber with an arched ceiling at the end of which a massive wall relief of the God Mithra loomed over the worshippers. The sanctuary of Mithras, in the courtyard of the Insula, inside Rome’s Basilica of Saint Clement is an excellent example of such a temple. In statues, reliefs, and paintings, Mithra is usually depicted as a young man wearing an Eastern-style tunic who is about to slay the bull he is sitting on with a sword. This is arguably the first symbolic depiction of a sacrificial bull whose seed fertilizes the world – leading to the propagation of plants and animal lives.
Mithraic novices had to undergo a seven-step initiation ceremony which involved grueling physical, psychological and emotional tests. After completing the rite of passage, the initiates, who called themselves Syndexioiose, were allowed to take part in the ceremonial Last Supper, which symbolized Mithra’s final meal before ascending to the heavens, thereby guaranteeing eternal life for all his followers.
Mithraism reached the height of popularity in the early 3rd century AD. At just about the same time, Christianity was growing fast and gaining a significant number of followers. The Roman Emperor Aurelian made Mithraism the official state religion in 274 AD. The God was known as Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun / Victorious Sun), and the protector of the empire.
In many wall reliefs, murals, mosaics, and paintings, Mithra’s face were depicted as a radiant sun. Similar sun disks are seen around the heads of the Achaemenid kings carved on the walls of the ancient ruins of Persepolis. Kings who were protected by Mithra brought peace and prosperity to their people, and the opposite held true for those who were not favored by him.
The Victorious Sun celebration held on December 21 marks the anniversary of Mithra’s birth. It is one of Mithraism’s principal religious rituals which falls on the start of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. It is also the shortest day and the longest night of the year. The occasion symbolizes the rebirth of the Sun. In Zoroastrianism darkness is the domain of Ahriman (destructive spirit), and light emanates from Ahura Mazda (highest spirit.) The rebirth of the Sun symbolizes the eternal battle between light and darkness and eventual triumph of good over evil.
Mithraism began to fade and lose its popularity by the 4th century AD. During the reign of the Emperor Constantine the Great (AD 306 – 337), Christianity began to transition to the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. While Constantine legalized and promoted Christianity, it was Emperor Theodosius I who in 380 AD made Nicene Christianity Empire’s state religion.
To establish Christianity as the state religion, scholars had a daunting task of determining the birth date of Jesus and separate facts from myths. Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 AD, and a year later he issued the Edict of Milan decriminalizing Christian worship. He then tasked scholars and priests with determining the birth date of Jesus.
It is widely believed that the high priests established that since it was on March 23 that the Archangel Gabriel informed Mary (the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary) that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, December 21 would logically be the birth date of Jesus. However, December 21 coincided with the Victorious Sun celebration. To solve the problem, the Romans moved Jesus’s birth to December 25. No one objected to the decision given the fact that there was no consensus on the exact date of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
It is, however, a well-documented fact that a year before his death in 336 AD, Emperor Constantine declared December 25 as the official birth date of Jesus. The day has gradually changed to December 24 in the last couple of centuries mainly because people spend it shopping for gifts for their family and friends.
The migration and blending of different religions are part of an evolutionary process that incorporates ideas, symbols, myths, and doctrines from one belief system in another. Earlier in this article, I described Mithraic celebration of the Last Supper which closely resembles the same event in Christianity. The sacrificial bull and fertilization of plants and animal lives of the Mithraic tradition can be traced back to Zoroastrianism. Many churches in Asia Minor were built on or around the remnants of Mithraic temples.
Shabe-e Yalda (Yalda night) is an ancient Iranian festival which symbolizes the rebirth of the Sun. It is held on December 21, the longest and darkest night of the year, marking the arrival of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. Yalda means birth in the Syriac language which is a dialect of Middle Aramaic dating to the early 1st century AD. It can also be traced to the Arabic word walad, meaning birth. Persian families traditionally celebrate the occasion by staying up late at night and eating watermelons, grapes, and pomegranate.
Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi