Jesus Christ, Copycat

Merry Christmas! I’ve never really understood why (at least in the United States) this is the one holiday when we’re supposed to be merry instead of merely happy, but there you go. And as we all know, the true meaning of Christmas involves the birth of somebody who probably wasn’t actually born then.

That Christianity has roots in pagan religions is pretty much undeniable, but I’ll occasionally come across something online that just goes too far. For instance, I’ve seen people propose that Jesus was based on Horus or Krishna because they were both born on 25 December. There are two major problems with this. One is that it isn’t true. What I’ve been able to find out about Horus’ connection to this time of year is that there were sometimes celebrations in his honor around the winter solstice, but I’ve seen no reputable indication that this was a birthday celebration. I don’t know how many cultures assigned birthdays to their gods, but I get the impression it wasn’t common. That said, there is a tradition about the births of five of the major Egyptian gods (Isis, Osiris, Set, Nephthys, and, yes, Horus) that do link them to specific dates. The myth has it that the sun god Ra refused to let the sky goddess Nut give birth on any day of the year. So she gambled with the moon god and managed to expand the year by five days, then had one child on each of these. This myth seems to reflect the addition of an extra five days to the Egyptian calendar in order to bring it more in line with the length of the solar year. So when were these days? They weren’t part of any month, but fell in between the last month of one year and the first month of the next. And since the year started when Sirius could be seen just before sunrise, which was around when the Nile would flood, we’re looking at the summer here. If this page is to be believed, then Horus was born on 15 July. There’s still the issue of which Horus we’re talking about, which I addressed in this earlier post, but I don’t know that any date was associated with the birth of Horus the Younger.

Krishna also had a summer birthday, with one tradition (at least according to Wikipedia) specifically dating it to 18 or 21 July 3228 BC. The celebration of his birthday, known as Janmashtami, takes place in August or September. So again, no connection with late December.

The other major problem I mentioned is that there’s no known tradition of Jesus being born on 25 December until around the fourth century, long after his actual date of birth would have been forgotten. The Bible makes no mention of a particular date for Jesus’ birth, and while the Church eventually decided to celebrate it on 25 December, you’d be somewhat hard pressed to find a Christian these days who actually believes that’s when Jesus was born (or at least believes that date over any other; I guess he COULD have been born then). So, in other words, saying that other deities were born on that day says nothing about Christianity being a rip-off, because there’s nothing in Christianity (at least in the varieties I know of) that attests to Jesus being born then. It’s just an observed birthday, really, sort of like Presidents’ Day.

Actually, it seems that the date of Christmas WAS somewhat of a rip-off, just not as ancient of a rip-off as the conspiracy theorists want to believe. The twenty-fifth was the date of the Roman festival of Sol Invictus, who was basically a composite solar deity.

Since the winter solstice fell on or around that date, and that could be considered a rebirth of the Sun from an earthly perspective, it basically became the observed birthday of all sun gods. This might possibly have included Horus, as one of his eyes was considered to represent the Sun, but this was Roman religion rather than Egyptian. And I don’t know of Krishna being associated with the Sun at all. So, yes, Christmas was almost certainly superimposed on top of a pagan holiday, but it was a pagan holiday apparently not much older than Christmas itself. The solstice was celebrated by many cultures long before the Romans came up with Sol Invictus, but in the absence of any other evidence, I’d say Christmas was based on that specific Roman festival rather than just the solstice itself. And later, as Christianity and Christmas spread throughout the world, it came to absorb other traditions from around the same time of year, like yule logs and decorated trees. So no, Jesus is not the reason for the season, but I have nothing against anyone celebrating his birthday today. If Jesus doesn’t mind sharing his observed birthday with an amalgamated solar deity, I see no reason why anyone else should. And that’s the two chocolate coins of an atheist who believes in celebrating as many holidays as possible. Hey, I don’t believe Ozma exists either, but I always try to do something for her birthday as revealed in The Road to Oz (21 August). So happy birthday to Jesus and/or the sun-god of your choice!

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9 Responses to Jesus Christ, Copycat

  1. Ozaline says:

    You forgot another roman holiday Saturnalia

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturnalia

    Which Christmas traditions were also lifted from, like the role switching of slave and master for one day (which I believe the british army still does on boxing day). Sadly Christianity axed the drunken orgies.

    But very concise post…

    Also Christmas is not a likely day at all for Jesus’ birth… simple reason:

    Sheaperds arent out grazing their flock by night in December, he was most likely born closer to Easter but Easter is also pretty well around the right time for the resurection (though it should be tied to passover instead of the moon).

    Anyway, Christianity deffinitly borrows from paganism (especially in the extra-biblical stuff) but yeah the Horus thing is blown way out of proportion.

    I also wish the Church would drop philosophies based on mistransltations of the Bible (the Latin Vulgate and the KJV have numerous mistakes… but that’s a topic for another day).

    • Nathan says:

      I said a little on Saturnalia in this post from two years ago. I think it was celebrated earlier in the month than the 25th, but it was definitely an influence on both Sol Invictus and Christmas, at least as it was celebrated before its child-friendly reformation. I think a lot of people are still in favor of drinking heavily on Christmas, though, so we can say the spirit of Saturn lives on. {g} Mind you, Jesus is also closely associated with wine, as much as the Pentecostals might want us to believe otherwise.

      I’m not really sure what the winter solstice is like in Israel. I assume there isn’t any snow, except possibly in the mountains, but would it be warm enough for sheep to be out grazing?

  2. Ozaline says:

    Also I still hold fast to my belief that Ozma was not born on the 21st of August but that Oz and the Nonestic Contentent has a totally different calander and she was born on the 21st day of a month on that calander that happens to overlap with August.

    • Nathan says:

      I’m trying to remember if there are any mentions in Baum of our months being used in Oz. There are quite frequent references to such in Thompson (which means that I find them canonical), but I’m not sure about Baum.

  3. I honestly think the people who are all “Christmas is JESUS’S BIRTHDAY AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT!” are doing the true meaning of Christmas a disservice. Technically, from official Church standpoint (at least the Catholic, I can’t really speak for anyone else), Christmas is the celebration of the Coming of the Christ, which is not ONLY that Jesus Christ was born once (at some date nobody actually knows) a long time ago in the middle east, but also about the Second Coming, and also (and probably most importantly from a spiritual standpoint) the coming of Christ into the hearts of each individual person. This fits with my additional frustration with the people on the other side who are always like “Christians just STOLE Christmas from the pagans!” All winter solstice holidays are fundamentally about the coming of light into the darkness. THAT IS TOTALLY WHAT THE COMING OF CHRIST IS ABOUT. The early (relatively) Christians could NOT have picked a more appropriate time of year for this celebration!

    I’m all about a secular Christmas. I don’t want to keep Christmas to myself, claiming it as something only we people who believe in Jesus as Christ celebrate. I want to share the coming of Light into the Darkness with EVERYBODY. Merry Christmas, Mr. Atheist!

    • Nathan says:

      While I get that the “Christians stole Christmas” argument is meant to counteract the “keep Christ in Christmas” crowd, it is a little ridiculous when you think about it, because it basically divides religion into Christianity and Everything Else. In truth, there’s a lot more of Everything Else than some people seem to realize, and the celebration of the winter solstice is something that underwent considerable changes long before Jesus showed up. That’s also why I often find mentions of “pagan holidays” to be a bit overly broad. I don’t think Celtic pagans and Egyptian pagans had exactly the same holidays. In fact, we KNOW they didn’t. Anyway, thanks, and merry Christmas to you as well!

  4. vilajunkie says:

    Sol Invictus was basically Mithras, or the Persian/Zoroastrian Mitra, of course. Which brings a whole ‘nother layer of arguments and confusion into this, since Mitra shares traits with both Jesus and the Archangel Michael and a lot of Zoroastrianism overlaps with Christianity myth-wise–not necessarily with Judaism though, since both Zoroastrianism and Judaism came about around the same time period and so their similarities are more likely because of the culture of the time period rather than Judaism “borrowing” from Zoroastrianism.

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