Christmas Specialties: comments on the origins of the modern world’s most universal holiday.
It is a phrase much despised by historians, and yet quite nearly true, “The origins of this are lost in the mists of Time”; in this case, of Christmas.
As everyone knows, this holiday’s name, at least, commemorates the birthday of a legendary prophet or demi-god, whose followers, many times removed, were instrumental in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Popular histories of the holiday itself (https://billpetro.com/history-of-christmas-advent/) trace it to the Saturnalia, the original of ‘Satur(n)day’, which celebrated freedom in all its forms; — including the freedom from slavery; it was customary, in rich Roman households, to liberate slaves for the day, and allow them to live like free men and women, while their masters gave the day to ‘eat, drink, and be merry’, with wine and song. Had this custom of a day’s liberty been continued, and expanded, in later slaveholding regimes, and especially in the Americas, perhaps the modern Emancipations might have been more civil, and less war, though not less necessary.
Other roots of the festival, lie in the solar cult, and Mithraic cult, supposedly imported to Rome from Persia, with the god Sol or Mithras as ‘Savior’ of the world from cold and darkness, both physical and moral. All the epithets and attributes of Christ in later literature, were of course epithets and attributes of Sol and Mithras in those days; and the association with wine and song, link the festival in turn to Bacchus, the Roman god of such things, who famously became a ‘Risen Savior’ in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, wherein he was nearly destroyed by the advent of his father, Jupiter, but revived by (and through) that same Father, to become a god of redemption, in a way, from earthly joys and sorrows; for on his days, the laity might well seek through drink, peace, and music, the benevolent oblivion or sense of unity and harmony with all things, which ascetics and mystics sought by other means, year round.
It is thus very easy, and not wrong, to portray Christmas as a simple adaptation of these earlier festivals. But there are more mythologies bound in it than that.
As a day for the god Saturn, the namesake of our ringéd planet, the Saturnalia might be assimilated, though the present author must shrink from crediting this idea to anyone in antiquity, to a day for Cronus, his nearest Greek equivalent: a god-king emeritus, but also the villain of his own story, as in Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’, wherein he devours his own sons, until Zeus, the youngest, grows up to overthrow him. In this respect, Zeus is an archetype of Christ: the divine child, born and raised to destroy the tyrant. (Zeus, in most mythology, is in later life a tyrant himself; but this is hardly unusual, in revolutionary regimes and new religions, including Christianity, Islam, Marxism, Capitalism, and nearly all Europe’s former colonies.)
Meanwhile, the story of Cronus consuming his children, only to be overthrown, makes him identifiable in part with Kans/Kamsa, the villain of the Indian myths of the ‘Bhagvad Purana’; in some ways the original of Christianity’s evil King Herod. In the Purana, Kamsa kills off, not his own sons, but those of his sister Devaki, predicted to overthrow him, except for two, Balaram and Krishna, who go into hiding among the herdsmen in the countryside (perhaps the origin of the Christian association with shepherds; but the kings of Mesopotamia were also called ‘Good Shepherd’ or ‘Shepherd of the people’, and much of Christianity derives its mythopoetic language, as well as the legend of Noah’s Ark, from Mesopotamia). Kamsa, in turn, initiates the ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’; — i.e., of any child in the city of an age with Devaki’s sons; — but, like the Pharaoh in the ‘Exodus’, and indeed most purges before and since, misses the intended victims altogether. Balaram and Krishna, then, grow up to overthrow him, and thus become ‘Saviors’ themselves, in the style aforesaid. Indeed, the story of the lost heir returning to conquer, and restore justice and peace, is a widespread and ancient one. Cyrus the Great is made its protagonist in Herodotus’ ‘History’; there are hints of it in the origin-story of Perseus, and later, the legend of Romulus and Remus; and in memory of this legend, Arthur is called the Once and Future King. Other examples abound, and more are invented with every passing century.
Therefore it might be argued, the Christmas festival is universal in Eurasia, and wherever the mythologies thereof may be said to go, and a celebration for all the ages. Though named for a single faith, and that not the most tolerant by any measure, it is, was, and (we hope) ought always to be, a day for all humanity.