This is second in a series of 12 posts on historical Christmas traditions. I didn’t note my sources, but please trust I did verify the information.
About the time Jesus was born, the Romans were big into worshiping a god named Mithras in a highly elaborate cult. Mithras began as a Persian Zoroastrian god of oaths, but was assimilated by the Romans because of his popularity with soldiers. Some researchers suggest he may have been the god of choice of a pagan, Romano-Celtic King Arthur. Like Jesus, Mithras was said to have been born on December 25 and was as a reconciler between the forces of good and evil who was buried in a tomb and rose from the dead after three days. Like the Celtic gods celebrated at Yule, he was a child of the sun. Sources differ over whether or not Mithras became ever human like Jesus (and some Greek gods) did. Mithraism is sometimes viewed as a rival of early Christianity.
Have you ever heard of Mithras?
I hadn’t until I started researching what religion a pagan Arthur might have followed, and boom, there you go.
Call it MithraYuleMas – the fact that three distinct holidays (holy days) were celebrated on or near December 25 in the times of King Arthur and Guinevere. It was a contentious age, in which the old pagan religions were waning and the new religion of Christianity was just gaining power, so what each person celebrated depended on their faith. (I’m not taking any sides here, just stating the tenants of the traditions.) Here are the top three most likely festivals:
The Great Mother and her divine son
Yule – Celebrated on the Winter Solstice (December 21-23 depending on the year), Yule marks the longest night of the year and the rebirth of the god who died at Samhain. This child of light (Lugh, Mabon or various other gods) is symbolized by the sun, which will continue to gain strength until the Summer Solstice. In some versions of Celtic mythology, the young god is kidnapped or stolen away in precarious circumstances, much like the Christian story of the flight into Egypt and the Arthurian tale of Arthur’s fostering by Sir Ector at Merlin’s command. Many sites associated with the Druids, such as Newgrange and Stonehenge, are aligned to the Winter Solstice sunrise or sunset.
The holy family
Christmas – Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the son of the Hebrew (and now Christian) God. Many scholars now agree it is likely the historical Jesus was born in spring or summer, the time when shepherds (who were among the first to visit baby Jesus, according to the Bible) would have had their sheep in pasture and been keeping the night watch mentioned in the Bible. So why do we celebrate Christmas in December? The Catholic Church was very good assimilating aspects of the old faiths when it took over. That date conveniently encompassed the pagan celebrations of Yule and the birth of Mithras (see below), so it would have made the conversion of the faithful a little easier.
Mithras slaying the bull
Birth of Mithras – Mithras began as a Persian Zoroastrian god of oaths, but was assimilated by the Romans in a highly elaborate cult. Because of his popularity with soldiers, some researchers suggest he may have been the god of choice of a pagan, Romano-Celtic King Arthur. Like Jesus, Mithras was said to have been born on December 25 and was as a reconciler between the forces of good and evil who was buried in a tomb and rose after three days. Like the Celtic gods celebrated at Yule, he was a child of the sun. Sources differ over whether or not Mithras was ever human.
So which feast were Arthur and Guinevere most likely to celebrate? The truth is, we don’t know. I’ve made decisions for my books, but personally, I think the smartest course of action would have been to keep their personal beliefs to themselves and tolerate all three. That way, they would ensure the loyalty of the greatest number of their subjects.