THE CHRISTMAS MYTH, article in The Coming Day 1893
See also The Pagan Origins of Christmas - 40 Books on CDROM and The Pagan Christ, Over 200 Books on DVDrom (Christ Myth) Mithras, Buddha etc
It has never been my custom to do anything but accept the delightful associations and memories of Advent time; and to fall in with Christmas customs, Christmas traditions, and the Christmas spirit, both for their own sake and because one might almost say that custom has founded what history might not warrant. But I have for many years been conscious that the time would come when we should have to be historical, whatever might come of it: and it is plain that, in the end, history will not justify the tradition which associates the birth of Christ with any particular time. There is, on the other hand, a great deal which points to the conclusion that solar phenomena, and myths connected with the solar phenomena, have more to do with the traditional date than anything else. The very suspicious connection between the date fixed for the birth of "the Sun of Righteousness" and the birthday or recovery of the sun after the winter solstice is itself very suggestive. It is a charming allegory or symbol— that the advent of the "Light of the World," as Jesus has been called, should be coincident with the restoration of the sun after its winter decline: but allegory or symbol is all we can make of it.
In the Pagan world, in the early days of Christianity, many festivals were kept; but none were so important and so beloved as those that were kept at the end of December. One of these was the Sigillaria, or Infants' Festival, kept at the end of the Saturnalia—a festival of enormous importance which occurred at the time when we now keep Christmas. The eager Church, anxious to make way amongst the pagan population, adopted many of its ways, and notably its holidays and festivals. It was so with this. The pagan Sigillaria, or children's festival, became the Christian Christmas—the true festival of the children. At the Sigillaria, the little pagan children were presented with images. At our Christmas the little Christian children get dolls. It is a mere case of transference. So with our decoration by means of evergreens. The Romans did it before we did, and some of the Christian councils condemned it as too heathenish. So with our Christmas tree, which takes us back to ancient tree worship, or to a very ancient pagan legend concerning the mother of Adonis, who was changed into a tree, and, in that state, brought forth her son. So with our Christmas candles, which carry us back to the ancient sun and fire worship, in this case symbolising the return of the blessed sun. So our Christmas-day, our Christmas tree, our Christmas candles, and our Christmas dolls are all direct survivals of the old pagan ideas or feasts, which the clever priests transferred. As Neander says:— "There was also a festival still more analogous to that of Christmas, namely, that of the shortest day, the winter solstice; the birthday of the new sun, about to return once more towards the earth. Christ, the sun of the spiritual world, was in this case compared with that of the material world. As, in the material world, it is after the darkness has reached its highest point that the end of its dominion is already near, and the light begins to acquire fresh power; so, too, in the spiritual world, after the darkness had reached its greatest height, Christ, the spiritual sun, must appear to make an end of the kingdom of darkness. Many allusions of this kind are to be found in the discourses of the Church Fathers. The celebration of the Nativity was transferred to the 25th of December for the purpose of drawing away the Christians from all participation in the heathen festivals, and also for the purpose of gradually drawing over the pagans themselves from thear idolatrous customs to the Christian celebration."
A clever writer puts it well:—"It was the policy of the papal Church, after its Bishops had embraced Christianity, to retain many of the pagan festivals under other and Christian names, in order to conciliate those who remained pagans, and in order also to swell the number of nominal adherents to Christianity. Pope Gregory I. (a.d. 590) decided that the pagans should be met half-way, hoping thus to bring them into the Romish Church. Mosheim, an orthodox historian of that Church, says, "It is difficult to determine whether the heathens were most christianised, or Christians most heathenised." Christianity, I fear, was in many instances, then as now, nothing but a name; and because of the lukewarmness or indifference of its post-apostolic supporters, the system of religion which now goes by that title differs considerably from the simple morality taught by its Founder. Towards the close of the sixth century, unanimity may be said to have been attained in the celebration of December 25th as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ — and not till then!" About 300 years after Christ, Christmas keeping began!
But there was something else which the highly organised Church of the fourth century did. It not only adopted pagan festivals and turned a Saturnalia into a Christmas, without the slightest reference to history and dates: it did more. It took up several of the old pagan doctrines, symbols, and myths; and, amongst them, one which has had an enormous influence upon the fate of Christendom. It not only invented the 25th of December as the date of the birth of Christ, in order to transfer to that birth all the interest associated with the festival of the children and the festival of the sun; but it transferred to that event the symbol of the Virgin and Child. Persons who are unacquainted with the facts will find it difficult at first to believe that the virgin, lady, or madonna and child are far, very far, older than Christianity. The Jesuit missionaries were amazed when they found the "blessed virgin'' in China, in Japan, and Thibet. The ancient Greeks had her—so had the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and the very Aztecs of Mexico. Ancient pictures and monuments exist which clearly shew that the virgin and child were transferred into the Christian cult as the festival was transferred into the Christian year. The Egyptian Christian priests must have known the symbol well, in the shape of Isis and Horus, a perfect virgin and child, Isis being the divine mother of the god Horus.
The New Testament has both views—-that Jesus was the child of a virgin-mother, and that Joseph was his father. But it is very interesting to note that most serious and significant changes have been made in the official Revised Version of the Old Testament.
Luke ii., 33, has a suggestive alteration. The old version speaks of Joseph and Mary, in relation to Jesus, as "Joseph and his mother," a palpable endorsement of the legend that Jesus had no father but only a mother. Joseph is simply called "Joseph," while Mary is called "his mother." But in the Revised Version the plain truth is told, and Joseph and Mary are called "his father and his mother." Nor is this an isolated case. Farther on (ii., 43) the old version has again, "Joseph and his mother," again excluding fatherhood; but the new version says "of his parents." One of the revisers, himself a decidedly orthodox man, admits that the old Greek was tampered with in the interests of the doctrine of the miraculous conception.
Oddly enough, the main body of Christians have committed themselves to the pagan myth of the virgin birth, and mainly on the authority of the Old Testament, a fact which is enough to make the old Unitarian Hebrews haunt every Christian Church. The passages mainly relied upon are in the prophecies of Isaiah, and form perhaps one of the most striking instances existing of a great delusion, the wonderful thing being that the means for exploding the delusion lie on the vary surface. The passages are the well-known verses: —" Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall ha upon his shoulder: and his name shall ba called Wonderful, Councillor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace."
The facts are now well-known, but a writer in The Jewish World points out these facts from the important standpoint of the Jews themselves, and I prefer to quote him rather than make any fresh statement of my own. He says:—"Immediately preceding the close of the reign of Jotham, it appears that Pekah, the King of the ten tribes of Israel, and Rezin, the King of Syria, threatened hostilities against the Kingdom of Judah (II. Kings, xv., 36, 38). Ahaz succeeded Jotham early in the year 742 B.C., and upon his assuming the reins of government, both Rezin and Pekah "came up to Jerusalem to war: and they beseiged Ahaz but could not overcome him" (II. Kings, xvi., 5). The Prophet Isaiah agrees with the historian of the Boo c o1 Kings, that Rezin and Pekah would not succeed in their war against Judah, Evidently neither Ahaz nor the population of Jerusalem had any faith in this prediction of Isaiah who therefore requests Ahaz to ask a sign from Jehovah. This Ahaz refused to do, and declared "that he would not ask, neither would he tempt Jehovah." In these circumstances Isaiah proclaimed to Ahaz that Jehovah Himself would give him a sign, which was as follows:—"Behold the virgin is with child (in 742 B.C) and beareth a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Curds and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings thou abhorrest shall be forsaken." The two confederated kings were Rezin and Pekah, who, at this time, threatened hostilities, or were engaged in a sanguinary war against Ahaz and the integrity of his dominion. Moreover, early in the year 742 B.C., Ahaz was married to the virgin Queen Abijah, who, in conformity with natural laws, gave birth to the heir apparent to the throne before the close of that year, and undoubtedly Queen Abijah is the virgin and Hezekiah the child to whom Isaiah, before its birth, gave the allegorical designation of Immanuel. Immanuel signifies "God is with us," and in conformity with the allegory inherent in the name Immanuel, it was the expectation of Isaiah that Jehovah, the God of Israel, would not permit the allied kings of Syria and Israel to succeed in their hostile war against the kingdom of Judah.
The Prophet Isaiah was, no doubt, a frequent visitor to the palace at Jerusalem. The sign, therefore, which he gave to Ahaz, "Behold the virgin (or, as the word may properly mean, a young woman or wife) is with child," &c, is not a prophecy in any true sense whatever, but an historical narrative of a social event which took place in the royal household. The event was, perhaps, one of great political significance, because the child born of the queen was the heir-apparent to the throne, upon whose intellectual ability and moral character so largely depended the social and political well-being of the nation.
In the seventh chapter of Isaiah, the Prophet announced to Ahaz the impending birth of a son, to whom, a priori, he gave the allegorical designation of Immanuel, and this son I have already identified as Hezekiah, King of Judah. In the ninth chapter he announces the actual birth of the child in the grandiloquent language of an Oriental sage, which, perhaps, is appropriately employed in the proclamation of the birth of an Eastern King: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Councillor, Mighty God (or mighty hero), Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom to establish it, and to uphold it with judgment and with righteousness from henceforth even for ever." This declaration is involved in no exegetical difficulty, and it is plain that the narrative is not a prediction of a future, but the proclamation of an antecedent event—the birth of the heir-apparent to the throne in the palace at Jerusalem. The Prophet, writing in the year 742 B.C., declares emphatically that "Unto us — the Kingdom of Judah—a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government (of the nation) shall be upon his shoulder." Then, in verse seven, he adds, "Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth (742 B.C) even for ever." The "for ever" of Isaiah is a mere rhetorical flourish of the school of the prophets, which receives its explanation in the recorded death of Hezekiah in 697 B.C. In the announcement of the conception of the virgin, who can be identified with Queen Abijah, Isaiah bestowed upon the child the allegorical name of Immanuel, which signifies "God is with us." Is he not also referred to in chapter 8, verse 8? and in like manner when proclaiming, a posteriori, the actual birth of a son, he continues to employ similar allegorical figures of speech, and, with exultation, calls the child, "Wonderful Councillor, The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace." But these figures of speech do not blind us to the fact that this child was to sit upon the throne of David from the year 742 B.C, and is none other than Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, King of Judah."
So, says the Jewish World: - "It is evident that the author of the Gospel of St. Matthew has constructed this legendary narrative of the birth of Christ merely upon a misinterpretation of Isaiah vii., 10, 16."
That is the conclusion of this remorseless Hebrew; and he certainly does show the danger of laying stress upon the legendary matter of the New Testament. The writer of the Gospel evidently was careless about his quotation from Isaiah, or very ignorant and illogical in construing it, for it is plain that the prophet was talking or writing about events in his own day, hundreds of years before Christ.
What then? The teachings of Jesus will remain: his bright and pure example will remain: his self-denying, brave, and conquering spirit will remain; but the absurdity of his supernatural birth, the bewildering puzzle of his deity, and most of the things the priests have invented for him will disappear, and not a day too soon: and when they have gone, Christianity will be the brighter and the more winsome, as the most reasonable, consoling, and elevating religion the world has ever known.
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