As we face the frigid temperatures of winter, the cold and gloom help us to understand why ancient cultures created the mid-winter celebrations that eventually morphed into what became Christmas.
After the bounty of the fall harvest, people knew they faced five or six months of wet, snowy, bone-chilling cold until the earth started to warm up again in springtime. Often the people slaughtered most of their animals in the fall because they wouldn’t have enough to feed all of them through the winter. So for a time meat was abundant, but then it started running out as winter set in. Starvation and death from disease was an ever-present reality in the long winter months.
Some people, usually the religious leaders, carefully tracked the time as the sun rose and set at its lowest point on the southern horizon—marking the shortest day and longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, which fell on the winter solstice, Dec. 21 or 22. By Dec. 25 the days had started becoming noticeably longer as the sun reversed its decline and began moving north, so Dec. 25 became the day for celebration in a number of ancient cultures. Now the days would start growing longer, and that was seen as a cause for celebration.
This became linked to sun-worship because, up until that point in the view of the ancient people, the sun had been growing weaker and weaker and the world growing colder and colder. But as the days started growing longer, the sun was viewed as growing stronger—the sun wasn’t dying, but it was rejuvenating and would return to warm the world and give them another year of crops and harvests. Now they might not starve or freeze to death after all! This is also why Dec. 25 was seen as the birthday of the sun—it was “reborn” at that time. Dec. 25 was viewed as the birthday of the sun-god, Mithras, long before it was adopted as the supposed birthday of the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth.
The ancient peoples made their own calendar-calculating devices such as Stonehenge (and many similar structures, including some in the United States) to track the movements of the sun on its annual journey, and thus they were able to know the time of the winter and summer solstices. In recent decades astronomers have learned that many ancient temples were aligned so that the ancient priesthoods and royalty could determine the time of the solstices and equinoxes and relay that to the people. This secret knowledge would’ve made the priests and royalty seem like gods to the average person—thus enhancing their power and helping them to create and maintain whatever religious myths they wanted to put over on the people. These are some of the reasons why pagan religions had such a powerful hold over the people.
The same general lines of thinking led to the idea of various gods being “resurrected” in the springtime as new plant growth began to spring from the earth. The fertility goddess Ishtar (Easter) had her major celebrations in the springtime, and associated with her were the fertility symbols of rabbits and eggs—which remain with us at Easter. These celebrations were linked with various gods such as Tammuz (in Babylon) and Horus (in Egypt) being supposedly resurrected in the spring. Sunrise services go back 4,000 years to people waiting for their gods to be resurrected at dawn in these springtime celebrations.
This is a broad outline of how we got today’s two major religious celebrations, Christmas and Easter. Both are counterfeits of real biblical events—the birth of Jesus Christ at the time of the biblical Holy Days in the fall in the Holy Land and the Passover that He commands us to remember Him by. It is good to research or refresh our memories about these things every year and to contrast their origins to the origins of the festivals and Holy Days given by God and found in the Bible. To learn more, download or reqeust our free study aid Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Observe?