Borrowed Ideas; Persian Roots of Christian Traditions
By: Ramona Shashaani, December 1999
A while ago, I was invited to give a talk at a Christmas party about the Persian tradition of celebrating the winter solstice on December 21st. In order to speak intelligently to a spiritually and psychologically keen audience, I set out to research the subject. I was scrambling to find resource material when my day was saved by our list co-moderator, Peter Bridge, who provided me with more references than I had hoped to find in my attempt to unravel the historical, symbolic and mythic bases behind the Persian people's celebration of this festive occasion.
What I did not expect to find, however, was a fascinating history of how Christmas may have its origins in the ancient Persian Mithraic tradition of worshipping Mithra or Mehr, the sun-god or god of love. With the approaching winter solstice, I thought it might be appropriate share this history with you.
While Christians around the world are preparing to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25th, the Persians are getting ready to tribute one of their most festive celebrations on Dec. 21st, the eve of winter solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year. In Iran this night is called SHAB-E YALDAA, also known as SHAB-E CHELLEH, which refers to the birthday or rebirth of the sun.
In the east more than in the west, lifestyles have often remained more in tune with nature. This integration of natural rhythms into life cycles is especially true in ancient Persia and has survived the ages. YALDAA, like other major Persian celebrations, is focused on the changing of the seasons. It is as ancient as the time that people organized their lives around the precession of equinoxes.
The most eminent festive affair is NOROOZ, the Iranian new year, which occurs with the spring equinox, around March 21st. It is no wonder that astrology was first inaugurated in ancient Babylonia, a part of the Persian Empire. Yet YALDAA is chiefly related to MEHR YAZAT; it is the night of the birth of the unconquerable sun, Mehr or Mithra, meaning love and sun, and has been celebrated by the followers of Mithraism as early as 5000 B.C.
Is it a mere coincidence that Christmas and YALDAA are so close in time and similar in nature? I suggest that the origins of Christmas may be from ancient Persia.
According to the Bible, the man Jesus Christ was actually born on January 6, and the celebration of his birthday on December 25th, may in fact be born out of the Persian Mithraic influence. In the old Persian mythology, Mitra (Mithra, Mehr), the God of love, friendship, and light, the sun-god, was miraculously born from a rock by a river or stream on this longest night of the year.
In his fifth volume of the collected works, Symbols of Transformation, Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist who broke away from Freud, has extensively discussed the influence of Mithraism on Christianity and has portrayed its images and symbols. He quotes Franz Cumont's The Mysteries of Mithra, p. 149, modified:
"Perhaps no other religion has ever offered to its votaries, in so high a degree as Mithraism, opportunities for prayer and motives for veneration. When the initiate betook himself in the evening to the sacred grotto concealed in the solitude of the forest, at every step new sensations awakened in his heart some mystical emotion. The stars that shone in the sky, the wind that whispered in the foliage, the spring or brook that hastened murmuring to the valley, even the earth which he trod under his feet, were in his eyes divine, and all surrounding nature evoked in him a worshipful fear of the infinite forces that swayed the universe (para. 109)."
In praise of the Mithraic sun-god, Jung states:
"The sun. . . is the truly "rational"image of God, whether we adopt the standpoint of the primitive savage or of modern science. In either case Father-God from whom all living things draw life; he is the fructifier and the creator, the source of energy into our world. The discord into which the human soul has fallen can be harmoniously resolved through the sun as a natural object which knows no inner conflict . . . It shines equally on the just and the unjust, and allows useful creatures to flourish as well as the harmful. Therefore the sun is perfectly suited to represent the visible God of this world, i.e., the creative power of our own soul, which we call libido, and whose nature it is to bring forth the useful and the harmful, the good and the bad. That this comparison is not just a matter of words can be seen from the teachings of the mystics: when they descend into the depths of their own being, they find "in their heart" the image of the sun, they find their own life-force which they call the "sun" for a legitimate and, I would say, a physical reason, because our source of energy and life actually is the sun. Our physiological life, regarded as an energy process, is entirely solar (para. 176)."
With the advent of regional battles between ancient Persians and Romans, a majority of the Roman soldiers who lamented their brutish ways, came to find reverence for the Mithraic devotion to nature and beauty. They exalted Mithra's illustrating of slaying the bull, representing sacrifice of the animal instinct in order to find the path to the divine. Soon, Mithraism spread its wings from Persia to the ancient-civilized world in Rome and many European countries. Consequently, in Europe as in Persia, the 21st of December was celebrated as Mithra's birthday.
Early Christians took this very ancient Persian celebration to Mithra, the sun- god, and linked it to Christ's birthday. But in the 4th century A.D., because of some errors in counting the leap year, the birthday of Mithra shifted to 25th of December and was established as such.
Hence, in 274 CE, the Roman emperor Aurelia declared December 25th as he birthday of the unconquered sun ("natAlis solis invicti"), which at the winter solstice begins to show an increase of light; he declared this day as a day of festivities. Later, the church of Rome established the commemoration of the birthday of Christ, the "sun of righteousness," on this same date. Until that time the birthday of Jesus Christ was celebrated on January 6th. But the religion of most of the Romans and many people of the European continent was still Mithraism. Pope Leo in the fourth century, after almost destroying the temple of Mithra in 376 A.D., in his campaign against Mithraism -- and in the good old Christian tradition, "If you can't claim it, imitate it" -- proclaimed the 25th of December as Christ's birthday instead of January 6th, a date, by the way, which is still celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church and Armenians.
It is also noteworthy that Epiphany, or the "Feast of the Three Holy Kings" on January 6, commemorates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, the Magi. The Magi, who were known astrologers, saw a newborn bright star in the sky and predicted the birth of Christ. From the religious city of Qum in Iran, they set out to Jerusalem to greet the infant Christ as the newly born king of the Jews, offering him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Originally, the Magi had been disciples of Zoroaster, who spread his new religion in Persia long after Mithra. Their name is the Latinized form of Magoi [Herodotus I, 101]. They were a priestly caste during the Seleucid, Parthian and Sassanian periods in ancient Persia. Later, parts of the Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrians, including the ritualistic sections of the Vendidad, probably derive from them. As a sacred and powerful caste, Zoroastrians ruled the Persian Empire in the 6th century B.C.; they continued to have a dominating religious influence on the subsequent kings of Persia and were still powerful at the time of the birth of Christ.
The connection of the Magi with astrology and their Persian origin is all that is known of the Magi ("wise men" in most English Bibles, "astrologers" in the new English Bible). In early Christian art the Magi usually wear Persian clothes (e.g., the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, 2nd century). In the Syriac tradition those names are Persian and they are connected with Persian religious history.
Zoroastrians, after refining and discarding some of the mythical and "heretical" aspects of Mithraism, retained YALDAA, a Soryani word meaning "the birth'" The ceremony is traced to the historical combat myth between the good forces of light against the evil forces of darkness. This longest night with evil as its zenith is considered ill-fated by this ancient Persian religion. From this day onward, the good forces of light triumph as the days grow longer and give more light.
This celebration comes on the eve of the Persian month of "DAY," the first month of winter, also the name of the pre-Zoroastrian creator god, more commonly known as 'Saturn" in the west. In Persia, DAY was praised and revered as the most powerful God of creation and light, from which we have the English word "day" (the period of light in 24 hours). In the Roman world, the Saturnalia, from December 17 through December 24, became a time of merrymaking and exchange of presents, in honor of the Roman God Saturn.
Ancient Zoroastrians believed that AHURA MAZDA (the good God) created light, day and sunshine as representations of order and "the ahurAic," or good. The day is a time of work, harvest and productivity. They also believed that AHRIMAN (an equally powerful, but evil god) created "the night', a time of darkness, cold, hidden secrets and wild predators. Observing the cyclical changes in the length of days and nights, engendered a belief that light and darkness, or day and night are in continuous battle. The triumphant light brought about longer days, whereas the victory of darkness produced longer nights. It was believed that the greatest battle between the forces of good and evil was fought on SHAB-E YALDAA, the night before winter solstice. Since the first night of winter is the longest and from that night onwards, the days get longer while the warmth and light of the sun increases, the night of the winter solstice was recognized and celebrated as the time of the sun's birth or rebirth by Aryan tribes in Iran, India and Europe.
Fires and lights, symbols of AHURA MAZDA, warmth and lasting life have always been associated with the winter festival. To remain safe from AHRIMAN'S harms, in the evening of SHAB-E YALDAA, bonfires are lit outside, while inside family and friends gather in a nightlong vigil around the KORSEE, a low, square table covered with a thick quilt overhanging on all sides. A brazier with hot coals is placed under the table, in the center. All night, families and friends sit on large cushions on the ground around the KORSEE with the quilt over their laps. They arrange a special sacred space wherein the elders tell stories and fairytales or read poetry to the younger generations. The oldest member of the family says prayers, asks sun "yazat" to bless them, thanks God for the previous year's crops, and prays for the prosperity of next year's harvest. Then with a sharp knife, he or she cuts through a thick yogurt or watermelon, giving everyone a share. The cutting symbolizes the removal of sickness and pain from the family.
Snacks are passed around throughout the night. It is virtually obligatory to eat pomegranates with angelica powder (GOLPAR) and AJEEL-E SHAB-E YALDAA, a tasty mixture of nuts and dried fruits as a symbol for solving problems, translated as "opening one's problems" or "knots." Eating nuts is said to keep illness at bay until the spring. The fruits are meant to bring more fruits and prosperity in the coming spring and onwards. More substantial fare for the night's feast include eggplant stew with plain saffron-flavored rice; or rice with chicken or fish; thick yogurt, as well as sweets made with carrots and saffron (HALVAA-E HAVEEJ).
The foods themselves symbolize the balance of the seasons; watermelons and yogurt are eaten as a remedy for the heat of the summer, since these fruits are considered cold or SARDEE; while HALVAA, the saffron and carrot sweets, is meant to overcome the cold temperatures of winter since they are considered hot or GARMEE. Throughout the night of festivities, the family keeps the fires burning and the lights glowing to "help" the sun in its battle against darkness.
Ancient Persians also decorated an evergreen tree called SARVE. The SARVE or "Rocket Juniper" - also known as the cypress tree, being straight, upright and resistant to the cold weather, was known as a symbol of enduring hardship, thus appropriate for celebrating Mithra. The younger ones had their "wishes" symbolically wrapped in colorful silk cloth and hung them on the tree along with lots of offerings for Mithra in the hopes that he would answer their prayers.
Again in the same tradition, Luther, the famous German reformer, in mid 16th century, having learned of the YALDAA SARVE, introduced the Christmas tree to the Germans. As cypress trees were not widespread in Germany, as indeed in most of Europe, the chosen tree became a variety of pine which was abundant in Europe.
In summary, it is not just Mithra's birth time which entered Christianity. There are many similarities between the Mithraic and Christian traditions. Nowadays all Christians who celebrate the birth of Jesus, light fireplaces and candles, decorate trees with lights, stay up all night, sing and dance, eat special foods, pay visits, and celebrate this festive occasion with family and friends.
Christmas and YALDAA are just another example of the many common beliefs, customs, symbols, stories and myths that bind people of different nations and religions across the globe. Let us honor these manifestations of the collective unconscious, so that we may be the keepers of light, love, friendship and peace among the peoples of the world. Enjoy your Christmas holidays, in its true spirit of love, gratitude, compassion, giving and forgiving, knowing that it may have its origins in an ancient tradition which, as Carl Jung says, links us back to "the creative power of our own soul." As our teacher Rumi suggests, "Open up your hidden eyes and return to the root of the root of your own Self."