(Published in the December 2016 issue of Batayan)
A 6th grader was asked by her bus driver why she is celebrating Christmas, when she is of Indian origin. She smiled at her bus driver and said “Well, because I can.” However, she herself wasn’t happy about the answer she gave to the driver. She wanted to know more, she had questions that needed to be answered. She had to feel connected to the most popular festival in the country she was born in, even though she was born to immigrant parents.
The above is a true story that compelled me to write about the ancient origins of Christmas. I dedicate this article to that lovely girl and all children of different races and nationalities.
Humanity created festivals to remember certain times in the year and to celebrate time, over and over again every year. Time was recorded by a calendar. The calendar was recorded by the changing seasons and phases of the moon (lunar). Almost all ancient calendars were lunar in nature. The solar calendar we use today is most simple, but a hugely inefficient way to record time.
Four major turning points in the year are the two solstices and the two equinoxes. The Winter Solstice is very special. In the Northern Hemisphere, it is the day when the night is the longest. From that day onward, the length of day increases right up to the Vernal Equinox, when the length of day and night are the same. From the Vernal Equinox to the Summer Solstice, the length of the day continues to increase until the day of the Summer Solstice when the night is the shortest. From the Summer Solstice, the length of day gets shorter and the nights longer. On the Autumn Equinox, the night and day are of equal length, and from that day onward, the length of the night increases right up to the Winter Solstice.
Light, and hence day, was associated with divinity in ancient Greece and Rome. In Sanatan Dharma, light is associated with devas and purusha. Darkness was associated with demons in ancient Greece and Rome, while in Sanatan Dharma it is associated with asuras and prakriti.
The Winter Solstice and the Romans
The Ancient Romans always celebrated the rise of the Sun God over a period of three days during the Winter Solstice. They called the festival “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti,” the birthday of the unconquered sun. Sol Invictus means the “Unconquered Sun.” Unconquered is a very interesting word here. This shows the revival of light even on the darkest day of the year. It also reiterates the truth that from this day/time onward, the day, and hence the power of the sun will keep increasing in length.
The three-day celebration which begins on the day of Uttarayan (or Winter Solstice) is very symbolic. The number three, just like in Sanatan Dharma, represents three planes of existence among Romans too – the netherlands (patala), the Earth (bhuloka) and the heavens (swarga). Over three days the rise of the sun in each of the three zones was celebrated.
After the rise of Christianity in Rome, especially among the poor peasants, the nation was in a state of anarchy and dispute. At this time, the Roman emperor Constantine I called the First Council of Nicea in 325 CE. It was a council of Christian bishops who convened in the Bithynian city of Nicaea (currently called Iznik, Bursa province, Turkey), and it was in this council that modern day Christianity was born. Which books to be included in the Bible, which books to be left out? – these important decisions were all taken in this council after both religious and political scrutiny. Constantine had been a strong pagan and sun worshiper before converting to Christianity in 312 CE.
It was in this council that, due to the influence of Emperor Constantine I, the ancient tradition of “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” (Birthday of the Sun God) was given the overlay of the birthday of the son of God, Jesus Christ.
Many more concepts were borrowed from the Roman God Sol and incorporated into the life of Jesus Christ. If one looks closely, one theory connects the Biblical elements of Christ’s life to those of a sun god. According to the scriptures, Jesus had 12 followers or “disciples,” which is akin to the twelve zodiac constellations. When the sun was in the house of Scorpio, Judas plotted with the chief priests and elders to arrest Jesus by kissing him. As the sun exited Libra, it enters into the waiting arms of Scorpio to be kissed by Scorpio’s bite.
The Winter Solstice and Sanatan Dharma
From the Winter Solstice, the sun enters its northward movement and in the process, brightens up the days (as in making days longer). Beginning from the Winter Solstice to the Summer Solstice is considered a span of time which has more light, and this time period is called Uttarayan.
It was believed that people who leave their mortal body during Uttarayan will attain the abode of the gods (devas). This finds mention in the Mahabharata when Bhishma, with arrows pierced in his body, did not leave his mortal body until the day of Uttarayan.
Uttarayan has been always associated with the worship of Surya and Vishnu among Hindus. The Winter Solstice is considered to be the day when Vishnu wakes up from his 6 month long sleep. Vishnu is said to sleep during Dakshinayan (Summer Solstice to Winter Solstice) and wakes up on the first day of Uttarayan.
The celebration includes the ringing of bells, burning of incense and loud chanting so as to wake up the gods from their 6 months sleep.
taraṇirviśvadarśato jyotiṣkṛdasi sūrya |
viśvamā bhāsirocanam ||
~ Rk Veda, Mandala 1, Hymn 50, Verse 4
In the above verse from Rk Veda, Surya is called jyotiṣkṛdasi or the maker of light (jyoti). Thus from the first day of Uttarayan, the same concept that is iterated by the Romans, is reiterated by the Hindus – the rise in the power of the unconquered Sun.
We can celebrate a festival in any way we want. We can call it by any name we want. We can belong to any race, religion or creed. However, we cannot forget that nature came first, man next, and religion was the invention of man to better understand nature. Festivals are nothing but an attempt by man to remember and admire the message of nature. We should never forget this in our arrogance.