Republican News · Thursday 21 December 2000

[An Phoblacht]

Derrig's Christmas tale

Phoblacht's Mick Derrig explores the origins of Christmas, revealing some fascinating pre-Christian parallels that may give people cause to ponder.

As you read this, the 25th of the month approaches. It will have special significance if you are alone or poor. It is the feast day of social exclusion. The 25th of December, that day of all days. Don't be poor. Don't be alone. Don't be broken hearted. It is, of course, a day for families - that is if you have a family.


But for the dice throw of history, little angels all over Ireland, on the night of the 24th December, could be in big public buildings way past their bedtime singing: ``What a friend I have in Mithras!'' Or ``Tammuz wants me for a sunbeam!''

Christmas is, perhaps not surprisingly, the time of year that you are most likely to be murdered - by a member of your family.

The leaders of organised Christian worship will wring their hands at the orgy of spending that builds up in a credit crescendo to the last orders on the 24th. They will say that it is supposed to be about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and all it has become is a great orgy of consumption.

Why is this date so special? This country is still, by its public ritual, a Christian country. On both the Falls and the Shankhill the birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated on the 25th of December.

But the birth of who? If you submit the Christian spin on the mid-winter bash to any type of forensic examination, it falls apart quicker than the British explanation of Bloody Sunday. And Martin McGuinness isn't to blame for this one either.

All across the country, people will wish one another a ``Nollaig shona'' - literally ``a happy winter solstice''. To our ancestors, after Samhain the earth went to sleep; the male godhead - represented by the sun - was at its weakest in midwinter. They celebrated the day they marked as its weakest point.

From then on, the sun was growing incrementally stronger to its high point in June. At the time of the Ceide fields settlement, in my father's Mayo, many people wouldn't have made it through the winter. The bitter cold culled the old and the sick far more effectively than any bear or wolf. There was good common sense to people having a good nosh up at exactly the lowest, darkest, coldest point of the winter. It raised spirits and gave fuel to the body - if there was a day for the fatted calf to meets its maker it was the shortest day.

Our Norse neighbours brought their Yule log. In dark Northern Europe - bereft of sunlight - fire was important. When the Christians came to Ireland they realised that the natives had a very ordered belief system around the seasons and the elements. In order to beat them it was necessary to join them. So the major Celtic seasonal festivals had to be christianised. This process has happened in the last 100 years in remote parts of the Andes and Amazonia.

Now our midwinter festival has been commandeered as the official birthday of Jesus Christ. If God is a businessman, then Christmas was an aggressive take-over.

The central tenets of the Christian nativity legend are as old as humans and not the exclusive property of those who invest veracity in the Christ myth.

Let's look at the central bits of the Christ Bio: The virgin birth in humble surroundings. God's son made flesh. The celebration of a royal birth despite the material poverty of the birthplace. The ability to carry out miracles when required. The sacrificial death that saves his people.

From the time humans first developed writing, it has been written in many cultures about many godheads. The similarities are striking. GAUTAMA BUDDHA: born of the virgin Maya around 600BC. DIONYSUS: Greek God, born of a virgin in a stable, turned water into wine. QUIRRNUS: An early Roman saviour, born of a virgin. ATTIS: born of the virgin Nama in Phrygia around 200BC. INDRA: born of a virgin in Tibet around 700 BC. ADONIS: Babylonian god-born of the virgin Ishtar. KRISHNA: Hindu deity-born of the virgin Devaki circa 1200BC. ZOROASTER: born of a virgin 1500-1200BC.

A virgin birth seems to have been an essential requirement of admittance to the Deity club. However, two Middle Eastern religions that predate the Christ myth are the basis for most of the Christmas thing and most of Pauline Christianity itself.

Pauline Christianity - that version of the Christian religion devised by Paul - was only slowly imported into Ireland as the Celtic church faded from the scene. By the time of Brian Boru, many bishoprics in Europe still resisted the Pauline notion that Christ was god made flesh. However, the Pauline version had history on its side in that it followed the paradigm laid down in many previous cultures and religions for the establishment of a monotheistic religion.

But for the dice throw of history, little angels all over Ireland, on the night of the 24th, could be in big public buildings way past their bedtime singing: ``What a friend I have in Mithras!'' Or ``Tammuz wants me for a sunbeam! ``

Don `t believe me? Try this. Mithras was a strongly supported cult in Rome the century before the time of Yeshua Ben Joseph, Jesus Christ to you. (Most biblical historians are now agreed that the birth of the historical character who became Jesus Christ was 4BC - so this should be the end of 2004). Mithraism was an offshoot of the more ancient Persian cult of Zoroaster. Mithraism had a baptism, a sacramental meal, belief in immortality, a saviour god who died and rose again, a resurrection, a last judgement and heaven and hell. Incense bells and candles all figured in Mithraic rituals.

The followers of Mithras believed that he was born in a cave of a virgin on 25th December around 600 BC, where shepherds attended him and regaled him with gifts. His resurrection was celebrated by his followers every Easter. Getting the idea?

At temples to Mithras (sometimes written as Mithra) he was hailed as the ``God of the Morning'', with an uplifted cup of blood. In worship, his followers drank his blood so that they would live forever after the day of judgement.

The Roman Emperor Constantine was an adherent of Pauline Christianity, the Mother Goddess Cybele and Sol Invictus (the Invincible Sun). Under his patronage, the distinctions between the Christian religion defined by Saint Paul and the cult of Mithras (both male godheads) would blur significantly.

Constantine wanted the people to support one major God - based on the Sun - with him as the head of it on earth. The statues of Sol Invictus were in his likeness. When he was buried, this ``Christian'' Emperor was laid out in the regalia of a High Priest of the Sol Invictus cult.

Until the fourth century, moreover, Jesus' birthday had been celebrated on January the 6th. For the Cult of Sol Invictus, the key date was 25th December - the festival of Natalis Invictus, the birth (or rebirth) of the sun. The cult of Sol Invictus was Syrian in origin and imposed by Roman Emperors a century before Constantine. It was effectively a monotheistic cult - it placed the Sun God as the top boy. It merged with the Cult of Mithras.

It suited the Roman state builders in the early 4th century to nationalise religion. In order for that to be done, it was necessary that there was an element of harmonisation - it was religion, EU style. This set up the development of a one-god religion that was controlled by the state. The top boy in the state - the king - would then be God. If you think that's daft, then it is within living memory that the Japanese people were told that their Emperor Hirohito was the Sun God's son on earth - a deity in the flesh. This state religion (Shinto), very like Sol Invictus, only ended with the Japanese surrender in 1945.

other major deity at the time that Paul was making Christianity was Tammuz, god of the ancient Sumerian and Phoenician mystery teachings. The Phoenicians were great seafarers and certainly reached Cornwall to trade their wares for tin. That their beliefs could have reached South East Ireland is not out of the question.

Tammuz was a god of fertility, embodying the powers for new life in nature in the spring. The name Tammuz seems to have been derived from the Akkadian form Tammuzi, based on early Sumerian Damu-zid, The Flawless Young. The earliest known mention of Tammuz is in texts dating to the early part of the Early Dynastic III period (c. 2600-c. 2334 BC), but his cult probably was much older.

As shown by his most common epithet Sipad (Shepherd), Tammuz was essentially a pastoral deity. God portrayed as a shepherd - now where have I herd that one before? Yer man Tammuz was - wait for it - born of a virgin, died with a wound in his side and, after three days, rose from his tomb leaving a rock at the entrance rolled aside.

Although the cult is attested for most of the major cities of Sumer (now southern Iraq) in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC, it centred in the cities around the central grasslands area (the edin - literally the garden of Eden), for example, at Bad-tibira (modern Madinah) where Tammuz was the city god.

In the ``Holy Land'', the cult of Tammuz was centred on a wee town in Judea - you might have heard of it - Bethlehem.

Celebrate the turning of the year - we need the light.

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