When one religion becomes dominant over other religions or belief systems in any given culture, the dominant religion often takes on symbols once belonging to the religions that become the minority. In fact, a number of religions contain modifications of beliefs and practices arising from alternative or even opposing religious systems. In many cases, the symbols carried over from one religion to another are altered and assimilated into the practices and teachings of the dominant religion: this simplifies the process of conversion from one faith to another. For example, as Christianity spread and continued to dominate cultures around the world, many pagan customs, celebrations, understandings, and the symbols that embodied such concepts, through transmogrification, were modified so that the synthesis of Pagan iconology and Christian teachings could ultimately lead to a greater number of Pagan to Christian converts.
The transmogrification of Pagan ideas sometimes led to the demonizing of deities and Pagan understandings; one of the best examples of this is the depiction of Pan, a fertility God and a deity associated with nature, which when adopted by the Christian faith became the common portrayal of Satan or the devil. Since Pan is a fertility deity, commonly portrayed as half goat having horns and a phallus indicating his virility and sexual prowess, it was easy transforming this archetypal image into something sinister. Yet, not all Pagan symbols were transmogrified in a negative manner; a number of Pagan symbols that continue to have positive connotations have been carried over into Christian iconography, some of which can be identified in the similarities between the Yule and Christmas.
Yule, a pagan holiday that involves acknowledging the change in season, the turning of the wheel, the longest night of the year, and the promise of increasing light to come, is a holiday that occurs annually right around December 20 to 23. At one time, Christmas was referenced as “Yule Day”: a time that, in some cultures, involved a week long celebration from December 25 to January 6; the term “Yule,” is rooted in the Norse term “Jol,” meaning wheel (1). Yule was the celebration of the “rebirth of the Sun,” and this celebration was commonly depicted in ancient almanacs with the symbol of a “wheel” (2). The idea of the sun’s rebirth is one readily assimilated into the concepts of birth and the resurrection of the “son” of the Christian God, on December 25.
The birth of Christ was not always celebrated on December 25 however. Mithras, a solar deity at one time referred to Sol inviticus, was worshipped by individuals involved in the Pagan Mithras cult as well as ancient Christians. After Christianity became a dominant religion, the Mithras cult and its teachings slowly declined, but letting go of old traditions and pagan understandings would not prove so easy. The birth of Mithras fell on December 25, while the birth of Christ was celebrated on January 6, and the mythos portraying the birth of Mithras and Christ contain amazingly similar portrayals (3). Both Christ and Mithras are identified as mediator figures, and some scholars argue that there is evidence that Christ's as well as Mithras’s birth were attended by shepherds offering gifts (4). Interestingly, even the death of Mithras and Christ prove similar; Mithras had his final meal with Helios, the god of the Sun, and during the meal, wine and bread were consumed (5). Following the meal, Mithras ascends into the heavens, being carried away in the chariot of Helios, the Sun (6). This story line is strikingly similar to Christ and the Last Supper who shares his final meal with his closest disciples before he is crucified, resurrected, and returns to Heaven to be with God. By transmogrifying the celebratory birth date of pagan God Mithras on December 25 to the celebration of the birth of Christ, the ancient pagan celebrations involving the reference of pagan solar deities was eventually assimilated into the Christian belief system and teachings.
(1-2)Anon. "Christmas History and Customs." School Education 14, no. 1 (January 1895): 23-24.
(3-6)Baljon, J.M.S. "Contributions from the History of Religions to the New Testament." Bibliotheca Sacra: A Religious and Sociological Quarterly 65 (1908): 1-40.
Article by Dayna Winters. Dayna is the coauthor of Wicca: What’s the Real Deal? Breaking Through the Misconceptions, along with Patricia Gardner, and Angela Kaufman.