By Farhang Jahanpour
While Christians celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25th, the Persians celebrate one of their oldest and most festive celebrations on Dec. 21st, the eve of winter solstice, the longest night and the shortest day of the year. In Iran this night is called “Shab-e Yalda”, the night of the birth or nativity of the sun, or Mithra the Sun-god.
According to Orthodox Christians, the Armenians and the Eastern churches, Jesus Christ was 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 ancient Persian mythology, Mitra (Mithra, Mehr), the God of love, friendship, and light, or 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, has extensively discussed the influence of Mithraism on Christianity and has portrayed its images and symbols. 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).”
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. But 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 A.D., the Roman emperor Aurelia declared December 25th as Mithra’s birthday. 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 different dates, including January 6th. But the religion of most of the Romans and many people of the European continent was influenced by Mithraism. Pope Leo in the fourth century, after almost destroying the temple of Mithra in 376 A.D. in his campaign against Mithraism, proclaimed the 25th of December as Christ’s birthday instead of January 6th, a date which is still celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church and by the 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 as astrologers, allegedly saw a newborn bright star in the sky and predicted the birth of Christ. From the religious city of Qom 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]. 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.
After refining and discarding some of the mythical and “heretical” aspects of Mithraism, the Zoroastrians retained Yalda, 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 ancient 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 to December 24, became a time of merrymaking and exchange of presents, in honour of the Roman God Saturn.
Ancient Zoroastrians believed that Ahura Mazda 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 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 Yalda, 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.
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 colourful silk cloth and hung them on the tree along with lots of offerings for Mithra in the hopes that he would answer their prayers.
Martin Luther, the famous German reformer, in 1756, having learned of the Yalda 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, may not be aware of the original pagan or Zoroastrian origins of these festivities.
In his book “Spirituality in the Land of the Noble: How Iran Shaped the World’s Religions” (Oneworld, 2004), pp. 40-41, in the chapter on “Zoroastrianism’s contributions to other religions”, Professor Richard C. Foltz writes:
“Much of what has been described in this chapter as the “basics” of Zoroastrianism will no doubt seem familiar to many readers. What may not be apparent is that these widespread beliefs and practices appeared in Zoroastrianism first, and only later in other religions.
The concept of an all-powerful Creator god who is purely good, the personification of evil in an opposing being, the resurrection of the body after death, the judgement of the dead on the basis of their deeds while living, the existence of a heavenly paradise for the good and a hell of damnation for the evil, the expectation of a savior and a final cataclysmic battle in which good will ultimately triumph, as well as a universe populated by angels and demons, are all ideas that other religions acquired either directly or indirectly from Zoroastrianism.
Other notions, such as the possibility of an individual as opposed to communal relationship to the divine, the superiority of one faith over all others, the emphasis on right belief and not just practice, and a professed adherence not only to a single deity but also to a particular prophet, may have originated with Zoroaster as well. For the first time we hear of a religion being actively spread by missionaries, who are sometimes persecuted or killed for their efforts.”
Christmas and Yalda 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 together.
Let us honour 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 and the New Year in the 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 the great Persian poet Rumi says, “Open up your hidden eyes and return to the root of the root of your own Self.”