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We are children / we are children of the black sun…”

Among the gods of Eastern origin who in the decline of the ancient
world competed against each other for the allegiance of the West
was the old Persian deity Mithra […] In respect both of doctrines
and of rites the cult of Mithra appears to have presented many
points of resemblance not only to the religion of the Mother of the
Gods but also to Christianity. The similarity struck the Christian
doctors themselves and was explained by them as a work of the
devil, who sought to seduce the souls of men from the true faith by
a false and insidious imitation of it. […]

An instructive relic of the long struggle is preserved in our festival of
Christmas, which the Church seems to have borrowed directly from
its heathen rival. In the Julian calendar the twenty-fifth of
December was reckoned the winter solstice, and it was regarded as
the Nativity of the Sun, because the day begins to lengthen and
the power of the sun to increase from that turning-point of the year.
The ritual of the nativity, as it appears to have been celebrated in
Syria and Egypt, was remarkable. The celebrants retired into certain
inner shrines, from which at midnight they issued with a loud cry,
“The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing!” The Egyptians
even represented the new-born sun by the image of an infant
which on his birthday, the winter solstice, they brought forth and
exhibited to his worshippers. No doubt the Virgin who thus
conceived and bore a son [sun] on the twenty-fifth of December
was the great Oriental goddess whom the Semites called the
Heavenly Virgin; in Semitic lands she was a form of Astarte. Now
Mithra was regularly identified by his worshippers with the Sun, the
Unconquered Sun, as they called him; hence his nativity also fell on
the twenty-fifth of December. The Gospels say nothing as to the day
of Christ’s birth, and accordingly the Church did not celebrate it.
Thus it appears that the Christian Church chose to celebrate the
birthday of its Founder on the twenty-fifth of December in order to
transfer the devotion of the heathen from the Sun to him who was
called the Sun [son] of Righteousness.

frm: The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer.

posted by Ian 12/10/2005 11:36:00 AM

Well, yes, and nothwithstanding the occasional limitations Frazer, this is as good a starting point as any. It should be noted that there was (and is) no lack of mid-winter solstitial celebrations / imprecations. It even appears that Stonehenge might have had its principal function at midwinter rather than midsummer: the avenue goes towards the midwinter solstice sunrise. And as Hutton indicates in the Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Yule's pagan provenance in England (and Northern Europe generally) is well attested.
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