During the later Roman Empire, the Emperor Aurelian introduced the official cult of Sol Invictus which honored the sun-god as the primary divinity of the entire empire. Although the solar deity had been worshiped throughout time and in many ancient cultures, it was the cult of Mithraism that was the final solar cult before the spread of Christianity wiped out virtually all pagan religions.
Before the time of Constantine the ancient world was a virtual cornucopia of different religions and cults that existed all over the Roman Empire and eastward into China and India. As a result of these competing doctrines “when Christianity was only one of several dozen foreign Eastern cults struggling for recognition in Rome, the religious dualism and dogmatic moral teaching of Mithraism set it apart from other sects, creating a stability previously unknown in Roman paganism” (Mithras in the Roman Empire). The striking parallels to Christianity in Mithraism have long been pointed out, for Mithras was said to have been: born of a virgin birth, had twelve followers or disciples, was killed and resurrected, performed miracles, and was known as mankind’s savior who was called the light of the world and his virgin birth occurred on December 25. Indeed, the resemblances are so striking in that all of the Christian mysteries were known nearly five hundred years before the birth of Christ that later church fathers claimed that Satan had created all of this prior to Christ’s birth so as to confuse the laity.
Deus Sol Invictus meant the Undefeated Sun God. The Festival of the Sol Invictus was first celebrated on December 25 under the reign of Emperor Elagabalus (218-222) but popularized under Aurelian (270-274). December 25 was also celebrated as the birthday of Mithras. It should be noted that under the Julian calendar December 24 was the shortest day of the year, and it was only when the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1582 that the shortest day of the year moved back to December 21st.
The earliest record of the celebration of December 25 to commemorate the birth of Jesus appears in 354 in the Calendar of Filocalus. Earlier theologians such as Origen had argued against celebrating the birthday of Jesus as a pagan holiday. Christmas continued to be highly controversial throughout medieval times because of its association with Yule in the Celtic countries and other pagan solstice festivals. As late as 1967 Christmas was banned by the Puritans in England and later in the New World. Charles Dickens seminal work A Christmas Carol played a big part in mainstreaming Christmas celebrations.
Every Solstice festival and celebration has in common a celebration of the return of the light. As the days grow longer and the sun stronger, let us also celebrate a wish for the return of the light of consciousness to guide us through the days to come.
Happy Solstice everyone!