THE BLOG
12/13/2010 02:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dueling Billboards and the Myths of Christmas

There is a new skirmish in the so-called "Christmas Wars."

If you are coming to see the Big Tree in Rockefeller Center by way of the Lincoln Tunnel, you'll be greeted by two starkly opposing views of the Christmas Season. As the Daily News reported on Dec. 2, an atheist group placed a billboard featuring the Star of Bethlehem, Three Kings and the Holy Family at the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel saying, "You know it's a myth." A Catholic group responded with a billboard of its own saying "You know it's real," with a picture of Jesus and Mary.

It might seem like a strange rerun of the classic "Less Filling-Tastes Great" light beer ads, but the dueling billboards highlight the divide over Christmas as an increasingly secular American holiday. More to the point, the atheist billboard raises the question of whether the Nativity, Christmas Day and all the attendant traditions -- from lighted trees to mistletoe, wreaths and Yule logs -- have any historical basis.

So here's the real first Christmas question: Why all the fuss over Dec. 25?

For starters, the Gospels never mention a precise date or even a season for the birth of Jesus. How then did we settle on December 25? If a bright light just went off in your head, you're getting warm. It's all about the Sun.

In ancient times, a popular Roman festival celebrated Saturnalia, a Thanksgiving-like holiday marking the winter solstice and honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Saturnalia began on Dec. 17 and while it only lasted two days at first, it was eventually extended into a weeklong period that lost its agricultural significance and simply became a time of general merriment. Even slaves were given temporary freedom to do as they pleased, while the Romans feasted, visited one another, lit candles and gave gifts. Later it was changed to honor the official Roman Sun god known as Sol Invictus ("Unconquered Sun") and the solstice fell on Dec. 25.

Two other important pagan gods popular in ancient Rome were also celebrated around this date. The Romans were big on adopting the gods of the people they conquered. Mithra, a Persian god of light who was first popular among Roman soldiers, acquired a large cult in ancient Rome. The birth of Attis, another agricultural god from Asia Minor, was also celebrated on Dec. 25. Attis dies but is brought back to life by his lover, a goddess whose temple later became the site of an important basilica honoring the Virgin Mary. By the way, the symbol of Attis was a pine tree.

Candles. Gift giving. Pine trees. Dying gods brought back to life. Hmmm. Sound familiar?

All the similarities between Saturnalia and these other Roman holidays and the celebration of Christmas are no coincidence. In the fourth century, Pope Julius 1 assigned Dec. 25 as the day to celebrate the Mass of Christ's birth -- Christ's mass. This was a clever marketing ploy that conveniently sidestepped the problem of eliminating an already popular holiday while converting the population. Most of our Christmas traditions reflect the merger of pagan rituals, beliefs and traditions with Christianity. The early church fathers knew that they couldn't convert people without allowing them to keep some of their ancient festivals and rituals so they would allow them if they could be connected to Christianity. (Catholic authorities disagree and say that December date was arrived at by adding nine months to March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, the day of Jesus' miraculous conception.

The importance of the winter solstice, then, is crucial to understanding not only the date of Christmas but many of the other "myths" of this season.

While we are talking about dates, the precise year of the birth of Jesus is also a mystery. The dating system we use is based on a system devised by a monk around 1,500 years ago and is seriously flawed. The historical King Herod who ordered the massacre of the innocents died in 4 B.C. (or B.C.E, Before the Common Era). The "census" ordered by Emperor Augustine is not recorded in Roman history, but a local census did take place in the Roman province of Judea in A.D. 6 (or C.E., the Common Era). Is that all perfectly clear now?

Yes, Virginia, almost everything that Christians around the world cherish about Christmas comes from a pre-Christian era, including the prototype for Santa Claus being found in the Norse myth of Odin riding across the winter sky on an eight-legged horse and leaving gifts for the children who left some hay out for his horse.

But is it all a myth? Does the pagan background to the Christmas traditions mean that Jesus is also a myth? That's a very different question for another day.

You can read more about the mythic roots of Christmas and the gospel accounts of Jesus in Don't Know Much About Mythology and Don't Know Much About the Bible and at Kenneth C. Davis' website.