Christmas As A Play Of Stars In The Sky

Christmas is here again, bringing in its wake good cheer and the spirit of giving and forgiving. It’s among my favourite non-Zoroastrian festivals. The weather is usually crisp and cool, there’s music in the air and the aroma of good food and Christmas goodies. It’s not a noisy festival, rather a melodious celebration that soothes the spirit. Churches wear a festive look and Christmas carols are sung gustily.

As a Zoroastrian, I can relate even more to this festival knowing that these festivities trace their roots to the ancient Zoroastrian feast of ‘Yalda’, observed annually around 21st December – coinciding with the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere. This year the winter solstice was observed on 22nd December. Yalda is the longest and darkest night of the year (Shab-e-Chehel), marking the first forty days of the winter season of three months, beginning around 21st December and ending around 21st March, with the ushering in of spring. Thus, Yalda marks the eve of the winter season.

Yalda Tree

In ancient Iran, Yalda festivities were symbolized by the evergreen tree. Young Iranian girls would tie colorful silk ribbons to Cypress, Fir or Pine trees and make wishes (they do so even today). These trees would usually be covered with snow and in the morning when the sun would come out after a long, dark night; the rays would bounce off the ice on top of the tree and look like a star. This morning would be celebrated as the birth or the re-birth of the sun which would continue to grow in strength and brightness till the next Yalda night. Inspired by the Yalda tree, Germans, around the eighteenth century adapted the Yalda tree as the Christmas tree and soon, the Christmas tree became popular across Europe.

Christmas’ Roots In Yalda

Prior to the Emperor Constantine accepting Christianity in the year 313 AD, Christmas was not even a feast. In other words, for more than three centuries after Christ, there was no feast called Christmas. Even to this date, there is no historical or scriptural evidence to indicate that Jesus was born on 25th December. Some scholars place the birthday of Jesus on 6th January.

In the fourth century AD, when Christianity replaced Mithraism (a form of worship inspired by Zoroastrianism) in the Roman Empire, early Christians who did not have ritual traditions of their own, ended up absorbing most of the rituals and symbolic dates of the Mithraists. In particular, 25th December, Mithra’s (unconquered/eternal sun) date of birth (which actually is 21st December, but, became 25th due to some error of leap year intercalation), became the date of the birth of the ‘Son of God’. Yalda as we know means birth.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ and the nativity scenes usually depict the infant Jesus whom Mother Mary gave birth to in a manger and three wise men that came from the east following a bright star. What was this star and who were these wise men? There are many speculations and among the many theories, I found what the Hermetica aver to, as most intriguing. The Hermetica are texts attributed Hermes Trismegistus – a legendary fusion figure of the Greek God Hermes and the Egyptian God Thort. There is one principle that the Hermetica talks about: “As above, so below”, which means that everything happening in heaven has an equivalent on earth and vice versa.

Celestial Reality

Since every happening in heaven has an equivalent on earth and vice versa, let’s try to study and compare the earthly Christmas story with the play of stars in the sky.

Accordingly, the star in the east that the three wise men followed is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, which on December 24th aligns with the three brightest stars in Orion’s belt. These three bright stars in Orion’s belt in ancient times were called ‘the three kings’ (later the three wise men). The three kings and the brightest star, Sirius, all point to the place of the sunrise on December 25th. This is why the three kings followed the star in the east to locate the sunrise or the birth of the sun in the sky.

The winter solstice is the longest, darkest night in the Northern hemisphere. The sun, having moved south continually for six months, makes it to its lowest point in the sky and here, a curious phenomenon is observed. The sun stops moving south at least perceivably for three days and during this three-day pause, the sun resides in the vicinity of the Southern Cross, or Crux constellation. After this time, on December 25th the sun starts to move north, promising longer days, warmth, and spring. Thus, it was said: “The sun died on the cross, was dead for three days, only to be resurrected or born again.”

Is it a coincidence that in the Sky, the Sun seemingly dies on the Crux Constellation (Crux means Cross), seems dead for three days and is born again and on Earth the Son (of God) dies on the cross, seems dead for three days but is resurrected or born again. Indeed, as above, so below!

First Christmas

Historically, 25th December was chosen by the Roman Emperor Aurelian, in the year 274 AD, to celebrate ‘Natalis Solis Invicti’, the birthday of the unconquered Sun, following the winter solstice.  The Church in Rome later fixed the commemoration of the birth of Christ on this date, around 336 AD. Thus, the feast of Natalis (Natal) which means birth was chosen as the date to commemorate the birth of the ‘Son of God’.

For devout Christians, Christmas commemorates the birth of the ‘son (of God)’ while, for Zoroastrians, Yalda commemorates the birth of the ‘sun (of God)’. Let us revere both: the ‘Sun’ which is the source of light and life for everyone on earth and the ‘Son’, who sacrificed his life to bring the light of God’s Will to this world.

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