It doesn’t take much of an internet search to discover the “fact” that the Goddess Isis bore the Holy Child Horus on December 25th. Frequently, the statement is used to dismiss the Christian tradition of the birth of the Christ on that day (and by inference, Christian tradition in general) as “mere Pagan superstition.” Frankly, this has been driving me a little crazy for years—for a variety of reasons.
First, there is absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the bringer of the light of Christianity to its believers, at that time of year when the light of the sun begins its return to the world. It is the perfect symbol and early Christians would have been silly to ignore it.
The other thing that bothered me was that I thought that the December 25th date was stretching the truth to make a point; the point being that the “real meaning of Christmas” was, in fact, the celebration of a Pagan Deity. Why—when there are so very many legitimate connections between the Deities of all the world’s pantheons—should we have to distort the truth to make that point? (Please see my previous posts, Mary Christmas and Happy Easter for some of those Isiac-Christian connections.)
Well, it finally bothered me enough that I decided to find out where that whole Horus-born-on-December-25th thing came from.
I first checked in with my pal Plutarch since I know he mentions a couple of Egyptian winter solstice traditions—and since Horus-born-on-the-25th seemed likely to have been a late Pagan tradition. Writing in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries CE, Plutarch tells us that Harpocrates (from Hor-pa-khered, Horus the Child) is born on the winter solstice (I quote it here at length because I like the lead-in):
Thus we shall attack the many boring people who find pleasure in associating the activities of these gods with the seasonal changes of the atmosphere or with the growths, sowing, and plowing of crops, and who say that Osiris is being buried when the corn is sown and hidden in the earth, and that he lives again and reappears when it begins to sprout. For this reason it is said that Isis, when she was aware of her being pregnant, put on a protective amulet on the sixth day of Phaophi, and at the winter solstice gave birth to Harpocrates, imperfect and prematurely born, amid plants that burgeoned and sprouted before their season . . . and they are said to celebrate the days of her confinement after the spring equinox. (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, 65B-c)
Since Horus is a solar God, His birth at the winter solstice—even to the extent that He is “imperfect and prematurely born” at that time—makes symbolic sense. This tradition was still going strong by the 4th and 5th centuries CE, for another writer, Macrobius, famous for his book about the Saturnalia, notes that:
…at the winter solstice, the sun would seem to be a little child like that which the Egyptians bring forth from a shrine on the apponted day, since the day is then at its shortest and the god is accordingly shown as a tiny infant. (Macrobius, Saturnalia, 1.18:10
So this was an Egyptian tradition at least from the time of Plutarch. But was it so earlier? Well, I’m still looking into that. (Please see the Addendum at the end of this post.) But at least one author has noted that in the time of Pharaoh Amenemhet I (approx. 1991-1962 BCE), the pharaoh took a new title as the sun approached winter solstice in the 17th year of his reign. The title was Nem-mestu, Repeater of Births, a title also given to the dead and which may refer to daily solar rebirth or even to reincarnation. In addition to the normal pharaoh-sun connection, the king is even more strongly associating himself with the sun by taking the title, and it would seen from the timing that he is particularly associating himself with the winter solstice sun. At the very least, this points to the importance of the winter solstice to Egyptian tradition.
Just as there are today, there were other winter holy days around the time of the winter solstice. You’re probably familiar with the Roman Saturnalia (Greek Kronia) which took place from December 17th through the 23rd (at its most developed stage). It was a carnivalesque festival with plenty of partying and gift-giving on the last day, just a day or two from the astronomical solstice. The 4th century CE Christian polemicist, Epiphanius, notes two very interesting Pagan festivals that took place “on the very night of Epiphany,” which is Epiphanius’ preferred date for the birth of the Christos. He grouches that “many places deceitfully celebrate a very great festival on the very night of the Epiphany, to deceive the idolaters who believe them into hoping in the imposture and not seeking the truth.” (Epiphanius, Panarion, 22,8) Of the celebration in Alexandria, he writes:
First, at Alexandria, in the Koreum, as they call it; it is a very large temple, the shrine of Kore. They stay up all night singing hymns to the idol with a flute accompaniment. And when they have concluded their nightlong vigil, torchbearers descend into an underground shrine after cockcrow and bring up a wooden image which is seated naked on a litter. It has a sign of the cross inlaid with gold on its forehead, two other such signs, one on each hand and two other signs, one actually on each of its two knees—altogether five signs with a gold impress. And they carry the image itself seven times around the innermost shrine with flutes, tambourines and hymns, hold a feast, and take it back down to its place underground. And when you ask them what this mystery means, they reply that today, at this hour Kore—that is, the Virgin—gave birth to Aion. (Epiphanius, Panarion, 22,9)
Some scholars believe that the Alexandrian Virgin was Isis (some ancient Egyptian Hymns call Isis “virgin;” in the Hermetic text, Kore Kosmou, Isis is likely the “Cosmic Virgin” of the title) and that the “crosses” on Her limbs may have been ankhs. Could be, but doesn’t have to be; Alexandria was, after all, a polytheistic city. Epiphanius goes on to mention other identical and, in his mind, deceitful festivals in Petra and in Elusa celebrating the birth of the “only son of the Lord” of a Virgin Goddess. In Petra, the Holy Child is Dusares, an Arabian God identified with Dionysos, Who was, in turn, identified with Helios, the sun. (Epiphanius, Panarion, 22,11)
Okay, so we have the solar Holy Child’s birth at or around the winter solstice. Makes perfect sense. But what about that December 25th date?
Well, you see, the Roman calendar went through a certain amount of upheaval and—bottom line—December 25th was considered the “traditional” date of the winter solstice, even if that was off from astronomical solstice. (If you want to calendar geek on that, check this out or this.) We have from a number of sources, including Epiphanius, that “the eighth before the Kalends of January” was considered to be the winter solstice. (Epiphanius, Panarion, 22,3) Because of the inclusive way the Romans counted, this “eighth before the Kalends” was December 25th.
What’s more, the early Christians who chose that date, chose it precisely because it was the winter solstice and was connected to the return of the light. In a work attributed, perhaps falsely, to the 4th century Christian church father John Chrysostom, the writer connects the birth of Jesus with the birth of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, which was celebrated on Rome’s traditional winter solstice, December 25th:
But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December . . . the eighth before the calends of January [25 December] . . ., But they call it the “Birthday of the Unconquered.” Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the sun, He is the Sun of Justice. (Chrysostom, De Solstitia et Aequinoctia Conceptionis et Nativitatis Nostri Iesu Christi et Iohannis Baptistae; “On the conceptions and births of our Jesus Christ and John the Baptist on the solstices and equinoxes.”)
Another interesting thing about the choice of December 25th is that—even just those few days after the astronomical solstice—you can begin to see that the light is indeed returning. Some scholars have suggested that the December 25th date for the solstice reflects this perceivable change, so that even though the exact moment of astronomical solstice is prior to the 25th, it becomes noticeable about the 25th.
So there we have it. There actually IS reason to connect the winter solstice birth date of Isis’ Holy Child, Horus, with the traditional December 25th birth date of Mary’s Holy Child, Jesus. Yet, I don’t think early Christians “stole” the date from Horus (or any of the other solar Gods Who always were and always will be born on the winter solstice). Nor do I think the fact that the date has Pagan antecedents means Christianity was built on a lie or in any way denigrates Christianity, nor should we think that Christians merely copied their religion from the Pagans around them. For early Christians, as for ancient Egyptians—and indeed for both ancient and modern worlds—the return of the light at winter solstice is at once an uplifting environmental fact and a hopeful spiritual symbol.
And so I wish you all Many Happy Returns of the Light on this holy day of December 25th.
Addendum: I’ve reviewed my materials and confirmed that, yes—as you might expect from a sun-focused culture—the winter solstice was quite important in Egyptian culture and religion. There are plenty of inscriptions and texts to support that, and a number of temples and monuments are oriented toward the winter solstice sunrise, especially those dedicated to Re-Hor-Akhty, Re-Horus of the Horizon.