On Nov. 26, a “natural nativity scene” was unveiled “to recognize the rebirth of the Unconquered Sun — Dies Natalis Invicti Solis — not baby Jesus,” the FFRF’s press release explained. It added that the winter solstice “has been celebrated for millennia in the Northern Hemisphere with festivals of light, evergreens, feasts and gift exchanges.”
They’re right. Solstice celebrations are older than the feast of Christmas and added several dimensions to how we celebrate Christmas today.
The church’s celebration of Christ’s nativity did not fully develop until the fifth century, after the fall of the Roman Empire. (The main feast for Christians has always been Easter.) Even the date of Dec. 25 comes from the Roman celebration of the birth of the soldiers’ god, Mithra. This midwinter feast, called the Natialis Invictus (birth of the unconquered) or Sol Invictus (the victorious sun), a natural link to Christian teaching of Jesus as the unconquered Son of God.
As Christianity spread over the known world, it also developed a gift for using “the natural world” to explain deeper realities of God’s salvation. This “met people where they were” in teaching them about God. Writing in the fourth century, as the feast of Christmas was developing, St. John Chrysostom noted the parallels between the Mithra feast and the birth of our Lord: “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.”
The eyes of faith see God at work in the world, just as St. John Chrysostom did. Through those eyes of faith, we see how even pagan symbols can be a tool to lead us to God.
That’s how Christmas got the holly plant — a symbol for eternal life among the druids — that now reminds us of the crown of thorns and God’s eternal love revealed through Christ.
Pines came to us from the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which began on Dec. 17. It grew into a week-long feast of parties, gifts and homes adorned with evergreens and mistletoe, considered sacred to Saturn. Roman believed that, during Saturn’s reign, people had lived in peace and freedom. We know this will be true under the Prince of Peace.
Vikings saw mistletoe as a symbol of resurrection, since their god, Balder, killed by a mistletoe spear, was raised in three days by the tears of his mother. Not hard to see how this story helped with a fuller revelation of Christ and his own mother.
So is this “stealing the winter solstice,” as FFRF claims? Or is it the wonderful adaptability of the church? As the late Jesuit Fr. John Hardon said: “(The church) appropriates to herself and integrates with God’s revelation whatever valid progress is made by human science and knowledge; she adapts her divinely revealed wisdom to the varied and changing needs of her faithful …”
So the FFRF is right — partially. Christmas is about the Unconquered Son — glimpses of his glory may have been seen by pharaohs of ancient Egypt in their sun-god, Ra. But our Son of God is truly victorious over death, and his glory has been revealed as “a light to all the nations” — from Magi right down to today.
If some people can only begin to see this truth in a natural nativity scene, don’t worry. God is patient. After all, he is the Unconquered One.