The celebration of Mithra’s birth, Saturnalia, and Yuletide

Place of Jesus Birth?

Representation of Cave Grotto, Vatican City, January 2010


On December 25, people in many parts of the world celebrate a holiday.

This holiday was celebrated before Jesus was born.

And, depending on where it was observed, this season had some different names.

Two that come to mind are the Saturnalia and Yuletide.

The real reason for the season was to worship the sun god and celebrate his rebirth.

The Catholic Encyclopedia reported:

Mithraism A pagan religion consisting mainly of the cult of the ancient Indo-Iranian Sun-god Mithra. It entered Europe from Asia Minor after Alexander’s conquest, spread rapidly over the whole Roman Empire at the beginning of our era…The origin of the cult of Mithra dates from the time that the Hindus and Persians still formed one people, for the god Mithra occurs in the religion and the sacred books of both races , i.e. in the Vedas and in the Avesta. In Vedic hymns he is frequently mentioned and is nearly always coupled with Varuna, but beyond the bare occurrence of his name, little is known of him (Rigveda, III, 59). It is conjectured (Oldenberg, “Die “Religion des Veda,” Berlin , 1894) that Mithra was the rising sun, Varuna the setting sun; or, Mithra, the sky at daytime, Varuna, the sky at night; or, the one the sun, the other the moon. In any case Mithra is a light or solar deity of some sort

Helios Mithras is one god … Sunday was kept holy in honour of Mithra … The 25 December was observed as his birthday, the natalis invicti, the rebirth of the winter-sun, unconquered by the rigours of the season…

Its foremost apostles were the legionaries; hence it spread first to the frontier stations of the Roman army.

Mithraism was emphatically a soldier religion…

(Arendzen J.P. Transcribed by John Looby. Mithraism. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Published 1911. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York )

Mithra, identified with the invincible Sun…they also held Sunday sacred, and celebrated the birth of the Sun on the 25th of December, the same day on which Christmas has been celebrated, since the fourth century at least …

it appears certain that the commemoration of the Nativity was set for the 25th of December, because it was at the winter solstice that the rebirth of the invincible god,* the Natalis invicti, was celebrated. In adopting this date, which was universally distinguished by sacred festivities, the ecclesiastical authority purified in some measure the profane usages which it could not suppress. The only domain in which we can ascertain in detail the extent to which Christianity imitated Mithraism is that of art. The Mithraic sculpture, which had been first developed, furnished the ancient Christian marble-cutters with a large number of models, which they adopted or adapted…(Cumont, pp. 166, 193,196-197).

H.M. Gwatkin wrote:

There was a true moral element in the worship of Mithra the all- seeing, the author and protector of life, Mithra the purifier, the giver of immortality. A great catholic church of Mithra overspread the lands from Persia to Britain, especially along the great rivers where the legions lay. It had regular and irregular clergy, ascetics and mendicant friars, and divers orders of faithful men. It had regular divine service three times daily, and a yearly round of festivals culminating in the Birthday of Mithra (Dec. 25), with meetings for worship and processions of noisy votaries.

(Gwatkin, Henry Melvill. Early church history to A.D. 313 2nd Edition. Macmillan, 1912. Original from the University of Michigan Digitized Nov 13, 2008, p. 140)

As far as Mithraism and Christmas go, notice the following claim:

The origin of this festivity is presumed to be Mithraic and about 4000 years old. Mithra was the god of light in ancient Iran. The symbol of Mithra is Sun. Iranians used this symbol in their flag for at least the last 2500 years. The period of 17th to 24th of December was the duration of this feast. The 21st of December, which is the solstice of winter, is still celebrated in Iran. It is called “Yalda” and it represents the victory of light over darkness, which symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. Mithraism was brought to Europe by Greek soldiers after the defeat of the Persians by Alexander … Prior to the dominance of Christianity the Romans celebrated this festivity during the 25th of December to 6th of January. Mithraism gained favor by the Emperor Commodus and Julian and in 307 Diocletian built a temple on the Danube River dedicated to Mithra. Mithraism spread throughout Europe from Rome to the province of Numidia in North Africa up to England and Scotland. (Sina A. The Origin of Christmas. accessed 09/23/16)

During the latter time of Clement, when Roman Bishops, such as Zephyrinus and Callistus gained power, they apparently compromised in many ways, and thus many associated with their church choose to celebrate the Roman Saturnalia, which seemed to have been related to the Yalta of Mithraism.

This was condemned by writers such as Tertullian (see also What Does the Catholic Church Teach About Christmas and the Holy Days?):

The Minervalia are as much Minerva’s, as the Saturnalia Saturn’s; Saturn’s, which must necessarily be celebrated even by little slaves at the time of the Saturnalia. New-year’s gifts likewise must be caught at, and the Septimontium kept; and all the presents of Midwinter and the feast of Dear Kinsmanship must be exacted; the schools must be wreathed with flowers; the flamens’ wives and the aediles sacrifice; the school is honoured on the appointed holy-days. The same thing takes place on an idol’s birthday; every pomp of the devil is frequented. Who will think that these things are befitting to a Christian master, unless it be he who shall think them suitable likewise to one who is not a master? (Tertullian. On Idolatry, Chapter X. Translated by S. Thelwall. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).

But, however, the majority {of Greco-Roman ‘Christians} have by this time induced the belief in their mind that it is pardonable if at any time they do what the heathen do, for fear “the Name be blasphemed”…To live with heathens is lawful, to die with them is not. Let us live with all; let us be glad with them, out of community of nature, not of superstition. We are peers in soul, not in discipline; fellow-possessors of the world, not of error. But if we have no right of communion in matters of this kind with strangers, how far more wicked to celebrate them among brethren! Who can maintain or defend this?…By us,…the Saturnalia and New-year’s and Midwinter’s festivals and Matronalia are frequented–presents come and go–New-year’s gifts–games join their noise–banquets join their din! Oh better fidelity of the nations to their own sect, which claims no solemnity of the Christians for itself!…Not the Lord’s day, not Pentecost, even it they had known them, would they have shared with us; for they would fear lest they should seem to be Christians. We are not apprehensive lest we seem to be heathens! (Tertullian. On Idolatry, Chapter XIV. Translated by S. Thelwall. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).

Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honour of the god Saturn, held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to 23 December. But at Tertullian’s time, it basically extended to New Year’s.

Christmas was specifically placed, however, on December 25th because of Mithraism according to many scholars including the ones below:

It is true that in the history of the Church Mithraism made itself felt. We acknowledge it to this day. For in the course of the fourth century the commemoration of Christ’s birth was changed from January 6 to December 25, in order to agree with the commemoration of the birth of Mithra. This was done probably with the object of weakening the Mithra cult, by giving its chief festival a Christian atmosphere (Hastings, James; Hastings, Ann Wilson; Hastings, Edward. The Expository times, Volume 19. T. & T. Clark., 1908. Original from the University of Michigan Digitized Dec 8, 2008, p. 247).

It may be interesting to note that since Mithras was believed to have been born out of a rock/cavern, that Constantine’s mother Helena decided (apparently based upon the old testimony of Justin and other unfaithful professors of Christ) to build the original “Church of the Nativity” over a cave (see Was Jesus Born in the Grotto of the Nativity?).

Was Jesus born in a cave?

Many improperly seem to think so.

The Bible contains some information about the place of Jesus’ birth:

1…Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king…(Matthew 2:1, NKJV throughout)

4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. 6 So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-7)

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…(John 1:14)

Whether Jesus was born in a building for humans and then moved to a manger is not specified. But what is specified is that he was laid in a manger, which is a place that fodder (like hay) was placed to feed livestock such as cattle and sheep.

While the Gospel accounts do not so specify, Justin Martyr (and the group that he apparently supported) believed that Jesus was born in a cave.

The Catholic Encyclopedia even cites Justin for partial “proof” of the speculation of a cave birth:

About 150 we find St. Justin Martyr referring (Dialogue with Trypho 78) to the Savior’s birth as having taken place in a cave near the village of Bethlehem ; such cave stables are not rare in Palestine. (Cf. Massie in Hast., Dict. of the Bible, III, 234; Expository Times, May, 1903, 384; Bonaccorsi, “Il Natale”, Rome, 1903, 16-20.) The tradition of the birth in a cave was widely accepted…It is reproduced also in the apocryphal gospels (Pseudo-Matt., xiii…) (Arbez, Edward. Bethlehem. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 26 Dec. 2009 <>).

It is disappointing that the Church of Rome actually refers to Justin’s statements (which have to be referring to an above ground cave) as partial proof that Helena picked the correct location with the “grotto of the nativity.”

Scholars realize that those who followed Mithraism not only claimed that their god was born in a cave, they also believe that he was born on December 25th.

While Justin was aware of Mithras legends of a cave birth, those who were part of the Mithras religion were perhaps even more aware of it.

Therefore, it should be of little surprise that in the fourth century, the mother of the Mithras-following Emperor Constantine in 326-327 A.D. authorized the construction of the so-called “Church of the Nativity” over a 20 feet below ground cave location (Herring G. An introduction to the history of Christianity: from the early church to the Enlightenment. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006, p. 54; Kitto J, Taylor J. The popular cyclopadia of Biblical literature: condensed from the larger work. Gould and Lincoln, 1854. Original from Harvard University, Digitized Oct 23, 2007, p. 150 ).

Because of its steepness and depth, this is a location that would be basically impossible for cattle and/or sheep to be able to be herded in and out of. Others have also realized that and properly concluded that Jesus was not possibly born in the cave that Constantine’s mother Helena was led to believe He was (for details, see the much longer article Was Jesus Born in the Grotto of the Nativity?).

Are there any prophetic ramifications to the idea of a deity/religious figure being born in a cave?

Alexander Hislop seemed to think so. Notice what he wrote:

Now, in remembrance of the birth of the god out of a “hole in the earth,” the Mysteries were frequently celebrated in caves under ground. This was the case in Persia, where, just as Tages was said to be born out of the ground, Mithra was in like manner fabled to have been produced from a cave in the earth. *

* JUSTIN MARTYR. It is remarkable that, as Mithra was born out of a cave, so the idolatrous nominal Christians of the East represent our Saviour as having in like manner been born in a a cave. (See KITTO’s Cyclopoedia, “Bethlehem”) There is not the least hint of such a thing in the Scripture.

Numa of Rome himself pretended to get all his revelations from the Nymph Egeria, in a cave. In these caves men were first initiated in the secret Mysteries, and by the signs and lying wonders there presented to them, they were led back, after the death of Nimrod, to the worship of that god in its new form. This Apocalyptic beast, then, that “comes up out of the earth,” agrees in all respects with that ancient god born from a “hole in the ground”; for no words could more exactly describe his doing than the words of the prediction (v 13): “He doeth great wonders, and causeth fire to come down from heaven in the sight of men,…and he causeth the earth and them that dwell therein to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed.” This wonder-working beast, called Nebo, or “The Prophet,” as the prophet of idolatry, was, of course, the “false prophet.” By comparing the passage before us with Revelation 19:20, it will be manifest that this beast that “came up out of the earth” is expressly called by that very name: “And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image.” As it was the “beast from the earth” that “wrought miracles” before the first beast, this shows that “the beast from the earth” is the “false prophet”; in other words, is “Nebo.”

If we examine the history of the Roman empire, we shall find that here also there is a precise accordance between type and antitype…the old Pagan title of Pontiff was restored, it was, through means of the corrupt clergy, symbolised, as is generally believed, and justly under the image of a beast with horns, like a lamb; according to the saying of our Lord, “Beware of false prophets, that shall come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”(Hislop A. Two Babylons. 1858)

Notice the following scripture about the second beast of Revelation 13:

11 Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth, and he had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon. (Revelation 13:11)

Mithras (sometimes spelled Mithra) was a sun-god. Mithraism seemed to enter the Roman Empire about a century before Jesus was crucified. Mithras was believed to have been born out of a rock in an “underground cavern” (Ulansey D. The origins of the Mithraic mysteries: cosmology and salvation in the ancient world. Oxford University Press US, 1991, p. 36). Hence a deity that supposedly came up out of the earth.

An article of related interest may also be Do You Practice Mithraism?

Apparently the practice of ‘Christmas caroling’ had its origins in Saturnalia:

In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast.

In Rome, the Winter Solstice was celebrated many years before the birth of Christ. The Romans called their winter holiday Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the God of Agriculture. In January, they observed the Kalends of January, which represented the triumph of life over death. This whole season was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The festival season was marked by much merrymaking. It is in ancient Rome that the tradition of the Mummers was born. The Mummers were groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining their neighbors. From this, the Christmas tradition of caroling was born. In northern Europe, many other traditions that we now consider part of Christian worship were begun long before the participants had ever heard of Christ. The pagans of northern Europe celebrated the their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun God, Mithras, being born…

Many practices that people associate with Christmas came from pagan holidays including Yuletide.

The “twelve days of Christmans” originally came from the 12 days of Yuletide which began at sunset on December 20, known as Mother Night, and ended on the night of December 31, the Night of the Oak King and the Roman day of Hecate. The dates were later moved by those who keep Christmas.

Yuletide is perhaps the greatest of all Heathen holidays. It is a time of celebration and close family contact that lasts twelve days and nights; each of which can be viewed as a month of the preceding year in miniature. Many of the customs associated with Christmas actually began from Heathen Yule rites and customs. Many Gods and Goddesses are honored during Yuletide and most Asatruar believe that they, as well as the spirits of the earth and our ancestors, all join us for the celebrations. All are our kith and kin, after all.

There are many traditions and practices that are traditional to the month of Yule the most well known is of course the 12 days of Yule. Some Heathens may simply bookend Yule with Mother’s Night and Twelfth Night and not have specific observances in-between those days, there are some other Heathens who have taken things a step further. Pulling inspiration from the Nine Noble Virtues, and combining it with candle-lighting celebrations like Chanukah or Kwanzaa, they have come up with a reason to light a candle every night during the Yuletide.

The alter {sic} on Yule should face north, the area is decorated with Holly and Mistletoe and dried leaves and fruit such as Hips and Haw. A chalice of appropriate wine, mead or cider. The Oak or Pine log with up to 13 green, white and red candles decorated with carvings, runes or symbols is placed centrally on the altar. (12 Nights of Yule. Nordic Wiccan, December 5, 2014.

Faithful early Christians were not keeping the twelve days of Yuletide.

Anyway, it was because of pagan celebrations related to the sun that December 25th was chosen to supposedly be celebrated as Jesus’ birthday.

However, it, of course, was not Jesus’ birthday.

But many like to celebrate the day of Mithra’s birth as well as have various accompaniments that were associated with the pagan Saturnalia and Yuletide.

Some items of possibly related interest may include the following:

Did early faithful Christians celebrate Christmas? Christians, according to Jude, are supposed to “contend earnestly for” (NKJV) or “fight for” (NJB) the original faith. Did early Christians celebrate Christmas? Were later professors of Christ condemned for idolatrous practices such as wreaths and pagan gift giving on an idol’s birthday in December? When did December 25th get adopted? According to ‘The Catholic Encyclopedia, why was December 25th adopted? Do the Gospels allow for Jesus to have been born in late December? Where did the ‘twelve days of Christmas, come from ? What about ‘Christmas carols’? Did early Christians observe any holy days? If so, what were they? Does the Bible encourage or condemn using practices others used to worship the true God? Is Jesus the reason for the season or was there another reason? This is a video sermon.
Do You Practice Mithraism? Many practices and doctrines that mainstream so-called Christian groups have are the same or similar to those of the sun-god Mithras. December 25th was celebrated as his birthday. Do you follow Mithraism combined with the Bible or original Christianity? A sermon video from Vatican City is titled Church of Rome, Mithras, and Isis?
Military Service and the Churches of God: Do Real Christians Participate in Carnal Warfare or Encourage Violence? Here are current and historical perspectives on a matter which show the beliefs of the true church on military participation. Is war proper for Christians? A related sermon would be: Christians, Violence, and Military Service.
Was Jesus Born in the Grotto of the Nativity? Was Jesus born in a below ground cave? Was Jesus born below the “Church of the Nativity”? Were the wise men there?
Virgin Birth: Does the Bible Teach It? What does the Bible teach? What is claimed in The Da Vinci Code?
Is Keeping Christmas a Sin? Is keeping Christmas acceptable for true Christians? What are some scriptures to consider?
What Does the Catholic Church Teach About Christmas and the Holy Days? Do you know what the Catholic Church says were the original Christian holy days? Was Christmas among them? Is December 25th Jesus’ birthday or that of the sun god? Here is a link to a related sermon: What do Catholic and other scholars teach about Christmas?
Did Early Christians Celebrate Birthdays? Did biblical era Jews celebrate birthdays? Who originally celebrated birthdays? When did many that profess Christ begin birthday celebrations? A related sermon video is available and is titled: Birthdays, Christians, and December 25th.
Where is the True Christian Church Today? This free online pdf booklet answers that question and includes 18 proofs, clues, and signs to identify the true vs. false Christian church. Plus 7 proofs, clues, and signs to help identify Laodicean churches. A related sermon is also available: Where is the True Christian Church? Here is a link to the booklet in the Spanish language: ¿Dónde está la verdadera Iglesia cristiana de hoy? Here is a link in the German language: WO IST DIE WAHRE CHRISTLICHE KIRCHE HEUTE? Here is a link in the French language: Où est la vraie Église Chrétienne aujourd’hui?
Continuing History of the Church of God This pdf booklet is a historical overview of the true Church of God and some of its main opponents from Acts 2 to the 21st century. Related sermon links include Continuing History of the Church of God: c. 31 to c. 300 A.D. and Continuing History of the Church of God: 4th-16th Centuries. The booklet is available in Spanish: Continuación de la Historia de la Iglesia de Dios, German: Kontinuierliche Geschichte der Kirche Gottes, and Ekegusii Omogano Bw’ekanisa Ya Nyasae Egendererete.

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