Before the kerosene lantern and the electric lightbulb, humans stared at the night sky and told stories about what they saw. Groups of stars became constellations, with the twelve constellations of the zodiac acting as a giant clock, denoting the 12 months, the four seasons, when to plant and when to harvest. People told stories about the night sky and astronomical events, preserving information from generation to generation as elaborate myths and stories.
We are familiar with many of these stories, although to most, their ties to astronomical events were lost by the storytellers long ago.
Undoubtedly, the most important heavenly body is the sun, and one of the most important solar events of the year is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The tilt of the earth's axis is the cause of the shortening of the days; as the northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun, the sun rises farther to the south each day.
Finally, on the 21st or 22nd of December, the sun stops moving south, and remains apparently motionless, rising at the same point each day. In fact, the word solstice
is derived from the Latin sol
(sun) and sistere
(to stand still), because at the solstices, the Sun stands still in declination; that is, the seasonal movement of the Sun's path (as seen from Earth) comes to a stop before reversing direction. Without sophisticated gear, early observers concluded that the sun rose at the same place for three days, and then moves in the opposite direction. The sun is “reborn” as it starts to move again, to rise slightly to the north each day, and the days start to get longer again. Thus, the "sun" "dies" and after three days, is "reborn."
This astronomical situation was personified so it could be told as stories. The "good" daylight versus the evil darkness. The evil of the darkness is winning as the days decrease in length, and then the sun is "reborn" and begins to win out again, finally becoming victorious when the time of daylight equals the time of darkness at the Spring Equinox, known today as Easter.
Since the earth is tipped, northern hemisphere viewers can see a few constellations from the southern hemisphere at the point of the winter solstice. Most particularly, the Crux, or “southern cross” is exposed on that night (or at least it was 2000 years ago -- you can't see it anymore due to precession of the earth's axis). Thus in those days, it would make sense that viewing the Crux would be linked with "death" of the sun -- so the sun dies "on the cross".
Those of us in the northern hemisphere may not be familiar with the Southern Crux, or Southern Cross, which can be used to find the polaris for the south pole. When the earth is tipped to is maximal extent on the winter solstice, this constellation could be seen peeking over the horizon in some parts of the northern hemisphere some 2000 years ago. I understand it is no longer visible from the northern hemisphere.
This point on the horizon where sun will rise on the winter solstice is pointed out by a line formed through the brightest star in the night sky -- Sirius -- and through the three stars of Orion's belt, sometimes referred to as the three kings
. Draw a line through the three kings (Orion's belt) through Sirius and continue to the eastern horizon just after dark in December, and these stars will point out the location where the sun will rise the next day.
Thus, we have the story of the sun (“son”) of God, who dies on the Crux (cross) and then rises from the dead after three days to be reborn. The birth is pointed out by the brightest star in the east, Sirius, followed by the three kings. The winter solstice occurs on December 22nd, and then the birth occurs three days later, on December 25th.
The sun visits each of the twelve constellations throughout the year. These “followers” of the sun are the source of the story of the 12 disciples. The zodiac, symbolized as a circle like the face of a clock, with a vertical line bisecting a horizontal line, and twelve positions for each of the constellations. This symbol has been shortened to a cross inscribed with a circle, and is frequently seen on steeples of churches, and known as the Celtic cross
. This is the source of our 12 months and the customary division of a circle into 360 degrees.
[Sidenote: Why do we use 360 degrees in a circle? When we humans first tried to figure out the world, we assumed that it would be "perfect" because it was created by God. Those early humans divided the year up into the twelve months, signified by the constellation in the sky at night, and each one was assumed to be 30 days in length, to produce exactly 360 days. This is in fact the origin of the 360 degree circle. Later, they realized that the year was actually a bit longer than 360 days, and we know today it is 365.25 days long. Those extra days were a bit of a problem. Why would God create a world that did not have an even number of days? They didn't know, so they called these "extra" days the "holy" days. Later, the word became contracted -- holidays. Really nothing to do with anything sacred... just a 5.25 day mistake. We must also note that the "tropical year," measuring the cycle of seasons (for example, the time from solstice to solstice, or equinox to equinox), is 20.41 minutes shorter than the "sidereal year," which is measured by the Sun's apparent position relative to the stars, and is about 365.25 days. Nowadays, the winter solstice occurs at about Dec 21, which is ten days earlier than January 1, the start of the traditional year. That means that years ago, January 1 was also the winter solstice, and we can estimate when that was by dividing 10 days by 20.41 minutes, or about 720 years ago, in about the year 1300. But only if it were that simple. The calendar was changed in the meantime, the first introduction of the Gregorian calendar over the Julian Calendar occurred on 15 October 1582 and was introduced in Britain on 14 September 1752, correcting the time of Easter. So we are left with a clumsy difference between the winter solstice and the start of our Gregorian year on January 1.]
This story has been retold many times, with different characters and embedded in various religions. Typically, the protagonist is the sun of god, born of a virgin mother on December 25, a birth pointed to by a bright star in the east, and visited by three kings.
The protagonist starts his teaching at the age of twelve, is baptized and starts his ministry at the age of 30, was followed by twelve disciples. He is then crucified only to rise again on the third day.
Most people today would recognize this story as the story of Jesus. However, the details related above are actually based on the story of Horus, one of the sun gods of Egypt of about 3000 BC, who was born of a virgin (Isis). Although the life and teachings of Jesus are worthy of study and emulation, the story of his birth and death, the twelve disciples, his virgin mother Mary (a description of the constellation Virgo
, symbolized by the altered M), are clearly based on ancient astronomical stories describing the winter solstice, cast into a story with dozens of main characters (Horus, Jesus, Attis, Krishna, Dionysus, Mithra, etc.)
Theologians have known for centuries that the story of the birth of Jesus likely did not occur on December 25. Most agree that the actual birth of the historical Jesus of Galilee occurred in the Spring or Fall. There is no Biblical or historical support for the concept that Jesus was born on the 25th of December.
Carrying the connection even further, we must recognize that the tilt of the earth's axis does not remain perfectly stable, but moves slowly due to a process called precession, completing one cycle in about 26,000 years. This period is divided into twelve periods of 2,166 years, called ages, denoted by the constellation when the spring equinox occurs. We are currently in the age of Pisces, which started at about year AD 1. Thus, the fish symbol or "Ichthys"
we see on bumpers of cars can be considered a symbol of the current age of Pisces. We are approaching the age of Aquarius, which will start in about 150 years. Biblical references stating that Jesus would be with us until the “end of time” are more accurately translated as the “end of the age.” Indeed, we are in the age of the fish, Pisces, a symbol associated with Jesus, who represents this age, and who lived at the start of the age.
Theologians and historians have known about the startling nature of the numerous crucified saviors and their stories that are so similar for many years. Kersey Graves wrote The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors
in 1875, which may be the first careful treatise on the topic, but a work that does not touch on all aspects of the relation of the story to astronomical facts. Other aspects of the connections between the story of Jesus and astronomical facts has been turned into the movie Zeitgeist
. When you appreciate how this story that is so frequently told actually relates to astronomical facts can help you in your personal spiritual pursuit.
Thus, the "reason for the season" has everything to do with the astronomical event of the winter solstice and the transition to the new year, and really nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.
Happy New Year!