This article was originally published in Science and Spirit magazine in 2000.
It is an abridged version of: Chronos, Saturn, Mithra: Archaeology and the Pagan Origins of Christmas, in Insoll, T. (ed.), Case Studies in Archaeology and World Religion. BAR International Series 755 (1999).
Among the vast corpus of ancient Greek myths, the story of Chronos, Father of Time, tells of how time itself came into existence. In later Roman mythology, the god that was most explicitly equated with Chronos was Saturn. And like many of the great pagan mystery cycles, both Chronos and Saturn were associated with a set of rituals - the Kronia and the Saturnalia - that were structured primarily around the seasons. The same is true of the cult of Mithra, which spread rapidly across the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries CE, and exactly reproduced the logic of these other seasonal rites.
If we explore these classical mystery cycles from the perspective of seasonality, the development of the Christian festival of Christmas should not be seen as the heralding of a new religious era. Rather, it appears to be a restatement of the ritual logic of these late antique pagan mysteries.
Tracing the evidence for such ritual continuities has major implications for our understanding of the development of Christianity as a world religion, for it puts this development in the context of the far older religious practices from which it emerged. It may also reveal some of the deeper elements of continuity by which religious practice has been - and continues to be - organized.
Photo: Mithras relief, Vatican Museum (wikicommons)