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Holidays and Observances

Sun Worship, in Early Christian Period

Source: Gordon J. Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion (New York: Longmans, 1931), p. 192.

Cults of the sun, as we know from many sources, had attained great vogue during the second, third, and fourth centuries. Sun-worshippers indeed formed one of the big groups in that religious world in which Christianity was fighting for a place. Many of them became converts to Christianity and in all probability carried into their new religion some remnants of their old beliefs. The complaint of Pope Leo in the fifth century that worshippers in St. Peter's turned away from the altar and faced the door so that they could adore the rising sun is not without its significance in regard to the number of Christians who at one time had been adherents of some form of sun-worship. It is of course impossible to say precisely in what way their influence manifested itself. We do know, however, of analogues between Christ and the sun; he was designated the Sun of Righteousness; and our Christmas falls on the date of the festival of a popular sun-god in Rome.

Sun Worship, in Mithraism

Source: Franz Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra, trans. by Thomas J. McCormack (reprint; New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1956), pp. 190, 191. [FRS No. 95.]

[p. 190] The rites which they [the Mithraists] practised offered numerous analogies. The secretaries of the Persian god, like the Christians, purified themselves by baptism; received, by a species of confirmation, the power necessary to combat the spirits of evil; and expected [p. 191] from a Lord's Supper salvation of body and soul. Like the latter, 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. They both preached a categorical system of ethics, regarded asceticism as meritorious, and counted among their principal virtues abstinence and continence, renunciation and self-control. Their conceptions of the world and of the destiny of man were similar. They both admitted the existence of a Heaven inhabited by beatified ones, situate in the upper regions, and of a Hell peopled by demons, situate in the bowels of the earth. They both a placed a Flood at the beginning of history; they both assigned as the source of their traditions a primitive revelation; they both, finally, believed in the immortality of the soul, in a last judgement, and in a resurrection of the dead, consequent upon a final conflagration of the universe.

Sun Worship, Permanent Results of

Source: Franz Cumont, Astrology and Religion Among the Greek and Romans (reprint; New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960), pp. 89, 90.

[p. 89] Concerning the worship which was paid to the stars in the West we possess very few data, even for the most important of all, that of the Sun. We shall only mention some liturgical practises which have had permanent results.

It was customary to worship the rising Sun (Oriens) at drawn, at the moment when its first rays struck the demons who invaded the earth in the darkness. Tacitus describes to us how, at the battle of Bedriacum in 69 a.d., the soldiers of Vespasian saluted the rising sun with loud shouts after the Syrian custom.2 [Note 2: Tacit., Hist., iii., 24.] In temples thrice a day at dawn, at midday, and at dusk a prayer was addressed to the heavenly source of light, the worshipper turning towards the East in the morning, towards the South at midday, and towards the West in the evening. Perhaps this custom survived in the three daily services of the early Church.

A very general observance required that on the 25th of December the birth of the "new Sun" should be celebrated, when after the winter solstice the days began to lengthen and the "invincible" star triumphed again over darkness. The pre-eminence assigned to the dies Solis also certainly [p. 90] contributed to the general recognition of Sunday as a holiday. This is connected with a more important fact, namely, the adoption of the week by all European nations.

Sun Worship, Roman Official Cult in Constantine's Day

Source: Frederick H. Cramer, Astrology in Roman Law and Politics, p. 4. Copyright 1954 by the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia. Used by permission.

A star cult, sun-worship, became (in the third century a.d.) the dominant official creed, paving the road for the ultimate triumph of Judaeo-Christian monotheism. So strong was the belief in the Invincible Sun (Sol Invictus) that for example Constantine I (d. 337), himself at first a devotee of the sun cult, found it, indeed perfectly compatible with his pro-Christian sympathies to authorise his own portrayal as Helios. And in 354 the ascendant Christian church in the reign of his pious but unsavoury son, Constantius II, found it prudent to change the celebration of the birth of Jesus from the traditional date (January 6) to December 25, in order to combat the pagan Sun god's popularity his "birthday" being December 25.

[Editor's note: December 25 is mentioned here, but an earlier example of the influence of this official sun worship on Christianity is Constantine's law of a.d. 321 uniting Christians and pagans in the observance of the "venerable day of the sun" (see Nos. 1642, 1644). It is to be noted that this official solar worship, the final form of paganism in the empire (see No. 1571), was not the traditional Roman-Greek religion of Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, and the other Olympian deities. It was a product of the mingling Hellenistic-Oriental elements, exemplified in Aurelian's establishment of Eastern Sun worship at Rome as the official religion of the empire, and in his new temple enshrining Syrian statutes statues of Bel and the sun (see Nos. 154, 1344). Thus at last Bel, the god of Babylon, came into the official imperial temple of Rome, the centre of the imperial religion. It was this late Roman-Oriental worship of one supreme god, symbolised by the sun and absording lesser divinities as by the sun and absorbing lesser divinities as subordinates or manifestations of the universal deity, that competed with young Christianity. This was the Roman religion that went down in defeat but infiltrated and coloured the victorious church with its own elements, some of which can be seen to this day.]

Sun Worship, Sacred Days of, in Christianity

Source: Walter Woodburn Hyde, Paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire, p. 60. Copyright 1946 by University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. Used by permission.

Remains of the struggle are found in two institutions adopted from its rival by Christianity in the fourth century, the two Mithraic sacred days, December twenty-fifth, dies natalis solis [birthday of the sun], as the birthday of Jesus, and Sunday, "the venerable day of the Sun," as Constantine called it in his edict of 321.

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