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Holiday Myths

Introduction

In these days of excess entertainment and consumption, it is easy to get caught up in the so-called "holiday season", rarely stopping to consider its significance. I say so-called, because the very word holiday is derived from the two words holy and day. However, under closer scrutiny from the Judeo-Christian and Islamic perspectives, these days are anything but holy. Celebrations such as Easter, Christmas, All Saint's Day, and Halloween all find their roots in pagan traditions, alien to the prophets (may peace and blessings be upon all of the prophets). Proof of this lies in the lack of historical evidence that the prophets ever celebrated their birthdays, decorated eggs, placed ornaments on trees, or dressed up in costumes. Through an examination of these holiday myths as religious innovation, or bid'ah, this article is a small attempt at warning people of the dangerous implications and subtle attitudinal changes that come with such celebrations.

Bid'ah: Religious Innovation

Before any discussion on the origin of holidays such as Christmas and Easter, it is important to define a term called bid'ah. A bid'ah is any invention, creation or addition of any religious matter, which was not found in the original teachings.

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "He who innovates something in this matter of ours (religion), will have it rejected." (Bukhari and Muslim)

To illustrate the bid'ah involved in Christmas and Easter simple questions beg asking. Did Jesus (peace be upon him) celebrate his birthday? Did his mother, Mary (peace be upon her)? Did his disciples? The answer, of course, is no. Did Jesus (peace be upon him) speak of an Easter bunny? Did he decorate evergreens? Of course not.

To believe that Jesus (peace be upon him) came with the truth, and to then add or delete from his message is to mix truth with falsehood. The above practices find their origins in pagan rites and rituals. I have heard with my own ears, Christian learned men and leaders acknowledging the true origins of Easter and Christmas, but putting it off as "all in good fun." So, I ask, would Jesus (peace be upon him) approve of mixing his teachings with those of the pagans?

Furthermore, to illustrate the gravity of bid'ah and of immitating non-believers, I refer you to the words of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who said what translates as follows:

Whoever imitates a people is one of them. (Related by Ahmad)
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once saw the Ansaar celebrating a certain day. He inquired about that and was informed: This is one of two days that we used to celebrate in Jaahiliyyah (pre-Islaamic ignorance) and we continue to do so. He replied: Nay! Allaah has substituted for you two better days: the day of al-Fitr and the day of al-Adhhaa. (related by Ahmad, an-Nasaaee, and others)

Christmas

Christ Mass, or Christmas, is one of many Christian celebrations which finds its origins in pagan ritual. To understand its origins one must examine the cult of the sun god. Be it Roman, Persian, Babylonian, or Egyptian worship of the sun god, there are common features. In general, the festivals of sun god worship occurred throughout the year and were based on the path of the sun and the relative hours of day and night. Therefore, the most significant pagan rites occurred during transition periods such as the vernal equinox, autumnal equinox, summer solstice, and winter solstice.

As autumn progresses to winter, the days get shorter and shorter until the winter solstice. At that point, the daylight hours begin to increase again. With respect to sun god worship, then, this represented the birth of the sun. In Rome and northern Europe, it was celebrated as the birth of Mithra, the sun god. These celebrations were ultimately merged with Christian teachings, perhaps to make Christianity palatable to the pagan masses.

By adopting [seasonal] festivals as Christian, the early Church sought both to win the allegiance of the populace as well as to harness the vitality of such festivals. While there is nothing to indicate the actual time of Jesusí birth, such an event most easily correlated to winter solstice festivals. The Roman celebration of the birth of the sun god, Mithra, for instance, had also been observed on December 25th .... the Church adopted the winter solstice as Christmas. The birth of Godís sun at the solstice easily correlated to the birth of Godís son. (Ellerbe p. 146)

The birth of Osiris in Egyptian pagan worship also correlated with the winter solstice.

An Egyptian winter solstice celebration of the birth of Osiris, the divine representation of masculine fertility, on January 6th became the Christian Epiphany. The Church declared that it signified the manifestation of Jesusí divinity. Yet, the spirit of both Christmas and the Christian Epiphany embodied timeless celebrations of the winter solstice. The difference between them was due more to a difference in calendars than a difference in meaning; the Egyptian calendar was twelve days behind the Julian calendar. (Ellerbe p.146)

Evergreens were important symbols of life to pagan northern Europe. The fact that they stood the test of winter by remaining green was quite significant to pagan worship. Words attributed to Jeremiah in the Old Testament warn against following the way of the pagans. Specifically, the warning pertains to the decorating of trees with silver and gold after cutting them down from the forest.

2 Thus says the Lord: "Do not learn the way of the pagans; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the pagans are dismayed at them.
3 For the customs of the people are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax.
4 They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple.
5 They are upright, like a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot go by themselves. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor can they do any good." (Jeremiah 10:2-5)

Whether or not this was directed at winter festivals surrounding evergreens is not known. But regardless, there is a general warning against following traditions which are alien to the prophetic tradition. And there are certainly no records of prophets (peace be upon them all) cutting down and erecting Christmas trees.

And what of Santa Claus? Is this simply another innocent custom? Just something benign for the kids? Certainly not. The dangers in Santa Claus lie less in the realm of bid'ah, or religious innovation, and more in the realm of shirk, or associating others with God. Attributes are given to Santa, which apply to God Alone. Answering children's prayers and requests for toys, knowing whether they have been naughty or nice, and the ability to reach every home in the world in a single night are things which apply only to God. God, Alone, is Omniscient, and He alone knows the behavior of the children. God, Alone, is Omnipotent and able to answer everyone's request without decreasing His Dominion. To apply attributes of God to other than God is to have gods beside the One True God. In Judeo-Christian theology it violates the first commandment. And in Islam, it is an act of shirk.

Time of Year Pagan Traditions Christian Synthesis
Winter Solstice The birth of the sun. The birth of Mithra on December 25th. Often celebrated with yule fires, processions of light, and tree decorating. Christmas & the Epiphany
Winter Season A time of nurturing and honoring inspiration and creativity. Common practices involving festivals of light, wearing animal masks and skins in hopes of augmenting the coming year's supply. Candlemas
Spring Equinox The sun is resurrected and gains prominence over the night. Fertility celebrations involving symbols such as the egg and the prolific hare. Easter
Spring Season The mating of the earth and the sky from which will come the year's harvest. Often celebrated with maypole dancing, decorating with new foliage. Pentecost & the Feast of the Ascension
Summer Solstice The peak of the sun's light. Celebrated with large bonfires, burning fragrant herbs, decorating with flowers. Feast of St. John
Summer Season The sun's energy transfers to the crops. Ritual blessings of the harvest, herbs, fields, mountains, and ocean. Assumption Day
Autumnal Equinox A time of gratitude for the harvest. Feasts and decorating with fall fruits, grains, and vegetables. Michaelmas & the Nativity of Mary
Fall Season Acknowledgement of the year's completion. Honoring the dead, honoring and releasing the past. All Soulís Day & All Saints Day
(borrowed & edited from Helen Ellerbe's The Dark Side of Christian History, permission pending)

Easter, Fertility, & the Origin of the Cross

While holidays like Christmas, New Yearís Day, and Valentineís Day have names which indicate either the holidayís origin or its significance, Easter stands out. Most people have no idea what the name Easter means. It turns out that Easter is a corruption of Austre, the name of the ancient pagan Scandanavian goddess of life and fertility.

As noted above, many holidays celebrated today represent a synthesis between Christian doctrine and pagan ritual. The basis for most of these "holy" days revolve around natural phenomena such as the autumnal equinox, vernal equinox, summer solstice, and winter solstice. With regards to the spring season and the vernal equinox, pagans, especially the pagans of cold, northern Europe, celebrated the renewal of life, as was demonstrated by the budding of the leaves, blooming of the flowers, return of the birds, and the re-emergence of many mammals previously in hibernation. These celebrations often utilized symbols of fertility and life such as the egg, the baby chick, and the rabbit.

The use of these same symbols in present day celebrations of Easter is quite obvious. Decorating eggs, Easter egg hunts, and the Easter bunny are all familiar icons. These things have carried over from pagan traditions via a synthesis with Christian doctrine. In particular, the worship of the sun god has been incorporated into the once monotheistic Christian teachings. The vernal equinox represents a time in which the hours of daylight equal the hours of night. The days following the vernal equinox mark an increase in the number of hours of daylight over the night. This time, then became viewed as the time of sol invictus or the unconquerable sun, demonstrating its supremacy by conquering the night.

The synthesis with Christian ideas was simple. Just as the sun conquered the night, the son conquered death. Thus, the pagan holidays of fertility and life were replaced with the Christian concept of the resurrection of Jesus (peace be upon him).

The Church adopted spring equinox celebrations as Easter. As this time had already been one of celebrating the sunís resurrection and return to prominence, celebrating the resurrection of the son of God required no great change in understanding. In fact, the Easter celebrations were so similar to earlier celebrations - particularly those which recognized the resurrection of the Babylonian Adonis, the Greek Apollo, and the Roman Attis - that a bitter controversy arose with pagans claiming that the Christian Easter celebration was a spurious imitation of the ancient traditions. Vernal equinox bonfires, originally prohibited by the Church, found their way as Easter fires into the official liturgy of Rome by the ninth century. Fertility symbols associated with spring, such as the egg and the incredibly prolific rabbit, survived as well. (Ellerbe p.148)

In fact, the very symbol of the cross is derived from pagan fertility practices. It is known by many that the symbol of the cross was utilized by many civilizations prior to the emergence of Christianity. The ancient Egyptian symbol of the ankh, then, deserves mentioning for its connection to fertility. The ankh is a symbol which resembles the Christian cross, except that it has a loop at the top. Some sources indicate that this symbol derives its shape from ancient Egyptian studies of human anatomy. The loop, it is said, represents the gravid (pregnant) uterus, while the arms of the cross represent the Fallopian tubes. And the base of the cross serves as the vaginal canal. The ankh, then, serves as the ultimate fertility symbol. In support of this theory of the derivation of the ankh, the fertility dolls of many African peoples, in particular the Ashanti, are shaped like the ankh. The animated graphic to the right illustrates the similarities.

Conclusions

The pagan roots of holidays celebrated in the name of Christianity testify to its having been altered. Christianity, as it exists today, does not represent the message of Jesus, the son of Mary (may peace be upon both of them). And this is not merely a Christian issue. This is an issue for all God-fearing people. We, as Muslims, must be aware of the pieces that make up the puzzle that is Christianity, first to protect ourselves and our families, then to warn others and to call them to the right way.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, "You (Muslims) will follow the ways of those nations who were before you, span by span and cubit by cubit (i.e., inch by inch) so much so that even if they entered a hole of a lizard, you would follow them." We said, "O Allah's Apostle! (Do you mean) the Jews and the Christians?" He said, "Who else?" Sahih Al-Bukhari Hadith, Narrated by Abu Said Al Khudri

There is no "good fun" in displeasing Allah, the Most High. So, we must provide alternative activities for our children; camping trips, sporting events, halaqaat, field trips, etc. We should do our best to avoid television, year-round. And if we find this difficult, we should at least avoid it during these "holidays". If we have non-Muslim family members that celebrate these days of bid'aa and shirk, then we should avoid their homes at these times. Visit them the month before Christmas, or the month after.

Most importantly, however, we should study our deen and we should surround ourselves with those who do. We should seek righteousness among the righteous. We should seek the pleasure of Allah among those who please Allah. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said that whoever imitates a people is one of them. Let us imitate those who are on the straight path, not those who have gone astray.

Allah knows best.

Sources

  • The Bible, New King James Version
  • Ellerbe, Helen, The Dark Side of Christian History, Morning Star Books, 1995.
  • Maier, Paul, In the Fullness of Time, Kregel Publishing, 1998.
  • The Noble Qur'an, English Translation
  • Quick, Abdullah Hakim, Holiday Myths, SoundVision Video, 1997.
  • Wood, Forrest, The Arrogance of Faith, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

    One Way - An article by Abu Aasiya

    Relevant Links

  • Suggested Readings
  • To You Your Celebrations and to Me Mine
  • Imitating the Kuffaar
  • A Muslim's Survival Guide to Christmas
  • Celebrating or Participating in Holidays of the Disbelievers: by Jamaal al-Din Zarabozo
  • Where Does Halloween Come From?
  • Fatwa on Celebrating Valentine's Day: by Shaykh Muhammad ibn Salih al-`Uthaymeen
  • Paganism & the Dangers of Compromise: a chapter from the book, What Did Jesus Really Say?
  • Lying and April Fools Day
  • April Fools's Day & the History of Spain

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    Web Author: Abu Aasiya
    Last Updated 5/26/03


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