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Santa Claus, Jesus, and the Solstice
by Lee Salisbury
December 28, 2004

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Santa Claus, Jesus’ birthday, and the Solstice each occur every December as a holiday gestalt. Is Santa the main attraction, is Jesus the “reason for the season,” or is the winter Solstice, meaning “sun standing still” most deserving of our mindfulness? Is there really any difference among the three or are they of equal significance?

As a child, Santa was the main attraction. On Christmas Eve I'd leave a cookie and glass of milk on the fireplace mantle for Santa. On waking Christmas morning, I'd sneak downstairs and find the cookie and milk gone. Santa’s packages were under the Christmas tree. My childlike faith was rewarded with clear evidence of Santa’s visit. How disappointed I was to later be informed that Santa was a hoax.

American Puritans rejected the holiday gestalt. They outlawed Christmas celebrations. December 25th was the same day pagans celebrated their gods’ birthdays. Some Christians then and still today fear that acknowledging Jesus’ birth on the same day as pagan gods will cause some to ask if Jesus is just another mythical savior/god?

In the third century CE, there were many religions in the Roman Empire. In 274 CE, Emperor Aurelian declared December 25th the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun" combining the nativity celebrations of several pagan gods such as Apollo, Attis, Dionysus, Hercules, Horus, Osiris, and Mithra into a single festival.

Pagan god mythical stories pre-date Jesus by hundreds of years. Various elements in the pagan god stories show up in the Jesus story. Examples are the pagan god was….born of a virgin….an angel announced a birth….a star guided shepherds and magi to a birthplace….magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh….the parents and baby fled a jealous king's order of death….at age 12 the child earned recognition….at age 30 he is baptized in a river….he is tempted on a high mountain by an evil being….he has 12 disciples….he walks on water….he heals the sick….he raises the dead….he gives a Sermon on the Mount….he is transfigured on a mountain….he has a last supper teaching his disciples that they would drink his blood and eat his flesh….religious leaders plot to bring him to trial where he is condemned by a political leader….he dies by crucifixion between two thieves….his body is wrapped in linen and anointed with myrrh….he spends three days in hell….he is resurrected….his resurrection is announced by women….he proclaims his return to reign for a 1,000 year millennium….he is regarded as the anointed one….the good shepherd….the bread of life….the lamb of god….the son of man….the Word….the god-man….the savior of humanity.

Second century Roman skeptic Celsus stated, “are our (Pagan) beliefs to be accounted myths and theirs (the Christians') believed? What reasons do the Christians give for the distinctiveness of their beliefs? In truth, there is nothing at all unusual about what the Christians believe.”

The late second century church patriarch Tertullian was bothered by these similarities and blamed the devil. “The devil, whose business is to pervert the truth, mimics the exact circumstances.…let us therefore acknowledge the craftiness of the devil, who copies certain things of those that be Divine.”

The incalculable improbability of so many identical similarities overshadows the claim of “mere coincidence.” The similarities are beyond coincidence.

If historical integrity is the measure of significance among the three events, the Solstice wins! It is a measurable, natural event occurring without fail, according to our calendar, every June 21st and December 21st. The Solstice is the result of a 23.5º tilt of the earth’s axis. Because the earth is rotating like a gyroscope, it points in a fixed direction continuously towards a point in space near the North Star, while the earth is also revolving around the sun.

If antiquity is the measure of significance, the Solstice wins again! Geologists using isotope dating of meteorites estimate our solar system is 4.5 billion years old. The Solstice has been happening for a long, long time.

If a rational, logical mind is of significance, than again the Solstice wins hands down! The Solstice is scientifically understandable and does not require the sacrifice of the rational mind to the irrational.

If universality is the measure of significance, again the Solstice wins! Ancient peoples throughout the world have celebrated Solstices from time immemorial. Their lives were tied to the seasons and harvest cycles. They were fearful as daylight disappeared in the months leading into winter. When daylight began to increase there was cause for celebration with fertility rites, fire festivals, offerings and prayers to their gods and goddesses.

In contrast to the questionable integrity of both the Santa and Jesus stories, the Solstice is of unquestionable integrity. After December 21st we know the days are going to get longer, summer and another crop to harvest is on the way. By understanding the Solstice we humans have demonstrated our capacity to graduate from ignorance. We have learned that progress results from our willingness to observe, hypothesize, experiment, exercise scientific inquiry, and finally comprehend what was once incomprehensible.

Does this mean you can't sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what you want for Christmas? Does this mean you can't celebrate Christmas? No! Do both if they add to the holiday cheer. But please remember, the Solstice was not comprehended through fable or religion, but through the human ability we all have to distinguish between faith-based thinking and evidence-based thinking, between illusion and reality. Every millimeter of human advancement has occurred in like manner. As much as we humans love the emotional tug of supernatural stories that promise transcending natural law, we are gradually recognizing the advantages of critical thinking over myth and wishful thinking.

Lee Salisbury is a former evangelical preacher, founder of the Critical Thinking Club of Minnesota, and writes for and

Other Articles by Lee Salisbury

* Do You Condemn Gays Because the Bible Tells You So?
* History's Troubling Silence About Jesus

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