h Phoenix Qi: The Astronomy of Christmas and the Epiphany

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Astronomy of Christmas and the Epiphany

I had an epiphany a while ago: I discovered that the Twelve Days of Christmas is most likely the observance of the relationship of two astronomical cycles and events.

What is an epiphany? It's defined as "a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience." In other words, an "Ah-ha!" moment. The word epiphany comes from Greek epi- a prefix meaning “upon,” “on,” “over,” “near,” “at,” “before,” “after," combined with phan "to show, see, or appear."

The Feast of the Epiphany is a Christian observance, and the reason there are "Twelve Days" of Christmas is because there are 12 days between the birth of Jesus on December 25 and the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The Feast of the Epiphany is "A Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi."

During the Christmas holiday (which is a contraction of Holy Day) season of 2005, I noticed a very interesting relationship between two astronomical events, one in December and one in January, that further research revealed occurs on the average of twelve days apart every year: twelve is the number of days between the December Winter Solstice and the date in January that the sun is at Perihelion (closest to the planet Earth).

Could it possibly be a coincidence that the number of days between Winter Solstice, when the Sun's strength (the masculine god) is reborn, and Perihelion, when we in our orbit are closest to the sun (the light, enlightenment), is the same as the number of days between Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of a male deity, and Epiphany, the day the people were enlightened as to his holiness? Keep in mind: There is no such thing as coincidence.

The Sun has almost always been a symbol of masculine energy, strength, and divinity; most cultures did at one time worship a male deity represented by the sun. The god most often associated with the Winter Solstice is Mithra or Mithras, the masculine sun god of the Persians (and later worshiped by the Romans) who was born on the day of the Winter Solstice, the day the sun regains his strength. For more on the sun cycle, see Daoism on Winter here at Phoenix Qi.

If you look closely at the above picture of Mithras, you will see the signs of the zodiac arranged around the central image of Mithras slaying the bull (taurus). Mithraic imagery is very astronomically oriented. For a comprehensive explanation of the real astronomy behind the iconography and symbolism in Mithraism, see the wonderful book The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World by David Ulansey.

Another spiritual symbol associated with the sun is the halo (often associated with Jesus) which is representative of the inner light or divinity that shines forth from holy people. Light itself is very often symbolic of intelligence, as when we say a person is "bright" which is a way to say he is "smart," or spiritual achievement as when one is "enlightened."

A couple of thousand years ago, the Winter Solstice was on the twenty-fifth of December, so Perihelion would have occurred around January 6. Due to calendar reform over the millennium, the Winter Solstice now falls as early as December 20, and as late as December 23, and Perihelion usually occurs between January 2 and 4, occasionally as late as January 5.

Astronomical events don't always follow an exact schedule, so the number of days between the Winter Solstice and Perihelion can be as few as 11 and as many as 14. However, on the average, the Winter Solstice and Perihelion are separated by twelve days – those Twelve Days of Christmas.

Update April 1, 2007: There is a post illuminating several similarities between Christian and Mithraic beliefs. Included is information about the astronomical significance of the December date of birth of Jesus and Mithras, and the spring resurrection. Please read: Similarities between Mithraic and Christian beliefs and practices.

No comments: