(I have always wanted to write about this, but have never had a place to do so. I hope you will indulge me here, at PlanetPOV. It feels safe here!)

Many non-Jews don’t understand why Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, and are surprised by that fact. I’m always surprised that they are surprised! I usually have to remind them that Christmas is a Christian holiday, which is so ironic to me—reminding Christians of the essence of Christmas! That tells you a lot about what has happened to Christmas in this country, when so many Christians see the day as secular, as about Santa Clause. But as we realize, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, and Jews do not acknowledge Jesus as the savior. No, not even as an actual person.

As a child, Christmas was a much more difficult time. Like most Jewish kids, Christmas was a holiday to be seen as an outsider, with envy. I mean, come on! The decorations, the presents, the music! And the fact that the rest of the entire world celebrates it. And as a kid, I was unaware that most of the world did not celebrate Christmas. Who knew about Asians, the Muslim world, let alone the more exotic worlds of Hinduism, Animism, Pantheism and all the other wonderful varieties of religious experience? Nope, to me, as an American kid, the whole world, except for my tiny part, was Christian.

Sure, we had Hannukkah, but let’s face it—as Lewis Black pointed out in one of his routines– Hannukkah sucked. The music is limited, and the decorations? Fahgettaboutit! What, a few lousy dreidl’s and a menorah? No thanks. And those “eight days of gifts?”  Right. Eight days of socks, pencil cases and sweaters. Again, as Lewis Black says: It’s a back-to-school holiday! I wanted the tree, the ornaments, the LIGHTS!!! I wanted my house covered in those multicolored bulbs wasting as much electricity as possible.

The Tree!

Hell, I wanted a fireplace too.

And The Lights!

This  was so unfair. Hannukkah is the Festival of Lights for Chrissakes and we don’t even get to have any? How did that happen, that Christians get the lights? And let’s not forget the wreaths!  God, I always wanted a wreath. (As an adult, I even asked my rabbi if I could hang a wreath—not a Christmas wreath, just a generic one, in the Spring, say. I got a resounding  “ No.” And why not?  “Because, it has the appearance of Christianity.”)

Now, just to clarify, I never wanted to be Christian, and I had an almost pathological fear of crosses. An actual Crucifix terrified me as a kid; to an outsider, it just looked like a guy being tortured—without the pathos of the story to move me. I wasn’t in danger of converting, I just wanted Christmas.

As a kid going to public school in the 1950’s and 60’s I had plenty of opportunity to learn all about the traditions of Christmas, especially during the yearly school Christmas Pageant. That’s where I learned all the carols and about the Nativity. I can still remember singing, “Silent Night” and thinking the words were:

“Si-o-lent Night. Ho-ho ly Night.

All is calm, all is bright.

Ron, yonvir-er –gin, mother an chile.

Holey infanso ten derand mile.”

Had no clue what that song was about! But I knew about Baby Jesus, the Wise Guys, and the Star. And I loved The Little Drummer Boy. In fact, to this day, I adore Christmas carols.

So, anyway, I got over it. Made my peace with Christmas. Until I had my own child. And then I became every bit as wary of its influence on my child as my parents were. Only during that period of my life, I was in my observantly Jewish phase: Went to synagogue regularly, and enrolled our son in a Jewish elementary school. (That was a mistake, but that’s another story.) There would be absolutely no Christmas influences in our house. On Christmas, we would do what American Jews traditionally do for Christmas—go out to a Chinese restaurant and a movie. And Hannukkah  became a big production.

Fast forward twenty-odd years since then. I am still a Jew, but no longer observant. I have remarried to a Chinese man, so we still have no Christmas. And I’m fine with that, except I still feel like an outsider. It’s funny, only on Christmas do I feel this way—kind of wistful, and longing. I have never really felt a sense of Otherness in America. But I want to tell you something: On our son’s thirteenth birthday, we took him to Israel, to visit his relatives. (His father’s family has lived in Jerusalem literally forever. I mean, since it was Canaan.) When I got off the El Al flight and landed at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv, something amazing happened. I relaxed to a degree I had never relaxed before. I was among only Jews. The cops were Jews, the robbers were Jews. For the first time, I was in the majority, and it felt different—a new feeling. That feeling lasted exactly two days, until I went to a district of Orthodox (fundamentalist) Jews called Mea Sha’arim.

It was there, on those streets where the men walked on the other side of the street, so as not to come into contact with me. To not even look at me. I was not Jewish to them, but an outsider. Not Jewish enough!

This whole business of being an outsider/insider is so fluid. Here’s another example: When I met my first husband, he asked what my background was, and I told him, “Russian.” My family was Russian. “No,” he said, “your family was Jewish. Your family may have been from Russia, but to the Russians they were Jews, not Russian.” Well, that is true and it kind of hit me–My family and every other Jewish family were always outsiders, no matter where they lived. To make it even further complicated, when I met my second husband, to him, as Chinese, I am white. But ask any southerner from Alabama or Mississippi, and they will tell you I’m not white, but a Jew. Go figure. Plus, now I am an outsider again!  You can’t imagine what a tall redhead must look like among a crowd of petite Chinese. But I relish our differences.

I have always loved the religious traditions of others. I went back to school in my late forties and got an advanced degree in Religious Studies. I have studied for years with a rabbi who himself was summoned by the Dalai Lama to come to Dharmsala and help the Tibetans maintain their traditions. I love it all. It has been the most important journey of my being. And I have learned that there is a difference between being an outsider and being The Other. We are all, to some degree or other, outsiders, but none of us are truly “the Other.” Except for those who insist upon it. They are the ones who are lonely.

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Scheherazade
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Cher, you and I have a number of interesting things in common. 🙂 I’ve studied both Hebrew and Russian, and in college my double-major was psychology and comparative religion. I was brought up in a Christian home (my mother Catholic & my father Protestant), but a better friend to the people of your heritage you will never find. In fact even when money has been extra-tight I’ve still given to local Jewish communities.

This might amuse you to hear, but I actually have been inclined to feel envy for the people I know who grew up in a Jewish household. For example, my partner’s best friend growing up is named “Mitchel.” Recently he was home from his studies overseas. When I walked into the house he grew up in I felt a longing to have been a child in that very sort of house. I can’t explain it, but I found the environment to be calming.

I am sorry that this time of year has given you disconcerted feelings, but for me I’ve come to see beyond the religious implications. Granted, that might be easy for me because I didn’t grow up thinking of Christmas as being something that I feel seperated from, but even so I’ve come to think that given the many origins of the yule season it naturally has many different religious aspects to it. Just as the traditions of trees and candles came from more pagan roots, so too can they be brought into other experiences.

I am an idealist, though. 🙂

Cher, you are a wonderful person. Your vibrant and endearing personality comes through with every post and article I read that you have authored. I hope that even if this time of year doesn’t feel quite the way you’d like it to, you at least feel the warmth of care from those of us who treasure your friendship. 🙂

*HUGS TIGHT*

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javaz
Member

Well, one holiday we can all celebrate is New Year’s Eve, correct?
My husband and I have a genuine bottle of champagne and plan on having that and playing Trivial Pursuit, and yeah, he’ll win, but it’s still fun, and we might make it up until 9:00!

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Pepe Lepew
Member

Happy Boxing Day, everyone.

Today is the day you’re supposed to hit all the after-Christmas sales, because Canadians love a good sale … bless their cheapskate hearts.

But, we’re broke and it’s 10 degrees outside, so we’re just playing “Guitar Hero” all day.

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Khirad
Member

Yay for Boxing Day! I was tempted to write something, and hope someone would still write, of the Christmas to New Year’s Day (or Hogmanay, aye, that’s how I rrroll – I would attribute the cheapskate nature of Canadians to heavy Scottish ethnicity as well) history and all the 12 days drinking bacchanalia roots of the holiday cheer – The History Channel had a good program on it one year. But I digress and ramble…

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Pepe Lepew
Member

Yes. You got it.
Heavy Scotch-Irish influence in Canada. A lot of Canadians even sound Scottish to me.

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Khirad
Member

Canadians also take pipe bands super-duper seriously. Never want to compete against them!

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BlueStateMan
Guest

I feel your pain…

“If my theory of relativity is proven correct, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.”

~~ Einstein

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Kalima
Admin

I’m still Catholic, born and bred, forgive me. Child memories prevail. I can’t move away or above it. It is a part of me.

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Pepe Lepew
Member

I resemble that remark….

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Kalima
Admin

And I adore you for it. Gosh we Europeans, doesn’t matter, scratch a bit, bite a bit, we are all the same. I think you have Spanish roots right, still European.

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javaz
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SueInCa
Member

Cher

I also love hearing and participating in others religious or secular traditions. And sometimes Christmas is over rated. I do love the holiday, but the commercialism takes away some of the joy for me. I have been to AME churches, Catholic, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Protestant, Episcopalian and finally settled on the UCC. I chose them because they are a very tolerant and liberal church. I like the camaderie how they welcome anyone with no questions and the easy way the minister has of speaking to us. They are more life lessons, rather than sermons. We have the reading of the scripture but it is done by a layman who does not try to interpret but leaves it up to the individual. I don’t know what it feels like to be an outsider in the sense that you do, but in my search for a church that I felt like I could fit in to, I can understand a little of what you are feeling. I have tried different religions and know firsthand how some are very intolerant which is why my search took so long.

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escribacat
Member

Cher, I love this piece. I grew up in Boulder at a time when the town had about two Jews, two Catholics, two Blacks, and thousands of WASPs. When I was 18 I moved to San Francisco and had many abrupt awakenings there. I remember walking down California Street one Wednesday, rushing into the office where I worked and announcing very loudly, “There’s something really weird going on out there! Everyone’s got a smudge on their face!” (Many condescending chuckles all around — and “Ash Wednesday” was explained to me, the rube from the provinces.)

I remember a Jewish friend telling me a story similar to yours and feeling quite shocked that he did not celebrate Christmas — not because I was a Christian but because the whole Christmas thing is such an overwhelming event in our culture and so intricately interwoven into our collective psyche. As a kid, it was, as you said, lights, excitement, presents. Even the snow itself is a collaborator with Christmas, as are all the trees, apples, roast turkeys, pies, bottles of Coca Cola, and reindeer. It makes perfect sense to me that you would seek refuge on Christmas Day with your fellow outcasts at the Chinese restaurant.

I sometimes think our entire economy revolves around Christmas — but that was before they discovered that they could create economic events out of all the other holidays. Now, of course, the retail economy just lurches from one holiday to the next and Christmas is losing some of its prominence. It’s also lost a lot of its excitement since it now begins shortly after Halloween. Tomorrow, I expect the stores will be clearing out their Christmas stuff and packing the shelves with Valentine chocolates and candy hearts.

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SueInCa
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I could not have said it better. Good thing you got out of Colorado before all those New Life people moved in to Colorado Springs. I visited there several times and never really noticed any religious atmosphere but I hear that New Life church now dominates the town?

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escribacat
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Sue, I now live in Colorado again, but Boulder-Denver is pretty progressive nowadays. I avoid Colorado Springs. It’s about a hundred miles away.

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Pepe Lepew
Member

Have you ever been in Brooklyn’s, across the street from the Pepsi Centre?
A whole table of lesbian Avs fans bought me several rounds of beer on my birthday there once.

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Kalima
Admin

Now I know where you live, I can put you in my time zone, thank you.

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Emerald1943
Member

Hi cher! Great article! Being raised a Southern Baptist, becoming a convert to Judaism and then evolving to being a Buddhist atheist, I can certainly share some of your sentiments. Yet, I still have a Christmas tree with the ornaments made by my kids and grandkids from years past. I hate to admit it but the holiday is completely secular for me now…and it hasn’t hurt me a bit! I get the best of all of it!

Just an update, we had a really bad ice storm last night and today that took our power out about noon. It finally came on about 6pm and the grandkids and I have had a wonderful day, even if we were a little chilly without heat except for a propane portable heater. We spent the day talking and laughing. But the very best part was this…I had asked my grandson who is a college freshman majoring in music for one gift for Christmas…to play the Bach cello suite for me. Sure enough, he arrived yesterday afternoon, lugging his cello and music through the snow. He played the Bach for me…almost flawlessly by candlelight late this afternoon! I was in absolute heaven!! One of the best Christmases I have ever had!

Due to the power outage here, I have not been able to post all day, so here’s wishing that all of you had as nice a day as I did! Now, what to do with all this trash and of course, the leftovers?? 🙂

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choicelady
Member

Cher and all – what fascinating information about Christmas and all the links to other religions. Dec. 25 seems to be a biggie for birthdays. Who’d have thunk it?

I’m so WASP I buzz. So let me tell you about MY take on Christmas. I was raised in a predominantly secular household but sufficiently grounded in the culture of the 1950s that my parents imparted the story – the creche AND Santa – so we’d blend in even if they did not really believe it. I am a Christmas nut – I LOVE Christmas. Why? Well, because I really do feel the hope and possibilities of Christmas – peace, humanity, hope, joy. It’s not religious so much as humane. But there is another secure I have to tell you.

When you’re Anglo-Saxon in origin and thus represent the dominant culture of America, you have nothing else to celebrate. I grew up first in a working class Italian neighborhood, and I envied all my Catholic friends who had saints days, Italian festivales, CULTURE. I have nothing. Being Anglo Saxon, Christmas is IT – it’s the only thing you’ve got. As I got older and got to know Jewish families, I thought Hanukkah was the cat’s meow – maybe my loot was better, but you Jews got EIGHT DAYS OF CELEBRATION. We got one. Period.

Being Anglo Saxon, being the dominant American culture purveyor, you are SO whitebread that nothing stands out. Nothing at ALL. So I envy anyone who has a deep link to a history outside the US experience, I envy faiths that lie outside Christianity.

Now as an adult, I’ve been to my nephew’s bar mitzvah and have celebrated Ramadan with the iftar. I’m here to say that if Christians had to learn a different language, spend 3 hours of public display to be confirmed in the faith or had to spend an entire month fasting sunup to sundown, there’s be 7 Christians in the world – and I wouldn’t be one of them.

So yes, I see the lure of Christmas in all its glory, but you should know that we who celebrate it secretly wish we had more – the depth and diversity of your faiths, your cultures, your identity. We’re not hyphenated. We’re just, well, us. We have no roots. We’re just here. We have no place to “go home” – we’ve nowhere to go.

So while you envy the massive commercialism and showiness of Christmas, feel a bit sad for us. We’re doing this because, at the end of the day, it’s all we have. We’re making the most of a culture that has no “there there”. And we pay off the bills for our potlatch mentality that exists to compensate for our awareness that we have no definition, no substance, no focus. We aren’t to be envied, we’re to be pitied. So keep things in perspective. We’re doing the best we can.

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Emerald1943
Member

Brilliant, choice! You put into words some of what I have felt in the past. I always envied the French, British, Germans and other Europeans for their traditions and the roots that go back for a thousand years. We never had that in America…only a couple of hundred years’ worth. When I lived in New York City in the 60’s, I envied the Italians for their feasts and festivals, attending whenever I could down in “little Italy”, but I was an outsider…”whitebread” as you say. I loved the Greek people and married one of them. I converted to Judaism and incorporated some of their traditions. In fact, I even kept kosher for a while.

I have to admit though that it is a relief to shed all of it and just to celebrate humanity and the good things from all cultures. There’s nothing like Southern country ham with potato latkes! 🙂

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choicelady
Member

Emerald – that is SO fine! Smithfield ham and latkes – WOW! I think you’ve hit on the essence of multi-culturalism! It’s the one way we whitebread folks can begin to enjoy being American. Incorporating new friends and therefore new traditions into our lives. I love it! Thanks for a great sense of NEW tradition!

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KevenSeven
Member

While I want to say that it is hard to believe, actually, it is very easy to believe.

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Khirad
Member

So, being a Jew, celebrating Yule and the Winter Solstice isn’t an option… you monotheists… 😉 That’s also the thing about minority and enclave communities, they tend to become inflexible, as a natural defensive measure to maintain identity and culture. It’s the sociological aspect of religion. The Jewish experience, and concept of ‘Jewishness’ is of course fairly unique, unless anyone wants to propose another similar situation. The closest I’ve ever come is the Parsis. And the comparison is striking – apart from the wandering aspect and feeling strangers in their own adopted land (India is far more diverse and pluralistic so being absorbed – while still being protective and guarded of their own traditions – was a bit less of a big deal).

Me? I have no compunction whatsoever, I’ll celebrate just about anything! Especially if it involves a party, drinks or good food and sweets! Satanic Mass you say? you better have fabulous Bloody Mary’s! I’m freelance when it comes to religion and observances. In fact I’ve often thought about getting a menorah for the heck of it, but went against it for it probably being disrespectful. Merely lighting a candle each night, a proper observance does not make, and I could never put my spirit in it like I can standing around a bonfire for Yule.

It’s funny you say this about the rest of the world, because it is my understanding that Japan has adopted some Christmas stuff, and Christmas in India has spread outside of Goa, the Christian parts of Mumbai, and of course the northeastern areas of Orissa, etc. Kashmiri artisans makes some famous papier m

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peacekitten
Member

cher,

as you may or may not know, my much beloved BlueStateMan is jewish. i was brought up church of england, but not hard core by any means.

most importantly, i was brought up in a house that was completely color blind. and when i first met BSM, it never even occurred to me that he was anything other than someone i loved very much.

i had always loved christmas not for any other reason than it seemed to be a time people drew together. i loved putting up a beautiful tree, with glass ornaments collected over a lifetime. but i have not done that for many years now, because of a disastrous marriage that scarred my life for far too long.

i hope to be able to put up a tree again when we have the room, but not for any kind of religious observance. one of the most enjoyable christmases i ever had was when i was in graduate school, and having a living room (literally 20 people) over for christmas dinner. almost all of them were jewish, some orthodox greek, whose family wasn’t here, and would have been alone. i cooked a traditional dinner, but everyone was encouraged to bring something from their own traditions if they wanted. to me, all i could see was a room full of friends, fellow musicians who laughed and sang, ate and drank, and had a good time. the companionship made it one of the best holidays i’ve ever had.

i just wish we could all remember more often that the silly, manmade, arbitrary and capricious things that divide us are not nearly so important as the things we have in common.

btw, i would have PAID to see that picture of the cat in a yamulke with tree ornaments!

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nellie
Member

Thank you, Cher.

I have a friend who has expressed the same feelings, especially as she felt them when she was a child.

I no longer celebrate Christmas — I’ve been buddhist for many many years, but only recently have I dropped celebrating Christmas. When my mom was no longer interested, I stopped — about 12 years ago. Until then, I would really only celebrate for her benefit.

I still revere this time of year for the Winter Solstice and the return of light to the earth. I loved your post on “Hanukkah: the festival of light.” Light is the root of many of the celebrations at this time of year.

Recently, I’ve decided I’d like to start a more formal observance around the Solstice. A lot of people are returning to that ancient tradition.

And thank you, K, for that awesome list of holiday convergences.

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Emerald1943
Member

Nellie, you are Buddhist? Well, far out!!! Me too…for about the past 20 years. I tend to lean toward the Tibetan. How about you?

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nellie
Member

This is very cool.

I’ve followed teachings from China, practiced Buddhism from Japan, attended services based on Buddhism from India. I am currently learning more about Tibetan Buddhism. So I guess I’m a nomad, in a way. I tend to slip into Daoism from time to time, when my journey becomes very personal. There is a group I’m currently feeling guilty about because my attendance has been so bad.

I can’t tell you how good it feels to meet fellow Buddhists here! I have, at times, told people that I’m Buddhist and the reaction is very uncomfortable.

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Emerald1943
Member

It would appear that we Buddhists seem to congregate without knowing each other! I think that’s remarkable that there are several of us here! But we do like our “truths”, don’t we!

As for other people being uncomfortable, I have not found so much of that, even in my locale in the South. If there is any of that, it’s because they do not know anything about Buddhism. I try to remedy that every chance I have. My personal quest is to put as many people as possible on the “path”.

My grandson is well on his way, I’m most happy to report!

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KQµårk 死神
Member

Excellent story Cher thanks for sharing it. I could only imagine what you feel but since growing up in NJ with allot of Jewish friends I’ve always tried to be sensitive to people of all different religions.

To me now Christmas is just a sentimental holiday where I can remember some great times in my childhood because like the late great George Carlin said “I was Roman Catholic until the age of reason”.

Now I celebrate Christmas to recognize the real pagan holiday it represents in the first place when humans worshiped what really provides life for us all, Gaia, Sol and the rest of the universe. Christmas is just the time the sun rises from the dead after sinking in the northern sky for three days. At this time of year the days start to get longer and longer again. Actually every story about the biological Jesus can be tracked back to Ancient Egyptian and many other religions and myths for that matter.

Parallels between Ancient Deities (Saviors) and Jesus

Heru “Horus” (3000BC Egyptian Sky God) Thought as the savior of light in fact he was said to defeat set every night to bring about the lightess of day.

* Heru (Horus) fuses with Ra the Sun God, he becomes Ra-Horakhty similar to the holy trinity concept.
* Born on Dec 25th
* Born of a virgin
* Star in the East
* Adorned by three Kings
* Teacher at 12
* Baptized/ministry at 30
* 12 disciples
* Performed miracles
* Called “lamb of god”/”the light”
* Dead for 3 days
* Resurrected

Attis (1200BC Greece)

* Born December 25th
* Born of a virgin.
* Crucified
* Dead for three days
* Resurrected

Krishna (900BC India)

* Born of a virgin
* Foretold by star in the East
* Performed miracles
* Resurrected

Mithra (1200BC Persia)

* Born on December 25th
* Born of a virgin
* 12 disciples
* Performed miracles
* “The Truth”
* “The Light”
* Dead for three days
* Resurrected
* Sunday worship

Dionysus (500BC Greece)

* Born on December 25th
* Born of a virgin
* Performed miracles
* “King of Kings”
* “Alpha and Omega”
* Resurrected

Jesus Christ

* Born on Dec 25th
* Born of a virgin
* Star in the East
* Adorned by three Kings
* Teacher at 12
* Baptized/ministry at 30
* 12 disciples
* Performed miracles
* Called “lamb of god”/”the light”
* Dead for 3 days
* Resurrected

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escribacat
Member

Wow, KQ. I am stunned by this list. Howcome they didn’t teach me this when I studied “world religions” in college? I had no idea the Christ details were so similar to so many other “deities.” Fascinating.

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Khirad
Member

And Zarathushtra, et cetera ad infinitum. It is, as Campbell would say, a metamyth. Also interesting on Krishna is the comparison to Moses with being sent down the river and adopted, etc. The two of us together could go on and on and on about this, I imagine, KQuark. I’m half-tempted to come up with a more complete list, but it’s Christmas (for me), so that can wait. 😉

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