As Christmas approaches, let us step back and look at its origins

Several lifetimes ago, I had a discussion with a hip rabbi on the nature of organized religion. It seemed to me, I told him, that one scary and stormy night millennia ago, a brave soul exited a cave carrying the desiccated bone of an animal. Gazing angrily at the heavens, he waved the bone toward the sky in a gesture communicating his freedom from fear. Thus, the first of a long succession of priests/shamans/rabbis/mullahs/gurus/generic spiritual leaders was born. The rabbi agreed it might have been so.

However it happened, the human need for a set of beliefs easing the journey through life is based on fear and longing. It's extraordinarily difficult for the average person to admit total ignorance about the "big questions." Why are we here? Is there a reason? What is death? Confronting this unknowing generates a primal fear that results in a longing for some comforting "truths." That any given set of "truths" is based on faith doesn't matter; fear is assuaged and longing answered.

Christians will tell you their set is based on scripture, and scripture is the word of God. Jews and Muslims will tell you the same. (Since the scripture is different, it raises the question: Just how bogus is this, or, if not, was God having a really bad day when she dictated all these different versions? Or was she just making mischief at our expense?)

Besides owing their origins to males, sharing a belief in monotheism, harboring views of women bordering on lunacy and having an annoying sense of righteousness, Judaism, Christianity and Islam each profess their unique vision of Jesus Christ.

For Jews, Jesus was a fellow member of the tribe with some radical notions that didn't jibe with the status quo. To this day, some Jewish scholars see the "Jesus question" as an internal struggle among Jews of that time. And the rise of Christianity had far less to do with Christ than it did with Paul, nee Saul.

Muslims simply see Jesus as one more cool prophet before the "last" prophet enters the scene. "O People, no prophet or apostle will come after me, and no new faith will be born," Mohammed reputedly said just before he died, according to Wikipedia.

For Christians, Jesus is the big IT. God in the guise of man, died for our sins, miracle worker, rose from the dead, etc. etc. Hence the Christmas holiday, midnight Mass and all the rituals--despite the vehement denials on scores of Christian Web sites--expropriated from the so-called mystery religions. The religions we nowadays relegate to myth. The religions that so often have women playing a critical role.

No less an authority than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, you'll recall, was a Christian preacher, acknowledged, "Christianity triumphed over these mystery religions after long conflict. This triumph may be attributed in part to the fact that Christianity took from its opponents their own weapons, and used them: The better elements of the mystery religions were transferred to the new religion."

(See the entire document online.)

One of those so-called "better elements" was the story of the virgin birth of Jesus, a Christian revision of the Cybele-Attis myth. (The Greco-Roman world was awash with hundreds of mystery religions. Interestingly, they pretty much co-existed, and it was not uncommon for people to embrace several.) Cybele was considered the mother of all the gods, wellspring of all life and "personification of all the powers of nature."

She must have had some amazing powers since she was a virgin when she gave birth to her son Attis, according to the story. Years later, Cybele laments the death of her son, but guess what? Come spring, Attis (known as the "Good Shepherd") rises from the dead.

If the script sounds familiar, say, like Christmas and Easter, it's because it is. Cybele and Attis, Mary and Jesus: same story, different religion.

King concludes his analysis with a description of some of the ceremonies surrounding Attis' death and writes, "The merging of the worship of Attis into that of Jesus was effected without interruption, for these pagan ceremonies were enacted in a sanctuary on the Vatican Hill, which was afterwards taken over by the Christians, and the mother church of St. Peter now stands upon the very spot."

The story of Cybele and Attis is just one of many from the ancient world illustrating how Pauline Christianity usurped the beliefs of the "pagan" world in its crusade for dominance. And we haven't even addressed Christmas trees, or the connection between the winter solstice and Dec. 25.

Lest you conclude I'm a "bah, humbug," Scrooge-like person, nothing could be further from the truth. A believer in celebrating all joyous occasions, I'm putting together a Christmas wish list this year, sprinkling it with a magic potion, then burning it in a small cauldron while I hum secret incantations calling forth the Gods of Justice to deliver what they deem the perfect gift to the self-righteous across the religious rainbow. Especially those who believe they hold a monopoly on truth.