When is Christmas?

Jesus’s birthday wasn’t December 25th – it was more likely sometime in September.

Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th. He wasn’t even born in the year 1 AD (AD, Anno Domini, a calendar system created entirely on the idea of the year of Jesus’s birth). There are competing theories as to why December 25th was chosen.

Christmas: meh ¯_(ツ)_/¯

To start, early Christians weren’t particularly focused on the date of Jesus’s birth – they were much more interested in Jesus’s ministry and Easter resurrection. The first recorded mention of Jesus’s birthday was around 200 CE by Clement of Alexandria who offered several possible dates, none of which were December 25th.

By around 300 CE two dates became associated with Jesus’s birth: December 25th and January 6th. December 25th became Jesus’s birthday for most western churches while January 6th became Christmas in a few others (January 6th also became the Feast of the Epiphany in western churches).

Despite what the internet might tell you, it is unlikely that December 25th was selected to usurp the pagan holidays of Sol Invictus, Saturnalia, or winter solstice festivals in general. Early Christians were strongly focused on distancing themselves and their beliefs from pagan religions. By the time Christians were co-opting pagan festivities to increase adoption of the faith the December 25th date for Christmas had already been established for over a hundred years.

From John the Baptist to Jesus

One of the best theories as to why we associate December 25th with Jesus’s birth has to do with the date of his crucifixion. There was a theory that great figures would be born and die in the same month (and even on the same date). The crucifixion has been calculated to have taken place on March 25th (but even that is debatable). Early Christians seem to have replaced his birth with his divine conception for this theory, and believing Jesus was conceived on March 25 (and counting 9 months later) brings us to his birth on December 25th.

So Jesus was born in December … except it could have been September. In Luke 1.26–27 we’re told that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel in the 6th month of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Elizabeth was pregnant with John the Baptist and, if we calculate his birth based on his father Zechariah’s priestly duties at the temple, John was most likely born in late March. If Jesus was conceived 6 months after John, and adding 9 months, then Jesus’s birth took place sometime in September. That said, this math could also work with Zechariah’s second time serving in the temple, which would then place Jesus’s birth around March.

Either spring or fall, these dates make more sense with the idea that shepherds would be out tending their flock (which the Christmas narrative tells us) – there aren’t a lot of shepherds out tending their flock in the cold of December. Further, it’s unlikely the census that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for would have been in the winter, when the roads were in poor condition.

the Dharmapalas

The scary wrathful Buddhist deities that are, contrary to their appearance, forces for good who are on your side.

Before Buddhism spread to Tibet, Bon was the area’s dominant shamanistic religion. As Buddhism moved into Tibet during the 7th to 10th centuries, elements of Bon were incorporated into the religion making Tibetan Buddhism different than other forms.

Part of what makes Tibetan Buddhism different from other types is the story of how Padmasambhava, the 8th century Indian Buddhist mystic who helped bring Buddhism to to Tibet, tamed the local evil spirits & demons. While the exact number of spirits he tamed varies depending on the kind of Buddhism and regional differences, there are at least eight generally agreed upon divine creatures he turned into protectors of Buddhism. These are the Dharmapalas.

the Hateful Eight

Like things out of a horror movie, or a heavy metal album cover, the dharmapalas are typically horrific, fanged, wild-eyed, monstrous creatures. With black, blue or sometimes red skin they are frequently adorned with human skulls. In Tibetan art they are seen in flaming aureoles, visualizations of the energy they emanate. However, despite their appearances, the “Eight Terrible Ones” are on your side. Like monsters with hearts of gold (more or less), the dharmapalas are compassionate defenders of Buddhism and the dharma. Their hideous looks are to drive away evil spirits (not to drive us away).

While each dharmapala is different they all tend to look fearsome and terrifying.
a detail of a Palden Lhamo illustration
A close-up detail of Palden Lhamo, looking more than a little unhappy, with her crown of skulls and a cape of human skin.

Buddhism teaches us that we can’t solve other people’s spiritual problems for them, nor is someone about to solve our problems for us. There is no omnipotent being that’s going to deus ex machina-style swoop in and “save” people. That said, it doesn’t mean we can’t give help or get help. To overcome fear & suffering each one of us must look within ourselves, we must cultivate the potential within ourselves, but external help can show us the way. The dharmapalas remove inner & external obstacles that may be preventing us from achieving spiritual realizations. They don’t walk the path for us, but they help clear the way and help us from ourselves – they have your back in your quest for spiritual enlightenment.

Added info: in general the origins of the dharmapalas vary, as do their personal backstories, but one particularly interesting story is that of Palden Lhamo. The only female dharmapala, Palden Lhamo (“Glorious Goddess”) is the wrathful manifestation of the more peaceful Saraswati / Tara. She was a female demigod married to an evil king. After her attempts to reform her husband failed, and her realization that their son would be the destroyer of Buddhism, she killed her son. What followed is one of the most metal stories ever created.

She ate her son’s flesh, drank his blood using his skull as a cup, and made a horse saddle from his skin. She rides her mule side-saddle across an ocean of blood. After she died she was reborn in the hellish region of Naraka which she fought her way out of, stealing a sword and a bag of diseases along the way. Eventually she was convinced to protect the dharma, and to protect wisdom, which she does to this day. She’s the protector of Buddhist governments including the Tibetan government in exile.

The Elegant Skull

The political cartoon that became a Mexican memento mori.

In 1910, towards the end of General Porfirio Díaz’s rule of Mexico, the country was unknowingly on the verge of civil war. The Porfiriato period enriched a minority elite ruling class (as well as foreign investors), while the majority of Mexicans remained poor rural laborers. In this time of social and economic unrest José Guadalupe Posada used satire for political change.

Calaveras & Memento Mori

José Guadalupe Posada was a 19th and 20th century pro-revolutionary Mexican illustrator & political cartoonist. He produced historical, religious, and satirical illustrations but he’s best remembered for his calaveras (“skulls”) work.

Posada’s calaveras work used skeletons to satirize Mexican society.

Posada’s calaveras are illustrations of Mexican life featuring skeletons in place of living people. They are frequently lively, smiling, skeletons engaged in normal activities. By using skeletons Posada used the idea of memento mori (as well as to some degree Danse Macabre) to remind his audience that, rich or poor, people from all walks of life will die and that there’s a comedic futility to many of the preoccupations of daily life. His most memorable calaveras were his satirizations of the wealthy class, the most famous of which is La Calavera Catrina (“the Elegant Skull”).

La Catrina is Posada’s most famous calavera.

La Catrina is a female skeleton in an elaborate flowery hat. She’s Posada’s commentary on the upper class women of the time who turned their backs on their Mexican heritage in favor of European fashions. She is also reminiscent of Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”), the pre-Catholic deity of death who has a long tradition in Mexican culture.

Over the years La Catrina has become an iconic part of Mexican culture. She is the central figure in Diego Rivera’s 1947 mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at Alameda Central Park”). Today she is seen in the art and costumes of Día de Muertos festivities.

Trader Joe's taco sauce
Posada’s work can be found in a variety of places today, in this case on spicy taco sauce from Trader Joe’s.

Friday the 13th

The superstition that’s the combination of two separate superstitions (and a lot of magical thinking).

Superstitions are ideas that unrelated things are connected in some supernatural way. They’re frequently practices that are thought to bring about good or bad luck. Knocking on wood, walking under ladders, black cats, four leaf clovers, etc. are all classic western superstitions. Astrology and other fortune telling methods have a similar kind of magical thinking. The superstition of Friday the 13th is a combination of two separate superstitions: Fridays + the number 13.

From the Norse gods, to the Last Supper, thirteen people at a table has made 13 an unlucky number.

The unlucky number

One of the earliest examples of 13 being an unlucky number comes from Norse mythology. Loki was the uninvited 13th god to attend a feast following the recent slaying of the god Baldr (who died because Loki had tricked the blind god Höðr into inadvertently killing him). Another unlucky dinner with 13 members was the Last Supper where Judas betrayed Jesus. This spurred a related number 13 superstition that dinners with 13 members are unlucky. The first person to rise from the table will be in store for ill fortune (akin to how Judas was the first to rise from the Last Supper and was met with ill fortune). However various workarounds include dividing the guests across two tables or just having everyone rise at the same time (which seem like pretty simple hacks).

Another reason 13 is considered unlucky is that it throws off the satisfying “completeness” of 12. There are 12 months in the year, 12 signs of the western zodiac, there were 12 gods of Olympus, the 12 labors of Hercules, the aforementioned 12 Nordic gods in attendance at the the meal following Baldr’s death, 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles, etc.

Over time western culture’s fear of 13 has spread to a wide variety of outlets. Over 80% of tall buildings skip counting the 13th floor and instead call it the 14th floor. Hotels sometimes skip having 13th rooms, the 13th card in the major arcana of the tarot deck is the card for death, the 13th loaf of bread in a baker’s dozen was sometimes said to be for the Devil, cruise ships tend to skip having a 13th floor, in Florence some houses which should have an address of 13 are given 12 1/2, etc.

The superstition that Friday is unlucky is largely because of the Good Friday crucifixion of Jesus as well as other Bible stories.

It’s Friday I’m in … trouble

The fear of Friday has mostly Judeo-Christian origins. Jesus was said to have been crucified on a Friday (or perhaps it was a Wednesday). The start of the Great Flood and the confusion at the Tower of Babel were both said to have taken place on a Friday. Eve supposedly tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit, and the resulting expulsion from the Garden of Eden, took place on a Friday. Further Cain killed Abel on a Friday. Unfortunately the Bible is silent on what calendar system was in use in the Garden of Eden or how they had Fridays at all.

Eating meat on a Friday is considered unlucky because it’s reminiscent of death and the crucifixion (but eating fish is apparently exempt from this bad luck somehow). Cutting your nails on a Friday is also considered unlucky for similar severing of the body related reasons. Over time Fridays became an inauspicious day to begin or finish things. Starting a voyage, starting a new job, finishing the production of an article of clothing, moving house, getting married, giving birth, etc. on a Friday have all been considered unlucky.

That said if you die on a Good Friday there’s a superstition that you go right to Heaven.

The 1868 Friday the 13th death of Rossini is one of the first instances of Friday the 13th being unlucky but the superstition became popular during the 20th century.

Two great tastes that taste great together

Bringing these two superstitions together seemed inevitable, the super-superstition of bad luck on Friday the 13th, but it’s relatively new. Friday the 13th is first mentioned as unlucky in the 19th century with the most famous example being the Friday the 13th, November 1868 death of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini.

Friday the 13th didn’t become more widely unlucky in pop culture until the 20th century. Most people credit the 1907 Thomas Lawson novel Friday, the Thirteenth, about a stockbroker who chooses that date to manipulate (and crash) the stock market, as the popularization of the Friday the 13th superstition.

But like all superstitions, an unlucky day & date combination is inconsistent and culturally specific. While English speaking countries think of Friday the 13th as unlucky, in Spain and Greece it’s Tuesday the 13th that’s supposed to be unlucky, but in Italy it’s Friday the 17th.

It’s all in your mind

Ultimately the idea that Fridays, or the number 13, or the combination of Friday the 13th, are in any way unlucky, is nonsense. If they were real they’d be universally held beliefs (not to mention some objective proof). Instead these three superstitions are mostly just inconsistent western ideas – people in the rest of the world are going about their lives unaware of the danger they’re supposedly in (and somehow surviving).

There is no evidence that Friday the 13th brings about an increase in unfortunate incidents or accidents. A 2011 study in the The American Journal of Emergency Medicine reviewed hospital emergency admission rates and found no significant difference between Friday the 13th to other days. In fact a 2008 Dutch study demonstrated the opposite may be true, that people are more cautious on Friday the 13th and as a result there are fewer road accidents.

The Friday the 13th movie franchise capitalizes on the superstition. Interestingly in Spanish speaking countries the movies are sometimes called Martes 13 (Tuesday the 13th) in keeping with the Spanish superstition around Tuesday the 13th, instead of Friday the 13th. Finally, the most important metal band of all time Black Sabbath released their eponymous debut album on Friday the 13th, February 1970.

Black Sabbath, the most important metal band of all time, released their debut album on Friday the 13th, February 1970.

There are highs & (many) lows to the Friday the 13th movie franchise, but the disco theme song for Part 3 is something else.

When is Easter?

Easter if a floating holy day whose date has been a moving target for millennia.

The modern confusion over when to celebrate Easter goes back to the earliest Christians. To start, it’s not entirely clear what day of the week the crucifixion of Jesus took place on. The Bible can be interpreted to say that the Sunday resurrection took place three full days after the crucifixion, meaning the crucifixion took place on a Wednesday. Or the resurrection was simply “on the third day” (not three full days) and as such the crucifixion took place on a Friday. As for celebrating the resurrection some early Christians chose to celebrate on the first day of Passover (the holiday during which Jesus was crucified) while others celebrated on the Sunday of Passover when the tomb was found empty.

The First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine, established that the resurrection would be celebrated not just on a Sunday but on the Sunday following the full moon after the March (northern Spring) equinox. This kept the holiday near Passover, which is also around the Spring equinox, but not necessarily on Passover. This helped to standardize the observance of the resurrection … until the change of calendars confused things again.

East meets West

Introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, the Gregorian calendar was used by western churches to (among other things) calculate the annual observance of the resurrection. Orthodox churches however continued using the Julian calendar (which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar). The use of two different calendar systems is why there are usually two different dates for Easter each year – falling near one another but not usually on the same Sunday.

Another confusing detail is what to call the holiday. Given the holiday’s connection to Passover many languages and church denominations call the holiday some translated variation of the word Passover (which in Latin & Greek is “pascha” which also gives us the word “paschal” the term for things pertaining to Easter or Passover). In German and English however, the names “Ostern” and “Easter” are used which come from a pagan goddess.

Easter / Ēostre pagan goddess

The Germanic goddess Ēostre (aka Ôstara or Austra) was a Spring deity … probably. There is very little documentation of Ēostre. It is unknown how widespread the worship of her may have been or for how long. The primary source we have is The Reckoning of Time written by the English monk Saint Bede the Venerable in 725 CE. Bede writes about calculating the date of the resurrection and mentions that it took place around the Spring equinox, the same time of year that the Anglo-Saxons used to hold a feast in honor of Ēostre. From this timely reference to Ēostre the name “Easter” came to be the English name for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus (even though she had nothing to do with it).

Added info: Constantine not only helped to standardize when to celebrate Easter but he was also the reason the Chi Rho became the symbol of the Roman empire as well as the early Catholic church.

Salvation Mountain

An outsider art environment in the California desert created as a testament to love.

Sitting in the dusty beige desert of southern California is a vibrant candy-colored art project known as Salvation Mountain. Created by Leonard Knight over a 27 year period it’s a 50ft tall 150ft wide monument to God. The mountain is constructed of bales of hay coated with adobe as well as tires, car parts, logs, and whatever else he could find. Covering it all is an estimated 100,000 gallons of paint (which was donated by supporters over the years).

Salvation Mountain is an example of outsider art – art made by an artist outside of the mainstream art world. Knight was a self-taught marginalized artist (but he never considered himself an artist). He was also a visionary artist in the sense that he had a spiritual / religious imperative. Knight was compelled to create Salvation Mountain (a name applied by others) as a testament to God’s love.

God is Love

Begun in 1984, Knight’s construction process was to work on a section, move to new areas, and return to old ones. The high-heat and dry desert conditions means that parts of the mountain are always in need of repairs. The mountain has an estimated 10-15 coats of paint on it, which adds to the structural stability. As for the subject matter there are numerous biblical passages & prayers painted on the mountain (John 3:16 and the Sinner’s Prayer), as well as painted biblical references such as the large Sea of Galilee at the base of the mountain. There are also trees and flowers found all around. While Knight was a nondenominational evangelical Christian, the mountain’s main message is agnostic of any particular faith which is that “God is Love.” This simple message is found all around the mountain.

A bale of hay that is waiting to be coated in adobe clay and painted. Given the conditions of the desert parts of Salvation Mountain are always in need of repairs.
There are multiple painted vehicles at Salvation Mountain, including the truck Knight lived in.

In 2000 Salvation Mountain was deemed a National Folk Art Site. Knight died / “went to meet his Mentor” in 2014. Today the mountain is cared for by the Salvation Mountain, Inc. nonprofit organization. The mountain continues to be a popular tourist draw.

“Dont overcomplicate love, lets just keep it simple.”

Leonard Knight

This 2013 video from Vice features Knight discussing his mountain and his message.

The Caganer

The Catalonian tradition of including a man pooping in the Christmas nativity for good luck.

In the Catalonia region of Spain, in the northeast corner of the country, there is a Christmas tradition of including the statue of a man defecating in the nativity scene. The caganer (aka “the pooper”) is typically a man wearing the traditional Catalan clothes of a red cap, white shirt, and black trousers crouched down pooping.

While Jesus, Mary, & Joseph are at the center of the nativity scene the caganer is usually off to the side. He can also be moved around each day in a little game of hide and seek. The purpose of the caganer is that he brings good luck by fertilizing not just the land but also the future of the family who owns the nativity. It also shows that everyone is truly equal, that everyone poops. Caganer statues are available in shops around Barcelona and aren’t just limited to the traditional style. You can find caganers modeled after world leaders, celebrities, movie characters, the pope, Disney princesses, and more.

Today you can find a wide variety of caganers, from world leaders to comic book characters.

Learn more about the caganer tradition.
Caga Tió, the “poop log” is fed and later beaten to produce gifts for children.

Caga Tió

The caganer isn’t the only Catalonian Christmas pooping tradition. The Tió de Nadal (aka the “Caga Tió” aka the “poop log”) is a wooden log frequently with a smiling face painted on the one end and little legs to prop it up. The tradition is that children will leave little bits of food for the tió during Advent and on Christmas Eve or Day they beat the log with sticks while singing. This ceremony induces the log, which is partially covered by a blanket, to poop little gifts for children (which have been hidden under the blanket). Once it has served its purposes the log is burned in the fire or thrown out.

Added info: The Catalonians have several traditions associated with pooping. One expression sometimes said before eating is “Menja bé, caga fort!” or “Eat well, poop hard!”

Zombies: Sadder Than You Think

The concept of Haitian zombies was used as a threat to keep slaves working.

Before Haiti was an independent country it was the French colony of Saint-Domingue where they produced sugar, coffee, cotton, and other goods. The French brought more than a million West African people to the colony as slaves, more than any other colony in the Caribbean. Slavery in Saint-Domingue was particularly brutal – most people were poorly fed, they worked 12 hour days, pregnant slaves frequently didn’t live long enough to have babies, torture was common. Life expectancy was about 3-6 years with about half of the enslaved people of Saint-Domingue dying within the first few years of arriving.

The brutal conditions of Saint-Domingue left the enslaved people hoping that, in death, their souls would return home to West Africa.

Haitian Vodou & Zombies

The Code Noir was a 1685 decree that outlined how slavery was to be conducted in the French empire. Among other things it stated that slaves were prohibited from practicing African religions and instead were forcibly baptized into Catholicism. What resulted was Haitian Vodou, a religious blend of West African beliefs (practiced in secret) given a veneer of Catholicism.

Part of this belief system was the idea that, upon dying, you would return to lan guinée (ie. Guinea, or West Africa). Their idea of heaven was to escape the slavery of Saint-Domingue and to simply go home. Feeling the allure of going home some people decided to escape slavery on their own terms. As such suicide was very common Saint-Domingue.

Initially suicide was seen as a viable way of getting to lan guinée but at some point there was a change. At some point (oral tradition is murky on when/how) suicide was prohibited and the punishment for committing suicide was that you’d be a slave forever – you’d become a zombie. The zombies of Haitian Vodou are not the Western pop culture shambling brain-eating zombies. The Haitian zombie was someone whose soul had been captured, denied entry to lan guinée, and was turned into an undead field hand with no chance of escape. Plantation slave-drivers used this to their advantage threatening slaves that if they killed themselves they would be turned into zombies to work forever under the control of a bokor/sorcerer. Unlike today what was feared was the threat of becoming a zombie, not the actual zombies themselves.

1929’s White Zombie was the first zombie movie. It used some Haitian Vodou beliefs but took significant artistic license.

White Zombie

Over time the zombie concept evolved and changed. The sensationalistic 1929 William Seabrook travel book The Magic Island introduced voodoo and zombies to mainstream Western culture. This inspired the 1932 film White Zombie, which was the first zombie movie. White Zombie stars Bela Lugosi as the villainous Murder Legendre (a bit on the nose) who’s a bokor enslaving people as zombies to be his henchmen and to work in his sugarcane mill. White Zombie used Haitian Vodou ideas but with a lot of artistic license. Later zombie stories dropped the Saint-Domingue threat of eternal slavery, then they dropped the bokor master commanding the zombies. Aside from being mindless undead creatures, the zombies of today have little resemblance to their sadder more terrifying origins.

Added info: following the Haitian revolution of 1791–1804, the 1883 Haitian Criminal Code outlaws the practice of turning someone into a zombie.

Rednecks & Hillbillies

The terms redneck and hillbilly both come from rebellious 17th century Scottish protestants.

Rednecks

In 17th century, King Charles I pushed for greater religious uniformity across the British Isles. Scottish Presbyterians disapproved as these reforms were increasingly Catholic in style & organization. In 1638 thousands of Scots signed the National Covenant (sometimes using their own blood as ink), signifying their preference for a Presbyterian Church of Scotland and their refusal to accept the reforms made by Charles. Going one step further, some of these “Covenanters” took to wearing red cloth on their necks as an outward sign of their resistance. These dissenting Scottish religious rebels were the original “red necks”.

Looking closely at The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh by William Allan you can see the man signing the Covenant at the center is having his blood drawn by a dagger for him to use as ink.

Hillbillies

Political and religious tension continued around the British Isles throughout the late 17th century which led to the 1688 Glorious Revolution. On the one side of this revolution was Catholic King James II and those who supported a strong monarchy, on the other were Protestants & Parliamentarians. Afraid of a Catholic dynasty and that James would leave the throne to his Catholic son James Francis Edward, seven influential English nobility invited the protestant Dutch Prince William of Orange to invade England and take the throne.

Around the same time, Scottish Presbyterian leader Richard Cameron was preaching a message of rebellion against the English. Being a religious nonconformist, Cameron took to being a field preacher and spread his radical message outdoors away from Scottish towns. His followers (the Cameronians) were given the nickname “hillmen” due to their outdoor religious gatherings.

As William of Orange easily invaded England, and successfully took the throne, he was supported by Scottish Protestants. The Scottish living in Northern Ireland at the time fought against the Jacobite supporters of King James. William of Orange was nicknamed “King Billy” and his Ulster Scots Protestant supporters were nicknamed “Billy boys”. Eventually these two Scottish Protestant rebel nicknames of “hillmen” and “Billy boys” got combined to form “hillbilly boys” and then just “hillbilly”.

Ulster Scot supporters of William of Orange became known as “Billy Boys” which, when combined with the Scottish Cameronian nickname of “hillmen”, eventually became “hillbilly”.

American Rednecks & Hillbillies

Despite their successful support for William many Scottish were still oppressed for being Presbyterians and for being Scottish. Searching for greater religious & personal freedom they began to emigrate in larger numbers from Ulster to the British colonies in North America. An estimated 200,000 Ulster Scots (aka Scotch-Irish) emigrated to the American colonies between 1717 and 1775. Settling up and down the East coast and throughout Appalachia, these Scottish protestants brought with them their religion, their rebelliousness, as well as their nicknames.

Over the centuries the meanings of both “redneck” and “hillbilly” have changed. During the “Redneck War” of 1920-21 “redneck” was used to label the unionizing coal miners (many of whom were Scotch-Irish) who wore red bandanas in solidarity. The term has also been used to describe early 20th century southern Democrats as well as more literally to describe poor farmers with sunburnt necks. Hillbilly also took on a more literal interpretation to describe the people who settled the rural hilly areas of Appalachia and the Ozarks. Today both terms are generally used as derogatory slurs for poor rural whites.

Sign of the Cross

As one of the oldest ideograms in the world, the cross represented a lot of things long before it represented Christianity. Now it represents all of that and more.

Before the cross was associated with Christianity, it had a long history with ancient cultures around the world. The symmetrical intersection of two lines is a pretty simple idea, plus it’s easy to draw/carve on almost any surface. As such it’s understandable that different people at different times have each created their own cross symbols – an early example of multiple discovery, or maybe the collective unconscious.

While designs & purposes vary from culture to culture there are reoccurring themes. For pre-Columbian cultures of North America the four points of a cross are frequently used to represent the four cardinal directions, the four seasons, the four winds, and/or the four primary forces of nature. The Greek cross corresponded to the four fixed signs of the zodiac (Leo, Taurus, Scorpio, Aquarius). In a similar interest with the number four, European alchemists would later use the cross as one of the symbols for the four platonic elements.

In the Chinese language the cross is a sign for “perfection” as well as the character for “ten”. Interestingly, in Roman numerals a cross turned 45 degrees (an X) is also the sign for ten, but in Chinese the X sign was an early symbol for the number “five”. The X symbol in Egyptian hieroglyphics meant divide, count, and break into parts. Speaking of math, the cross as mathematical “plus” sign came much later around the 14th century and the “x” for multiplication came around the 17th century.

An assortment of pre-Christian cross designs from around the world.

If we expand our definition of a cross and make some simple alterations we get even more results. The Inca have the Chakana, a stepped cross symbol representing different levels of existence. Turned 45 degrees the stepped X symbol Aban is the Ghanaian Adinka symbol for “castle” as well as “strength”.

A cross in a circle ⊕, such as the Solar Cross (wheel cross, Odin’s cross), has been used by people for thousands of years around the world (and recently by white supremacists). It can represent the sun, a solar deity (such as the weather/solar god Baal of the Middle East or Shamash in Babylon), the wheel of a sun gods’ chariot, in China it represented thunder/power, it’s the mon of the Shimazu clan in Japan, etc. A cross amulet for a sun god made of four triangle shapes (like the Cross Pattée ᛭) can be seen in the 9th century BCE stela of the Assyrian King Shamshi-Adad V. A cross with slight bars on the ends is the ancient Chinese sign for a wū ☩, a shaman or sorcerer. Add a rounded shape to the top of a cross and you have the Egyptian hieroglyph Ankh ☥. Finally, one of the most famous (and later infamous) altered crosses is the swastika which has a very extensive history by cultures around the world long before its use in the 20th century.

Christianity Before The Cross

The cross gained a new meaning after the crucifixion of Jesus … but not immediately afterwards. To start, it’s unclear what kind of cross Jesus was crucified on. It could have been a pole, it could have been shaped like a capital “T”, or it could have been the lower case “†” shape we are familiar with. Regardless of cross shape, as a way to avoid persecution, early Christians used a variety of other symbols to secretly represent Jesus before they used the cross. The Ichthys (the “Jesus fish”), the peacock, the pelican, the dove, an anchor, as well as the letters Alpha & Omega were all early Christian images containing hidden meaning symbolizing Jesus.

It wasn’t until 300 years after Jesus that the cross became a widespread symbol of Christianity. Constantine, the 4th century Roman emperor, not only stopped the Roman persecution of Christians but also became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. Supposedly he had a vision of a symbol in the sky followed by Jesus telling him to make that symbol the symbol of God, that it would protect him from his enemies. From this Constantine ordered all of the shields and banners to feature this new design.

Four early Christian symbols used in secret to avoid persecution.

Exactly what this symbol supposedly was however is debated. Some say it was a cross but others say it was the staurogram. The staurogram is a ligature combining the Greek letters “T” and “P” to form ⳨ which was an abbreviated way of writing “stauros” or “cross” – it also looks a bit like a person crucified on a cross. Still another possibility was the symbol Chi Rho, a ligature of the Greek letters “X” and “P” forming ⳩, a shortening of the title “Christ”. Also, the early Christian interest in ligatures goes one further with the IX monogram ligature, which is an overlapping of the Greek letters “I” and “X” as a shortened form of the name Jesus Christ.

Ultimately, whatever sign Constantine supposedly saw, the Chi Rho became the symbol used by the Roman military. As the Roman empire spread it took Christianity and the symbols of Christianity along with it. It’s thought that over time the assorted early Christian symbols morphed/simplified into the cross we associate with Christianity today.

Cross Diversity

Like the diversity of pre-Christian crosses, we now find ourselves with a plethora of Christian cross designs – lots of styles for lots of reasons. Early church theology made use of the cross as a teaching tool which helped generate alternate designs. The four points of a cross could now represent the four evangelists. The Papal Cross has three horizontal bars instead of the traditional one, symbolizing the Pope’s rank. The Triumphal Cross / Globus cruciger, a cross placed at the top of an orb, is used to show Christ’s reign over the world (which is a popular symbol in art).

As Christianity spread to new regions the church (and the cross) would adapt to the local cultures. Early Christians took the Egyptian Ankh, changed the teardrop-shaped loop to a circle, and it became the Crux Ansata or “cross with a handle”. The Celtic Cross was created in the Gaelic speaking areas of the British Isles as a combination of the local Druidic solar/lunar beliefs (the circle) with the Christian cross. Similar to many Celtic crosses, the Ethiopian Cross also features a latticework design but is even more elaborate. The Ethiopians use the woven pattern to represent everlasting life.

European heraldry also generated a variety of new crosses especially during the medieval Crusades. The Jerusalem Cross is one cross with four other smaller crosses in the four quadrants. It was the coat of arms for the Kingdom of Jerusalem after the Holy Land was conquered by the crusaders in the 13th century. The five crosses can represent the five wounds of Christ, or the four evangelists & Jesus, etc. This cross variant found its way into the heraldry of the crusaders as well as the current day national flag of Georgia. Christian cross variants were incorporated into European family crests, military groups, and national symbols. Today a cross can be found in at least 29 national flags not including flags with the southern cross constellation or all of the countries (other than the United Kingdom) whose flag features the Union Jack (which is a design of three crosses overlapping).

Added info: The ritual of making the sign of the cross with one’s hand goes back to the 2nd century treatise Apostolic Tradition.

Also, while similar, a cross and a crucifix are different. A crucifix has the body of Jesus on a cross and became a symbol of the Catholic and Orthodox churches starting around the 6th century. A cross is the object Jesus was crucified on but without Christ’s body on it. Protestant religions tend to use empty cross designs for their symbols.

Twelve cross designs from around the world used to represent different things.