The Christmas story -- gospel truth to believers, a beautiful myth to others -- is built around the baby Jesus who was to grow up to be the savior of mankind. But many Christmas customs date to pagan beliefs established long before the birth of Jesus Christ, while others have developed since. Some Christians lament that Jesus himself seems to have gotten lost in the crowd. Who represents the modern Christmas?
Prague, 23 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As the Christian Bible tells the story, a pious man named Joseph and his wife, Mary, arrived in Bethlehem in what is now Palestinian territory just as Mary was about to give birth.
There was no room at the inn in Bethlehem. So the couple spent the night in the barn. When the baby was born, Mary named him Jesus, a common name in those days. For his crib, she laid him in a manger, a feed box for the cattle.
The story says that Mary and Joseph had not consummated their marriage and that she was a virgin.
Other miracles followed. An angel appeared to awe-stricken shepherds nearby and told them of the birth. The angel said that the babe was the Christ, the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, the anointed one, the savior of the world. The shepherds spread the word.
Also, a new star appeared in the sky and led three kings from the Orient to the manger where Jesus lay. They brought him gifts of ointment, incense, and gold.
It is an article of faith for many Christian faithful that this story of the birth of Jesus is literally true. For others, it is a beautiful myth -- not necessarily factual but significant nonetheless as a recognition of the truth that the baby Jesus would grow up to change the world.
Myth or miracle, one thing is certain. In this era of one-worldism, globalization, and free markets, the holiday of Christmas has become globalized.
This in itself may be a kind of miracle, although many people regard it as a negative one. Around the world, people of varied beliefs have begun to celebrate Christmas -- but it's a strange Christmas that has been sanitized of both the "Christ," that is, the savior, and the "mass," that is, the Christian religious ceremony.
In Beijing, where the official religion is no religion at all, Christmas wreaths, decorated trees, white foam snowmen, and red-suited Santa Clauses have made China the world's biggest exporter of Christmas goods. Along the way, China has begun importing the holiday for itself. Christmas has become chic.
A recent article in the U.S. newspaper "The Christian Science Monitor" quotes a professor of religion at a university in Tokyo as saying, that Asia has appropriated Christmas and other Western holidays with a commercial twist.
In the West, too, the Americanized version of Santa Claus has supplanted the Christ child as the symbol of Christmas. U.S. university professor Clement Moore in 1822 immortalized in the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" this image of Santa Claus, who arrives on Christmas Eve in a gift-laden sled pulled by eight tiny reindeer:
"He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot/And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.../ His eyes how they twinkled; his dimples, how merry./His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry..../He had a broad face and a little round belly,/That shook, when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly."
Obviously, Clement Moore's Santa Claus is an amalgam of Germany's Weinachtsmann, Britain's Father Christmas, the Dutch Saint Nick, and so on.
But the commercialized Santa Claus, the Santa Claus of kitsch -- from nodding Santas in the back window of cars to the obviously phony, hearty, bearded old men on tinseled thrones in department-store toy sections to foam figures with flashing lights and tinkly music boxes -- clearly is a product of U.S. commercialism.
For many children in the West, discovering the elastic bands or the broad stitches that hold on Santa Claus' fake beard is a rite of passage at the age of about seven or eight, the first touch of cynicism on the way to adulthood.
Now it appears that whole world is discovering Santa's false beard.
In Austria, the Pro-Christ-Child Society this year has passed out 20,000 anti-Santa stickers, especially at the famous Vienna Little Christchild's Market, where booths sell Christmas delicacies and decorations, mulled wine, handicrafts and Santa Claus, Santa Claus, Santa Claus. The Little Christchild is barely to be seen.
Reuters news service reports this year that a parish priest in England reduced children to tears when he pointed out that expecting Santa Claus to deliver gifts to all the boys and girls of the world in a single night stretched scientific credibility. He evidently did not say why this was harder to believe than the story of a virgin giving birth to the savior of the world in a remote Middle Eastern hamlet.
Elsewhere in Britain in this season of Christian love and kindness, Great Britain's Rotary Club reflects modern wariness with new rules for its traditional Father Christmas figures. Under no circumstances is Father Christmas to be left alone with a child without another adult present. And he definitely is not to hoist a tyke onto his lap as he traditionally has in the past. The Rotary Club says the guidelines are part of a code of conduct to protect children against sexual abuse.
Perhaps, however, it is a sign of Christmas's power and joy for Christians, non-Christians, and unbelievers alike that -- despite cynicism and commercialism -- city streets are decorated, churches around the world will be packed for midnight mass tomorrow, carolers will sing, and, yes, children will wait up listening for Santa Claus's sleighbells.