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World: Christmas May Not Be Exactly What You Think

Nearly everyone in the Christian world -- and many in the Jewish and Islamic worlds as well -- knows something about Christmas. But RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky reveals there's a lot more to be known and that some of what people think they know may not be entirely accurate.

Prague, 21 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As Christians and others scramble about buying gifts, decorating trees, cooking lavish meals, singing carols, few if any will ponder the origins of Christmas.

For many, the question would be silly. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ, pure and simple.

That's clear from the name of the holiday itself. In the English language, Christmas comes from the Old English "Cristes Maesse," or Christ's mass. But there are a lot of unanswered questions and surprising elements connected to this holiday, one of the Christian world's most celebrated.

For starters, the date itself: December 25. How sure is it that Christ was born on that date in the year from which the Western world measures time? In fact, it is virtually certain that he was not. No date for an exact birth of Christ can be gleaned either from the Gospels of the Christian Bible or from any other source.

The early Christians did not even celebrate Christmas for the first three centuries of the Christian era. Many in the church were opposed to any celebration of birthdays at all, considering the custom to be pagan.

Things changed in the fourth century, with the triumph of Roman Emperor Constantine.

Sometime between 320 A.D. and 353 A.D., under Constantine's rule, the Nativity -- the feast marking the birth of Christ -- was instituted on December 25. But many Eastern churches, including the Russian, Armenian and Georgian churches, continued to mark Christ's birth and baptism on January 6, during the feast of the Epiphany.

The December 25 date already held significance in Roman society. Romans celebrated the birth of another deity on that day, the Iranian mystery god Mithra, the sun of righteousness. In Latin it was called "natalis solis invicti," or birthday of the invincible sun. That day was part of a longer Roman festival called the Saturnalia or Brumalia.

Many historians say that Constantine sought to christianize popular festivals -- such as the Saturnalia and those of other pre-Christian faiths -- by decreeing Christmas on Dec 25. In particular, Jesus as the light of the world or as the sun of justice, could substitute for the Mithraic Sol Invictus, or Invincible Sun.

Worshipping the sun was not limited to ancient Rome. The ancient Egyptians -- or Babylonians -- and Persians also commemorated the annual rebirth of the sun. Their festivities fell during the winter solstice when days begin to grow longer in the northern hemisphere and the sun climbs higher in the sky. With the harvest long since collected and spring planting still a few months away, people had time on their hands to celebrate. And many of these winter solstice celebrations took on a bacchanalian air. Ancient people had celebrated sun festivals for centuries and breaking those traditions would prove difficult for the fledgling Christian church. In the fifth century, Pope Leo complained that worshippers in St. Peter's Church in Rome turned away from the altar and faced the door so that they could adore the rising sun. Many of the pagan rites and rituals never really disappeared, but were simply absorbed by Christians.

Let's look at the some of the traditions associated with Christmas. The tradition of decorating evergreen trees originated in ancient pagan cultures. The evergreen, one of the few plants to remain green even in winter, was a natural symbol of life even during the season of death.

There is a legend -- long since dismissed by scholars -- that the 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther came up with the idea of placing lights on the trees. There is a reference in German literature as early as the 16th century to decorating a Christmas tree, but it wasn't until the 1800s that the custom became widespread in Germany.

Another plant commonly associated with Christmas is mistletoe. Ancient pagans used mistletoe in their solstice celebrations because, like the fur tree, it stayed green in the winter, but it also bore fruit during this season. The pagans therefore imbued it with fertility powers. By kissing under the mistletoe, pagans hoped some of its power would rub off on them.

Finally -- next to the baby Jesus -- Santa Claus may be the most recognizable of the many symbols of Christmas. The U.S. version of Santa now is widespread. It was popularized in the 1820s by Clement Moore's children's' poem, "Twas the Night Before Christmas." Moore's Santa Claus clearly was an amalgam of several characters from around the world, including St. Nick from the Netherlands, Father Christmas from Britain and Kris Kringle from Germany.

These characters, too, have pagan roots. Norse and Germanic peoples have for centuries told stories of the Yule Elf, who brings presents on the solstice to those who leave offerings of porridge. Odin, the Norse god, is often identified with the character of Santa. One of his titles was Jolnir, lord of the yule, and his resemblance to the white-bearded Santa is striking.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.