Christmas is the most celebrated of Christian holidays, commemorating what the faithful believe was the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God. But many of the season's most enduring symbols actually hark back to pre-Christian pagan customs. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill traces the origins of some of these enduring images and traditions.
Prague, 21 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The time is close at hand when children around the world look with joy -- and sometimes fear -- to the visit of a magical man who rewards good little boys and girls with gifts and punishes bad ones with lumps of coal.
It's the season of Christmas. Many of the holiday's customs, of course, are based on the birth of Christ, whom Christians revere as the son of God and the founder of their church.
But many other traditions surrounding the holiday only have to do with Jesus Christ incidentally. A lot of Christians burn a Yule log at Christmas, but few know that Yule was a pagan Northern European festival involving dancing in the dark around bonfires. In France, the custom survives in a traditional log-shaped cake called "buche de Noel," or Christmas log.
Gift-giving at Christmas recalls the Christian story of three wise kings who traveled from the Orient to Jesus's birthplace at Bethlehem bearing gifts for the Christ child. But the fact is, nobody knows precisely when Jesus of Bethlehem was born. The early Christian Church established Christmas as a religious festival about 200 years after Christ. The date 25 December may have been chosen in order to divert celebrants from pagan festivals marking the winter solstice on 21 December and other feast days traditional at that season.
A Christmas song composed in the United States, "White Christmas," is now just as popular in Europe and around the world. It celebrates winter weather rather than any religious notion.
One legendary Christmas personage is known worldwide by a variety of names. He is Santa Claus in the United States, Father Christmas to the English, Saint Nick to the Dutch, and Kriss Kringle to the Germans -- but also Grandfather Frost and Chimney John. Nearly all of these characters have their roots in various pagan traditions.
A story in the 21 December issue of the "International Herald Tribune" traces Santa Claus's origins to the town of Demre on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, where in the fourth century a bishop named Nicholas performed good deeds and was later named a saint. He is known as Noel Baba to the Turks.
The Yule Elf -- who brings presents on the solstice to those who leave offerings of porridge -- has been known to the Norse and Germanic peoples for centuries. Odin, the Norse god, is also often identified with the character of Santa Claus. He was also known as Jolnir, "Lord of the Yule," and is said to bear a striking resemblance to the traditional white-bearded Santa.
The widespread popularization of Santa as a fat, bearded, jolly fellow is credited to a dour university professor in the United States named Clement Moore, who had been known primarily for his two-volume "A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language." Today, Moore is best known for composing the narrative poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" in 1822.
Moore immortalized a description of the fur-clad figure who arrives on Christmas Eve driving a gift-laden sled, pulled by eight reindeer.
"He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot/And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot/A bundle of toys he had flung on his back/And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
"His eyes, how they twinkled; his dimples, how merry/His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry/His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow/And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow..../He had a broad face and a little round belly/That shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly."
Another composition symbolizes Christmas to the multitudes more spiritually. This one originated in a tiny Austrian village now part of Salzburg and is sung globally in modern times in 300 languages. It was written by a Roman Catholic parish priest and his music director. It is "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" or, by its English name, "Silent Night."
A widespread custom in the West is for carolers -- that is, singers of Christmas carols -- to bundle up in warm clothing and parade from house to house warbling Christmas songs, both secular and religious. The repertoire almost always includes "Silent Night."
The end of Christmas Day -- after the presents have all been unwrapped and Santa Claus has returned to his home at the North Pole -- is marked by another widespread tradition -- a Christmas feast. But it, too, no doubt boasts pagan roots, from the Roman Saturnalia -- a mid-winter festival of eating, drinking, dancing, and libertinism.