[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Have a merry little pagan holiday

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Have a merry little pagan holiday

Don't take that headline wrong. I'm not saying that Christmas has become so secularized and commercialized in our modern world that it might as well be a pagan holiday. I'm saying that originally it was indeed a pagan holiday. It didn't become Christianized until about 300 years after Christianity began, and even then it was only a minor feast.

To today's Western Christians, for whom Christmas has become the biggest religious festival of the year, it may be hard to believe that early Christians didn't celebrate the birth of Jesus at all. The most important events of Christ's life to them were the Crucifixion and the Resurrection because these events supposedly provided the evidence that validated the Church's basic beliefs and teachings. After all, everybody is born, but how many people are resurrected? So for centuries, Easter was the biggest holy day, and the church's annual cycle centered around the springtime celebrations of Christ's Passion, Easter, the Ascension, and Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost is said to have descended to the Apostles in the form of tongues of fire.

So what made them change their minds? We can't really be certain, but we do know that the early Christians believed that Christ's second coming was in the offing. The Apostles seemed to think that Jesus would return during their own lifetimes or surely within a generation or two. By the fourth century, it began to appear that the second coming wasn't quite so imminent after all. Perhaps that's why people began to make more of the first coming. In any case, we do know from historical records that by the year 336, Christmas was already being celebrated in some parts of Christendom.

It would be fascinating to hop in a time machine and go back to the first meetings of church fathers at which the date for Christmas was decided upon. There must have been quite a lot of discussion because they had no idea what the actual date (or even the year) of Christ's birth was. The Gospels don't make this clear at all. In fact, we can't even be sure of the season, although some scholars reckon it most likely that Jesus was born in the spring. Many scholars also believe it unlikely that he was born in Bethlehem, favoring Nazareth as the most probable place of birth. They claim that the Bethlehem story, given in somewhat conflicting versions in Matthew 2 and Luke 2, was included on the basis not of known facts but of Old Testament predictions that the Messiah would come from the lineage of David. The home of David's clan was Bethlehem.

A spring date would not have been a good choice, because it would conflict with all the other spring religious celebrations already being observed. December 25 was an ideal date for a couple of reasons. It was comfortably away from other Christian religious dates, and it already had symbolism that could be readily put to use to spread the Church's message: it was the day the Romans celebrated the victory of the light over the darkness -- he Day of the Unconquered Sun.

Festivals in honor of the return of longer sunlight hours after the winter solstice have been a part of cultures all over the northern hemisphere since time immemorial. The people of Northern Europe burned their yule logs and decorated evergreen trees. The Jews had their Hanukkah, which not only commemorated the rededication of the Temple at Jerusalem after the Maccabees drove out the Syrians in the 1st century B.C., but was also known as the Festival of Lights, celebrated by lighting a menorah.

The ancient Romans began their winter solstice festival on December 17. They called it Saturnalia, in honor of the god Saturn, ruler of agriculture and, like his Greek equivalent, Chronos, a symbol of time. In the earliest times, the festival ran for only four or five days, but the holiday was extended to seven and then eight days.

In Korea we eat dongjipatjuk on the day of the winter solstice, called Dongji in Korean. Dongjipatjuk is a porridge made of red beans. The usual explanation is that red drives away evil spirits, but red also represents light; the words for "red" and "bright" are similar in Korean.

No wonder Christmas has such a broad appeal, even among those who are not particularly religious or maybe even downright pagan. The colorful lights, the parties, the gifts all help cheer us up and get us through the dark time of year.

So don't forget to eat your dongjipatjuk tomorrow, and have a merry Day of the Unconquered Sun on Wednesday.

* The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Daily. His e-mail address is gary@korelore.com.

by Gary Rector

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