Peace on Earth, goodwill to all
"Orthodox Christians celebrated a low-key Christmas on Monday, overshadowed by the threat of possible Israeli retaliation for twin Palestinian suicide attacks that killed 22 people in Tel Aviv a day earlier," the Associated Press reports. Celebrations were short, quiet, and sparsely attended, says the news service.

"There is no joy in Bethlehem," said George Bassous, one of the few who came to watch the annual procession of the four Orthodox patriarchs. "The violence, the suffering, the dead economy have stolen the happiness. There is a lack of peace. The people have lost the hope in the future and to reach a peaceful solution. There is no peace in Bethlehem during the birth of the lord of peace, Jesus Christ."

As Orthodox Christians, who follow a different calendar from the West, celebrate Christmas, many Western Christians join in celebrating Epiphany today (Orthodox, however, celebrate Jesus' birth and baptism today; Western Christians today commemorate the visit of the Magi). In any case, while today is the first day of Christmas for Eastern Orthodox, for Western Christians, it's the 12th.

Many Epiphany celebrations are more festive than religious, such as the crown-shaped cakes (called roscas) with plastic baby Jesuses inside. In Bulgaria, some throw themselves into icy waters.

One popular item connected with the 12th day of Christmas is an explanation of the old song. A prevalent e-mail message claims that the song is a secret catechism created during a period of persecution—but it isn't. Christian History's Elesha Coffman laid out the arguments against the claim last year, but this weekend so did New York Times "Beliefs" columnist Peter Steinfels. "There may be a lesson in this, but it probably has more to do with the affirmation that people find in accounts of being persecuted and, maybe, with the allure of secret decoder rings than with 'The Twelve Days of Christmas.'" he concludes.

Meanwhile, says another Associated Press story, Pope John Paul II's visit to Bulgaria may help to heal tensions between Eastern and Western Christians there. "This is what we need—the hand of God, divine intervention," said Archimandrite Augustine. "We mortals seem incapable of overcoming this schism."

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