First Dec. 25 Christmas Services were held at Roman Pagan Shrine

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Pastor Dale Morgan

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Dec 18, 2010, 3:46:57 AM12/18/10
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First Dec. 25 Christmas Services were held at Roman Pagan Shrine

By ARIEL DAVID
Associated Press Writer

ROME (AP) -- The church where the tradition of celebrating Christmas on
Dec. 25 was invented, was built on an old  pagan shrine as part of an
effort to supposedly spread Christianity, a leading Italian scholar says.

Italian archaeologists last month unveiled an underground grotto that
they believe ancient Romans revered as the place where a wolf nursed
Rome's legendary founder Romulus and his twin brother Remus.

A few feet above the grotto, or "Lupercale," the Emperor Constantine
built the Basilica of St. Anastasia, where some believe Christmas was
first celebrated on Dec. 25.

Constantine made Christianity a lawful religion in 313. He played a key
role in unifying the Roman Pagan beliefs and practices with those of the
early followers of Jesus.

In 325, he convened the Council of Nicaea, which fixed the dates of
important old world Roman festivals. It opted to mark Christmas, then
celebrated at varying dates, on Dec. 25 to be unified with the Roman
Solstice Saturna festival celebrating the birth of the sun god, Andrea
Carandini, a professor of archaeology at Rome's La Sapienza University,
told reporters Friday.

The Basilica of St. Anastasia was built as soon as a year after the
Nicaean Council. It probably was where Christmas was first marked on
Dec. 25, part of broader efforts to unify pagan practices  and holidays
with Christian celebrations in the early days of the new religion,
Carandini said.

"The church was built to supposedly Christianize these pagan places of
worship," he said. "It was normal to put a church at these pagan places.

Rome's archaeological superintendent Angelo Bottini, who did not take
part in Carandini's research, said that hypothesis was "evocative and
coherent" and "helps us understand the mechanisms of the passage of
joining  paganism to Christianity."

Bottini and Carandini both said future digs could bolster the link
between the pagan shrine and the church if structures belonging to the
"Lupercale" are found directly below the basilica.

The Basilica St. Anastasia was the first church to rise not on the
ancient city's outskirts, but on the Palatine Hill, the palatial center
of power and religion in imperial Rome, Carandini said. Though little
known today, at the time of Constantine it was one of the most important
basilicas for Catholics in Rome, he said.

The "Lupercale" shrine - named after the "lupa," Latin for she-wolf - is
52 feet below ground. So far, archaeologists have only been able to see
it by inserting probes and cameras that have revealed a vaulted ceiling
decorated with colored marble and a white imperial eagle.

Though some experts have expressed doubts that the pagan grotto is in
fact the mythological nursery of Romulus and Remus, most archaeologists
believe the shrine fits the descriptions found in ancient texts, and
plans are being drawn up to excavate the structure further.

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