Friday, 19 December 2014
Giants of Academia & the Arts
… but, then again, nobody is perfect
Saint Nicholas (15 March 270 – 6 December 343)
chitons, to be brutally frank, who cares? Except poor young orphaned Nicholas, of course, who was then raised by his uncle, who himself, as tradition demands with our Giants, was also called Nicholas but, more pertinently, happened to be Bishop of Patara at the same time and so he naturally wanted his nephew to follow him into the family business, going so far as to tonsure the young man (give him a severe haircut by way of inducting him into the clergy) and then ordaining him as a presbyter (priest) himself.
Widely known as Nikolaos of Myra (being Greek and from Myra), because of his specialism in the miracles line he was also called Nikolaos the Wonderworker. Nicholas, as we’ll persist in calling him, had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. The practice is still celebrated on his feast day (6 December, the one he died on, which is a shame really because he’d’ve missed out on Christmas). Legend has it that, during a severe famine, a butcher lured three children (or clerks, in some versions, who would have also been clergy then, seeing all clerks were clerics in those days, hence the word) into his shop, killed them and then popped them into a barrel to cure and later sell as ham, only Nick has a dream in which the whole plot is revealed, does a spot of industrial praying and, heigh-ho, the boys come back to life. Nice one, Nicky, but highly unlikely.
Another of his feats to have the whiff of authenticity came during a further famine round about 311-312 time, when a ship was in port at Myra packed to the gunwales with wheat for the Emperor, so Nicholas suggests to the sailors that they might like to help out a bit by unloading some for the hungry citizens, an invitation that the said mariners are none too enamoured with, seeing the wheat has been carefully weighed already and, had the bicycle actually been invented then, they might have responded by inviting our man to mount his forthwith and make all possible haste away upon it. But he got things done, did St Nicholas, and eventually they relented, handing over a “full two years’ worth with enough for sowing on top.” Bet you can’t guess what happened when the sailors arrived home with the remaining wheat, can you? That’s right: it was exactly the correct weight …
Father Christmas and Santa Claus are now pretty much synonymous. The former, when he made his first appearance in the fifteenth century, was neither fat nor old, nor even called Father, being named “Nowell” or “Sir Christemas” or even “My Lord Christemas”. And he wasn’t keen on the dishing out of presents to children so much as encouraging everyone to get stuck into the tuck and the booze, making it an adult-orientated festival: "Make good cheer and be right merry." Once again, it was those incorrigible miseryguts and extreme Protestants, the Puritans, that were responsible for turning him into a hearty wellfed celebrity by trying to ban Christmas altogether, which only made the Royalists all the more keen on promoting him, just to get up their noses.
Prior to Christianity, the celebrated midwinter event was Yule, from the Old English geola or guili, and many of the traditions associated with it have been absorbed into modern Christmas. Odin was the big cheese back then, something of a prototype Santa himself in image (a blue-hooded old man in a cloak and long beard who rode the night sky as Giftbringer in the Wild Hunt) and he is said to have entered houses on the solstice via chimneys or fireholes in order to dish out his goodies, the hearth being sacred in primitive belief as a source of beneficence (hence sweeps and weddings). In these days of central heating, however, Santa has to resort to a Magic Key.
The idea of Father Christmas dropping in through the chimney, and much else besides, was widely popularised by an 1823 poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas, published anonymously but later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. The image of him as a stout old man dressed in a red suit trimmed with white fur with matching hat, big wide belt, dark boots and a long white flowing beard has often been wrongly associated with adverts for Coca Cola in the Thirties – an urban myth, seeing they weren’t even the first drinks company to do it, being beaten by White Rock Beverages, who used it to sell mineral water in 1915. But even they don’t deserve the credit, which actually belongs to a German-born American caricaturist called Thomas Nast (wonder what his nickname was at school), who also created the elephant symbol for the Republicans (though not Uncle Sam, Columbia or the Democratic donkey, as has sometimes been claimed). In Harper’s of January 1863 (US Civil War time), he depicted him much as we know him now, except wearing an American flag but, by 1881, he’d pretty much come up with the finished article, complete with a long clay pipe.
In 1832, the future Queen Victoria wrote about her delight at having a Christmas tree, hung with lights, ornaments, and presents placed round it and, by 1841, the custom become widespread throughout Britain. In 1843, Dickens penned A Christmas Carol, thus giving us the phrase “Merry Christmas” and in the same year, in London, Sir Henry Cole produced the first commercial Christmas card. Decorations themselves go back much further, all the way to at least the fifteenth century, when the custom was for every house to be decked with holly, ivy, bays and whatever other green stuff happened to be lying around. The heartshaped leaves of ivy symbolise Jesus (the Sacred Heart), whilst the holly protected against pagans and witches, the thorns and berries standing for the Crown of Thorns and the Blood of Christ.
As for Father Christmas, the location of his residence remains top secret, though we do know he lives in the mountains of Korvatunturi in Lapland Province, Finland. And that his postcode is 99999 Korvatunturi. In fact, if you’ve got a minute, his mobile number is – well, perhaps we’d best not: he tends to get mighty busy this time of year. Despite his festival (shouldn’t that really be our St Nicholas’s festival?) being about goodwill to all men, there are still plenty of spoilsports around, long after the demise of Luther and the Puritans. Doing the honours for us British, it was Birmingham City Council to the rescue, in 1998, when they decided that the Christmas-period festival (the what?) should be known by the neutral name of “Winterval”, spawning at the same time possibly the first use of the phrase “political correctness gone mad.” Sadly, though, such a claim would be entirely untrue as it was, in fact, just “a jumped-up gang of pompous self-important windbag councillors gone mad”, though even we would have to admit, as phrases go, ours is not half so catchy.
All the same, a very happy and peaceful Winterval to all our readers, and see you again in 2015 (and you astronomers, we’ll look forward to seeing you in 2014) …
St Nicholas: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Myra: By Ingo Mehling (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
St Nicholas Saves Three: Ilya Repin [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Three Virgins: Gentile da Fabriano [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Myra Tomb: By Sjoehest at de.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons
Luther: Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Annunciation: By Paolo de Matteis (Saint Louis Art Museum official site) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Nast Santa Claus: By Thomas Nast [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Christmas Tree: By Marcel Rieder (1862-1942) (Collection privée Photographie by P.F. Rieder) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons