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Should we perhaps never say ‘never again’?

by
01 February 2015, at 12:00am

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist this month takes a (slightly jaundiced) look back at the festive season

A CHRISTMAS quiz is a wondrous thing. It’s hard to think of anything which so rapidly polarises the waiting audience around a Christmas lunch table or anything which was more eagerly anticipated and yet is so rapidly deflationary!

Grandpa is 84 and loves to make a contribution to Christmas and the way he chooses to do this is to concoct his world-famous Christmas quiz, based on facts which he thinks everyone should know.

Some questions like “What is St Elmo’s fire?” are really good but possibly beyond the instant recall of most of us while “Who took elephants across the Alps and why?” might be fine for any of us who suffered a classical education half a century ago but instantly beyond the reach of 20-something grandchildren who gave up history (and geography and quite a lot more) when they made their GCSE choices at the age of 14.

Sadly, Grandpa’s grasp of his own education some 70 years ago is now more acute than his recall of what he had for breakfast so you can imagine why, each year, we issue a stern warning for him to moderate the timbre of his questions with something more current but, like much in life, the quest for moderation goes largely unheeded.

Each year, when Grandpa has gone home clutching the tattered remnants of this year’s quiz, we mutter “Never again!” but I seriously doubt that anything but the intervention of angels will achieve a deviation from his natural course.

“Never again” is a phrase much used in our house in relation to Christmas and, should we ever be brave enough to gird our loins and take off for some more tropical Christmas venue, it is at least possible that we would, at some future date, avoid a surfeit of uneaten Brussels sprouts, party food, Christmas cake, mince pies, cream and full fat milk – all of which are sitting outside waiting for the attention of the bin man.

Much could be said for the purchase and dispatch of hundreds of Christmas cards when half the world is content with a group e-mail but I guess we’re just hanging on to the tradition by our dinosaur fingernails.

On close examination, it would seem that the date at which we celebrate Christmas might be a tad wayward as experts suggest that shepherds watching their flocks by night would be hard-pressed to have done so in the depths of a snowy Judaean winter and it would be unlikely for the Bethlehem census to have taken place in such an inclement season, while other historians have concluded that Jesus was probably born in early autumn, based on the date of the conception of John the Baptist.

Nevertheless, celebrating the birth of Christ around the date of the winter solstice was a smart move for the early elders of the Christian faith as their Roman masters were already attuned to the solstice celebrations in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture, and in 350 AD, Pope Julius I chose 25th December as the Nativity.

Losing track of the message

Over the years, we seem to have lost track of the religious significance of this celebration and have pigged out on the ancient rites of feasting and drinking together with exchanging presents.

It would seem that Saint Nicholas, whose feast day is 6th December, has provided the impetus for the presentfest although, historically rather than in the realms of folklore, it was the nobility dispensing presents to the poor at New Year which may have cemented the tradition within the customs we still celebrate today.

These customs have given us a fixed image of St Nicholas as a red-robed, jolly old man with a flowing white beard and a stable of racing reindeer but that too may be something of a stretch.

The original Saint Nicholas was from Myra, a former Greek city now in Turkey, who gave gold coins to a father of three girls to avoid them being sold into prostitution.

Persecuted for his faith, he earned a reputation as a rich benefactor during his life but it wasn’t until the 12th century when French nuns began to leave presents at the doorsteps of poor families on 5th December, the eve of Saint Nicholas day, when the custom began to gather pace.

Differing descriptions

The image we have of Santa Claus owes much to the descriptive powers of Clement Clarke Moore, an American diplomat and essayist, who made up and recited a story about Saint Nicholas to his own children on Christmas Eve in 1822.

It was published the following year and became increasingly popular, appearing in print in many forms and that narrative, “A visit from St Nicholas”, remains a traditional part of the Christmas season in the US and around the world.

Coca-Cola has also played a part in cementing our visual image of Santa Claus. In 1931, Coca-Cola commissioned Swedish-American artist Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa Claus for the company’s Christmas adverts.

Traditionally, the mediaeval Saint Nicholas punished the bad as well as rewarding the good and, in William Caxton’s book of the saints in 1483, we see him whipping errant children. Additionally, he’d variously been described as being tall and short, round and gaunt, but Sundblom’s illustrations for Coca-Cola established Santa as a warm, jolly character with rosy cheeks, a white beard and twinkling eyes, clothed in a red costume. This avuncular image of Santa immediately captivated the public and the rest is history.

Over the years, the whole celebration has become an industry with an increasingly lengthy build-up but with little recognition paid to the real event which we purport to celebrate.

Each of us has made our own, personal adjustment to that but, in a world where religious tensions are higher than at any time in most of our living memories, the fact that we gloss over the significance of the date for the basis of our version of civilisation seems more than ironic.

Excessive celebrations

In the 16th and 17th centuries, this festival was celebrated mostly by excessive eating and drinking with people dressing up as famous characters such as Dame Mince Pie and kissing strangers under the mistletoe, a fertility symbol carried forward from Druidic lore.

Echoing Saturnalia – the feast of Saturn – European nobles would appoint a “Lord of Misrule” to oversee the celebrations which could last more than a month of eating boar’s head, peacock, goose and rich pastries while drinking strong beer and “the richest and raciest of wines”.

Not sure who the Lord of Misrule was in our house but, as I said earlier, “Never again” is a phrase much used but rarely remembered.