Sunday, 13 December 2015

Secret Santa

Alex in Wonderland....

Christmas and New Year

I think I might have broken free of the academic year cycle. Approaching this year’s season of good will I have a definite sense that I am approaching the end of the year, a chance to reflect, look back and look forward. I spent the best part of 50 years thinking of September as the beginning of the year and August as the end of the year. From 1985 when I started teaching in secondary schools, the beginning of the year switched to A Level results day – usually the third Thursday in August – from that point on a new school/teaching/working year began…. But no longer. January is (for me now) the beginning of the New Year. I feel glad about that.
Christmas Dinner Number One: Joyce, Janet, Michael, Emily, Harriet, Sally
Secret Santa

Last weekend I had my first Christmas dinner courtesy of our friends in Badby. A log fire, great company, a trip to the Royal Shakespeare Company for Wendy and Peter Pan and Secret Santa presents (now half way through Srsly Hamlet and playing regularly, perhaps more than I should, with my wind-up toy of Shakespeare.)
My Secret Santa presents!
Origins of December 25th becoming Christmas Day

I’ve been reading quite a bit of Bernard Cornwell recently – borrowed from the library.  His Stonehenge and the trilogy about King Arthur, The Winter King, Enemy of God and Excalibur have been fascinating about the way early Christianity compromised with paganism in order to increase followers. Choosing December 25th as the Nativity of Jesus was a canny move on the part of the early church to get pagans on board. It happened to be the birthday of Mithras, the Indo-Persian-Roman Sun God (belief in whom stretched back to 1500BC and who had a virgin birth, recruited 12 disciples, was born in a manger, was wrapped in swaddling clothes and visited by shepherds, became a travelling preacher doing miracles, promoted baptism, had Sunday as a sacred day, was described as the “Way, the Truth and the Light of the World,” who ascended to heaven and who died to save the world.) December 25th was also near the winter solstice which had long been a time for Celts and Vikings to bring greenery into the house, to wander through fields and orchards singing songs (carols) to ward away evil spirits and guarantee a good harvest and burn (Old Norse) Yule logs on the fire to gather families and friends together. The date was also near Saturnalia, the Roman feast of gift-giving, candle-lighting, mistletoe-hanging (to promote fertility) and feasting. Even further back December 25th was also the birthdate of the Ancient Egyptian god, Horus.
Pretty pagan but no less wonderful for that.  Joyce off to Canons Ashby
So when was the historical Jesus born?

Historians use a number of factors to seek an accurate birth date for the historical preacher who became known as Jesus of Nazareth:
  • non-Christian historical evidence from Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Josephus, the Babylonian Talmud, the Greek satirist Lucian 
  • the gospel accounts of the Nativity in Matthew and Luke
  • the reign of Emperor Augustus
  • the reign (and known death date) of Herod the Great
  • the census of Syrian governor Quirinius
  • the conception of John the Baptist (since there are records of his father Zacharias who was a temple priest
  • the likelihood of shepherds being on the hills watching their flocks on December 25th (nil likelihood)
  • the possibility that the star followed by the Magi was in fact an astronomical phenomenon. 
Dates suggested range from 12BC to 1AD, usually narrowed down to 6BC to 3BC and the months have been (most convincingly) suggested as May, June or September.  But I can’t see the Christian world ever changing the date of Christmas day any day soon…. But then again, I imagine the medieval world would never imagine a King of England would one day create a breakaway church because he wanted to get divorced. One teacher at my (Roman Catholic) primary school called the Church of England – “The Henry the Eighth Club” like it was a hobby rather than a religion….
Old Norse tradition or Victorian Germanic import? - it smells good!
Deck the halls with boughs of holly

Whatever the origins, I find it impossible not to enjoy the Christmas season, as long as I can avoid thinking about it before December 1st and as long as, at least once, I can watch White Christmas and, like Bing Crosby, count my blessings.