Sunday, December 24, 2006

There is a sanity clause!

Last week USA Today placed Santa at number 4 in its list of 101 most influential people that never lived. Only the Marlboro Man (for services to cigarettes), Big Brother (for services to democracy) and King Arthur (for having Camelot?) lead the man in red in this list of mischievous mythical influence. Apart from having great doubts as to the order of selection, Woolly Days has to take issue with USA Today for putting Santa in this list at all. Santa is real.

Back in 1897, 8 year old Virginia O’Hanlon sent a letter to the New York Sun which asked the question “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun it’s so. Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?” The letter demonstrates the touching faith of Virginia in the existence of Santa and the touching faith of her father in the non-existence of falsehoods in the Sun. Be that as it may, the editorial response is rightly the most famous defence of Santa on record. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” said the Sun unambiguously. More importantly still perhaps was the prediction of the editorial’s final line “A thousand years from now, nay, 10 times 10 thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood”.

If what the Sun says is as true as Virginia’s Dad says, it would appear as if Santa’s future is guaranteed for some time to come. But what about his past? How far back does Santa go? Turns out he goes almost as far back as that other Christmas icon – Jesus. The first Santa was St Nicholas who lived in the 3rd century AD. He is now the patron saint of sailors, merchants, children, archers and pawnbrokers. In those days Nicholas was a Turkish bishop. He was an early supporter of Christianity, before it became fashionable and sanctioned by Rome. He lived in the town of Myra near the south coast of what is now modern Turkey.

Myra was at that time a Greek colony in the Roman province of Lycia. It was strongly Hellenistic in outlook and held Greek traditions in science, politics and the arts. But it was also steadfastly Roman in its worship of the traditions of law, the military and the economy. The area is now modern Antalya more beloved these days as a cheap Turkish holiday destination.

Nicholas was born to a wealthy family in the Myran town of Patara. Patara was an important town, the major naval and trading port of Lycia. Its wealth grew as Patara became a trade hub. Nicholas was born of one of Patara’s wealthiest families. But change was in the air. The Roman hegemony was being challenged on two fronts. Pirates and looters were wrecking the trade and Christianity was in the air. St Paul launched an early missionary journey to Patara. The new religion was proving popular in the heady atmosphere of an international trade capital.

Both Nicholas’s parents died when he was young. This fact shaped his life. He was now independently wealthy but St Paul’s descendents had sown the new religion in his mind. And so, Nicholas acquired the reputation as a “giver”. He proceeded to give all his money away. Modelling his behaviour on Jesus, Nicholas became the ultimate Christian. His most famous eelymosynary act involved giving gold to three girls to save them from a life of prostitution. The townspeople were so impressed by Nicholas’s altruism they made him Bishop of Myra.

This made him the local power. But Rome wasn’t ready yet to embrace Christianity. Diocletian was on the throne around the turn of the century. It was he who realised the Roman Empire was too large to be ruled by one person. His bureaucratic and economic reforms laid the framework for the next thousand years of the Eastern Roman Empire. The price of his success was fealty to the Roman religion. Although his wife and daughter were Christians, he issued increasingly harsh decrees against anyone who felt they had a higher power than Rome to deal with.

One of the victims of Diocletian’s decrees was Nicholas. Because Nicholas was a powerful man, he wasn’t thrown to lions. Instead he was imprisoned. There he languished until a new emperor, Constantine, ascended to the throne. Although he himself did not become a Christian until just before his death, Constantine always had a more conciliatory attitude to the new religion. He quickly ended the persecutions and Nicholas was released. Back in his role of bishop, he soon realised there was another urgent problem to deal with: Arianism. Arius was an Egyptian teacher and a contemporary of Nicholas. He was spreading a new mutation of Christianity: according to Arianism, Jesus was not eternal. This had some support from the Roman hierarchy but not within the council of bishops. Only 3 out of 300 voted against the Nicene Creed that effectively stamped it out.

Nicholas was at the forefront of that fight. Not only did he keep Arianism out of Myra, he travelled to the Council of Nicea and slapped Arius in the face. This bold action sealed his fame worldwide. However the bishops were stunned at his lack of decorum and stripped him of his bishopric. It didn't hurt his reputation, Nicholas returned home a hero.

Legends grew about him as soon as he died. Within a hundred years of his death he was the main man in what was left of Christendom. The emperor in Constantinople dedicated a church to him. But it was in the west, where his memory was especially revered. England dedicated nearly 400 churches in his honour during the late Middle Ages. People began giving presents in his name on his feast day of 6 December. The present-giving date eventually moved to 25 December to follow Jesus. Also following Jesus was the Protestant Reformation who tried to ban Christmas altogether.

They were not totally successful. In Holland, St Nicholas mutated to Sinterklass. The Dutch took Sinterklass and its euphonious name with them to America. And Nicholas never really went away in Germany either. There Martin Luther replaced this bearer of gifts with the Christ Child, or, in German, Christkindl. Over the years, that became repronounced “Kriss Kringle” which morphed back into Santa.

Thanks to worthy contributions from Dickens and Coke, Christmas and Santa Claus are now significant parts of the Western cultural mythos. Sometimes parents, unwilling slaves to advertisers, quietly curse Kris Kringle and the expense caused by the patron saint of pawnbrokers. But Santa exemplifies Christianity 101. His spirit of giving is infectious and never fails to makes us feel happy. An early episode of South Park has a fight between Jesus and Santa for the right to control Christmas. The show skewers the conventions of both traditions. But both have proved resilient traditions. There’s probably room enough for both of them.

Happy Christmas.

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