23 December 2017

All Things Father Christmas, Including Santa and NORAD

I've decided to let this become a tradition, because, as with all good Traditions, it has the right amount of fact while not taking itself too seriously.

The article was written by me for Christmas 2016, but remains an evergreen to raise a smile, and snippets can be retold over a glass of something warming and yet another mince pie.
 
Wishing all my readers, of this blog and of my books, a wonderful festive season, whatever your beliefs...
 
Who will be dropping gifts at your hearth? Or will it be you leaving them?
 
Here in the UK it is definitely Father Christmas who will be visiting, and despite his title he has nothing to do with Christianity, or parenthood, or even humans. It is the spirit of Mid-Winter, a personification clothed in evergreen, wrapped in holly and ivy, and garlanded in red berries and mistletoe. It is a jovial spirit, come at the solstice to partake in the mid-winter’s frivolities. The people welcomed it with entertainment, plied it with food and alcoholic beverages, and gave offerings so that it might not linger too long but instead beat smooth a path for an early spring. 
 
Not a terrible lot changed when the Roman Legions made a home in these lands. They brought with them Saturnalia, a festival of light accompanied by a good deal of partying under the watchful eye of the god Saturn, often depicted with a scythe. So far so good.

Enter Christianity and a need by the early church to leverage ‘Jesus the Christ’ against entrenched Paganism. No one knew Jesus’ birth date, so the Pope of the time decided Jesus should be given one. The Pagan equinox celebrations of spring and autumn had already been coveted, so why not align the day to the biggest celebration of them all? A bishop from the Middle East, recently raised to sainthood for his good works, was also pressed into action: Nicholas (more or less). In the face of such worthiness the Brits remained steadfastedly wedded to their eat, drink and make merry.

The Romans assimiliated or left, and the Saxons and Jutes invaded, bringing along their Woden and winter’s Father Time. They also believed in eat, drink and make merry. A later invasion by the Norse and Danes (Vikings) – who also believed in eat, drink and make merry (can you see a pattern developing?) – brought along their Odin, who during mid-winter took on the manifestation of Jul – Yule – in that he was portly, white-bearded (signifying age), had the ability to see into people’s minds and know if they’d been good or not-so-good, and rode a horse, Sleipnir, which travelled at terrifying speed due to it having eight legs. Father Christmas as we know it was beginning to coalesce.

Saint Nicholas didn’t truly put in an appearance on British shores until the islands were invaded yet again, this time in 1066 by ex-Vikings, the Normans. However, no matter how the populace was “encouraged” to be pious, once out of the church doors after celebrating Jesus’ birthday, eat, drink and make merry remained the national stance. Not even the Puritans, who in the mid-17th century took the field and the country during the English Civil War, could fully ban Christmastide – ie the eat, drink and make merry – and Father Christmas, as he was by then known, made appearances in Mummer’s Plays, basically to raise a glass [ie two fingers] to the Puritan Parliament. And what happened to the Puritans? We happily waved them off to America (more or less).

It was there, after the War of Independence in the 18th century, that the populace began to embrace a Sinter Klaas from the Dutch tradition, doubtless because it wasn’t English (ungrateful individuals). In 1810 the New York Historical Society held a dinner in honour of Saint Nicholas, and twelve years later Clement Moore, drawing on Norse and Germanic folklore, wrote a poem A Visit from St Nicholas which was subsequently published as The Night Before Christmas. Thus Santa Claus came into his own, wearing the vestiges of Father Christmas/Jul. Even the reindeer and sled mentioned in the poem come from the Sammi people of Lapland, who the Viking peoples to the south of them firmly believed were ‘magicians’.

The Coca-Cola Company? Bah humbug! Late to the party. Santa Claus and even Father Christmas were wearing red before it showed up with its non-alcoholic beverage. But it had, and still has if its vivid red pantechnicon is anything to go by, damned good copywriters.

Which finally brings me to NORAD. Yes, I do mean the North American Aerospace Defence Command based in Colorado Springs. In 1955 Sears Roebuck & Company, also based in Colorado Springs, placed an advertisement in the press inviting children to phone Santa. Except the phone number was misprinted. Guess who was inundated with phone calls? CONAD – the Continental Air Defence Command and forerunner of NORAD. Despite being in the grips of the Cold War and it supposedly watching for in-coming missiles from you-know-who, the Defence Command put diplomacy to the fore and gave radar updates to children on the progress of Santa from the North Pole.

And thanks to the late Colonel Harry Shoup, Director of Operations at the time, it still does. Come the Big Day, check on Santa’s progress at http://www.noradsanta.org/
 
So wherever you are, and whatever spirit of Nature you believe in, be sure to eat, drink and make merry this festive season.
 
 
With grateful thanks to Wikipaedia, History Today, Time-Travel Britain, Museum of UnNatural Mystery, and NORAD for their assistance in producing this tongue-firmly-in-cheek blogpost.

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