22 December 2023

All Things Christmas including Santa and NORAD

Image by Castleguard via Pixabay

Once again I return with my traditional Christmas post, because, as with all good Traditions, it has the right amount of fact while not taking itself too seriously. And at the end of yet another tumultuous year, we do need a bit of not taking oneself too seriously! 

Let it raise a smile as snippets are retold over a glass of something warming and yet another brandy-laced mince pie.

Wishing all my readers, of this blog and of my novels,
a wonderful festive season, whatever your beliefs. 


Who will be leaving gifts at your hearth? 

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. 

Striding in from the myths and mists of pre-history, this jovial spirit arrived at the solstice to partake in the mid-winter 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 clanked up the beaches to make a home in these lands. They brought with them Saturnalia, a festival of light. Homes were garlanded with evergreen, and a good deal of partying was undertaken beneath the watchful eye of their god of agriculture, Saturn, often depicted carrying 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 the birthdate of Jesus of Nazareth, so the Pope of the time decided Jesus should be given one. The Pagan equinox celebrations of spring and autumn had already been appropriated, so why not align the day to the biggest Pagan 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 for sunnier shores, and the Saxons and Jutes invaded from Germania, bringing along their Woden and winter’s Father Time. They also believed in eat, drink and make merry, so they fitted in quite well. 
A few centuries later came an invasion by the Norse and Danes (Vikings) who also believed in eat, drink and make merry. [Careful readers may notice a pattern developing.]
They brought along their own version of Woden 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 him was beginning to coalesce.

Saint Nicholas didn’t truly put in an appearance on British shores until these islands were invaded yet again [becoming monotonous, isn't it?] this time in 1066 by ex-Vikings, the Normans, hailing from what is now a region of northern France. 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 abolish Christmastide – ie the eat, drink and make merry – though they certainly gave it a determined try. In retaliation, Father Christmas, as he was by then well known, made appearances in Mummer’s Plays, to raise a glass or an obscene gesture (or both) to the Puritan Parliament. 
And what happened to the Puritans? They were happily waved off to America (more or less).

1836 book illustration of Mummers entering a house, led by Father Christmas, and including St George and the Dragon.
Mummers entering a well-to-do Victorian house, Father Christmas leading. Note his holly staff & crown, and drinker’s false 'red' nose. Assorted characters in the troupe following include St George & the Dragon, England’s patron saint. Illustration, by Robert Seymour, from ‘The Book of Christmas’ by Thomas Kibble Hervey, 1836. Image in Public Domain via Wikimedia. (click to enlarge)
It was in America, after the War of Independence in the 18th century, that the populace began to embrace a certain Sinterklaas from the Dutch tradition of Saint Nicholas, doubtless because it wasn’t British. [How's that for holding a grudge?]
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 and Jul. Even the reindeer and sled mentioned in the poem came from the Sámi people of Lapland, who the Norse peoples to the south of them firmly believed were ‘magicians’.

The Coca-Cola Company? Bah humbug! Late to the party.  Father Christmas, even Santa Claus, 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, 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 with personnel supposedly watching for in-coming missiles from you-know-where, 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. Check on Santa’s progress at https://www.noradsanta.org/ Arrive before Rudolph gathers the other reindeer, and visit the Elf Village where there are activities and games to keep your little ones enthralled. Or you. [Go on, you know you want to.]

So, wherever you are, and whatever spirit of Nature you believe in, be sure to eat, drink and make merry this festive season. It's a Tradition.

With grateful thanks to History Today, Time-Travel Britain, Museum of UnNatural Mystery, various Wikipedia pages, and NORAD, for their assistance in producing this tongue-firmly-in-cheek blogpost.