How to spot the real Father Christmas

Father Christmas original historicalOther children had other questions: how does he get around everyone in just one night? how can he carry all those presents? Where does he live (is it the North Pole)? The question I posed as a six year old was a simple one and was perhaps more pertinent: how could he get into our house when we didn’t have a chimney? The answer provided by my Dad was just as simple: he has a magic key. I was satisfied.

But more interestingly than that, I remain satisfied. That answer is more profound that at first glance. Firstly it completely and utterly answers the question. Secondly, although it appears to raise further questions (how does the key work? where did he get it? does it work for all houses?) it renders those questions redundant because their answers are located in the first answer: it is magic. The nature of magic is that it is magic and is therefore indivisible. It is a closed loop that logic cannot break into.

But here’s another question. Pondered by many, but whispered oh so quietly, as perhaps the undesired answer is already known. But let’s ask it openly and attempt to answer it.

Is Father Christmas real?

Real, unreal; these are modern words that polarise a greater truth that exists somewhere in between. But even truth is contextual. In our ever increasing literal world where things must be concrete, they must be pinpointed and we must be certain, do we throw out a closer more relevant truth of unknowing; they grey area of multiple truths all being correct at once? Like Heisenberg, who showed we can’t know both position and momentum, the more we are certain of one, the more the other slips away, so is it with myth.

Myth does not mean ‘untrue’ as dull literalist dogmatics would have you believe. It means ‘very true’ as if there is another dimension to truth, at right angles to all the facts, that makes a myth more true than fact.

In mathematics we use the square root of minus one, called the number i, as the imaginary impossible number. It can’t exist unless you imagine it. (Try it on any literal dogmatic unimaginative calculator if you need proof). And yet, if we include this imaginary number in various equations, it can help solve them. You can’t solve certain quantum mechanics problems without it. These problems are real world ones too, found in electrical engineering and computing. Without the imaginary number you wouldn’t be reading this on a computer.

So is the number i real or unreal? Real or unreal is the wrong question as i exists, even if it is imaginary and it has a real impact on the world. So even though it’s a dumb question, we have to say i is real.

So let’s return to the original question. Is Father Christmas real or unreal? Bear in mind that he is of similar substance to i. He has the same characteristics: he has a real impact on the world; he explains certain phenomena; he is needed to complete certain functions; he is the square root of minus one.

He is by the literal terminology, real.

So where can we find him?

Father Christmas original historicalAny old fat man in a red suit and fake beard is unlikely to be the real thing. A simple test that drawn upon history is this: is he wearing a hooded cloak? If not, and bears a bobble cap instead, he’s a Coke drinking imposter who’s probably in the payola of the neo-capitalist branding conspiracy to brainwash children. It was Haddon Sundblom, who drew the red-suited fat elf for the Coca-Cola company from 1931 to 1964. Sundblom said he was inspired by Swedish tomte, mythical little creatures with red caps and long white beards but his images owe a lot more to Thomas Nast’s 1863 drawing.

The real Father Christmas may not always be dressed in red (sometimes blue, sometimes green) and may have a holly wreath on his head if his hood is not up.

It was the New York Gazette which, in 1773, gave him to joke moniker of St. A Claus (based on the Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’ which became ‘Santa Claus’) a name which even Clement Moore rejected in his 1821 poem, sticking with St. Nicholas, the name of the 3rd century bishop who gave presents to the destitute. It was Moore who popularised reindeer as the preferred mode of transport. Prior to that, Father Christmas would more likely arrive on horseback.

But his origins are more mysterious and ancient. Originally he was the god Saturn, whose festival, Saturania was celebrated on December 23rd in the Greco-Roman world from pre-history to the arrival of Christmas in the fourth century AD. Saturn, now a fallen god, bowed to the greater authority of Jesus and swore to no longer demand child sacrifice. It is an irony that it was originally the children who were gifts for him rather than him bringing gifts to them.

In his new fallen role and new allegiance, Saturn even turned up at the nativity as one of the ‘wise men’ from the East, bearing gifts for the infant Saviour. Thus the pagan festival and the Christian one unite.

So be careful if you stay up late on the night of the 24th, you may just catch a glimpse of an anthropomorphism of one of the few ancient primal forces still left in the world.

Oh, and the answers to those other questions? If you really don’t want to know, look away now.

How can he carry all those presents? He carries only what is needed for each home with each trip.

Where does he live (is it the North Pole)? The North Pole is a literal version of the farthest place we can think of. Nobody ever said what it was the North Pole of…

How does he get around everyone in just one night? He does them all simultaneously. Since the number i can be all it needs to be at once, so can he. It’s also easy that he only needs to be where an imaginator resides and can easily be personified by them, they become him and do his work for him, as him.

Well, you did ask.

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The story of a long lost friend, found again

Palitoy Talking Dalek

In the attic…

I’ve become obsessed with an idea, or rather a feeling or memory of an emotion. It’s linked directly to an artifact that you probably don’t have the same interest in, let alone have any connection to. But the object isn’t the point of this, the linkages and thoughts that are connected to it are. So for you there may be a similar effect but with a very different artifact. Let’s see.

Five days before my sixth birthday, on Christmas morning, I awoke to find a box in my stocking, left by Father Christmas. It measured 8” x 6” x 6”. It was still dark when my brother and I climbed excitedly into my parent’s bed to open our presents. I unwrapped the box to discover what would be the most treasure toy of my childhood and my most valuable possession until I owned a computer six years later.

I played with the toy constantly until I was around eleven. Then it became an ornament on my windowsill, on display to see every day. Then, when I eventually left home to go to university, never to return, it was packed in a cupboard in a box which a decade later made its way into my loft.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a fan of Doctor Who. My parents knew I was that Christmas as I opened my presents to reveal The Dr Who Annual 1977 (which I wasn’t capable of reading until a year later) and the joy of joys: a Palitoy Talking Dalek.

Even the box was exciting. It had an illustration of a red Dalek on one side and a silver one on the other side. Mine was silver, with blue spots. There was a little bag in the box that contained the appendages; the eye, gun and sucker-arm. I put it together and put in the two HP7 batteries and pressed the black button on the Dalek’s head. It had four phrases, “Exterminate, Exterminate!”, “What Are Your Orders?”, “You Will Obey!” and “Attack, Attack, Attack!” Later I would discover that these were located on a small vinyl record disc inside the Dalek. David McKiterick took the record out of his bothers Dalek and put one in from a talking doll. So the Dalek said “Mama! Mama!” and some poor unfortunate little girl’s doll said “You Will Obey!”

I made the later, regretful, decision that I didn’t need to keep the Dalek’s box. It got thrown out on Boxing Day. That was the last toy box that I didn’t keep. So with future toys I would be able to keep them in pristine condition, return them to their box and open them up again, re-enacting opening them for the first time. But with my Dalek, the box had gone.

I did see a box, one more time, the following year when we were in Durham’s department store, Doggarts (later to become a branch of Boots). They had Talking Daleks on sale there. I longed to have a red one to compliment mine, but at £5, they were far too expensive. Simon Payne brought his red one to school when we were allowed to bring in a toy one day. I took in some teddy bear. There was no way I was going to risk any damage or loss to my Dalek.

But somehow, even with my due diligence, the sucker-arm was lost. I made a replacement one from a sucker dart from one of those guns that fired suckered darts. I made a replacement arm, gun and eye for Simon Mckiterick’s too. His dad had bought the last Talking Dalek from Doggarts, without the box or appendages. His Dalek didn’t last long, after losing the record, it got totally dismantled. I saw the shoulder section from Sarah Woolfenden’s bedroom window, inexplicably on her garage roof.

The following Christmas I was lucky enough to receive a Doctor Who doll (in the likeness of Tom Baker) and his Tardis, as well as the most prized book of my childhood and beyond; Terry Nation’s Dalek Annual 1978.

It was then that I noticed that something was amiss with my Palitoy Talking Dalek. Namely, it had the wrong number of spots. Looking at the pictures in my Dalek annual it seemed that the number of skirt panels were wrong too. Even though it was, to date, the most accurately reproduced model Dalek, the head was a little too small and squat too. Why did the sucker arm have a central spike and why was it and the eye red? I had suddenly become visual discerning.

The inaccuracy in Doctor Who toys is startling. The Cyberman had a nose. Tom Baker’s face looked exactly like Gareth Hunt from the Avengers (that was because the Tom Baker mould was damaged just before production so they actually did use a Gareth Hunt mould). Later 1980s toys had big errors such as the six-sided Tardis console having five sides, Davros, famous for having just one arm, had two, and the robot dog K9, who everyone could tell you was grey; was green in the toy.

But these things didn’t stop me having fun playing with my Dalek. I painted the eye the correct colours and in 1979 stuck on black stickers on the shoulder slats to match the on-screen look of the Daleks in Destiny of the Daleks.

By 1981 my Dalek would no longer talk. He stood on my windowsill until I went to university  in 1990 and was then packed into a box that sat in a cupboard and then was shipped out to my own house and made it’s way to my loft.

Someone on ebay makes replica arms and boxes. What a crazy and yet genius idea. So now I have the parts to restore my Talking Dalek. But can I get him to talk once again?

I brought him down from the loft, dismantled the mechanism and washed him, taking off the stickers from 1979. His silver grey plastic had a slight golden tinge to it, probably due to exposure to light over the years. The inner mechanism is a tiny record player with a transparent disc that contains the phrases. I cleaned all the parts and removed the dust but nothing happened. I feared the motor had given up the ghost but after attaching the batteries directly to it, it started to spin. It too was probably clogged. I left the battery connected for ten minutes and the motor span faster and faster. Putting the needle back in and assembling the whole thing, I pressed the button.

It was a magic moment as an unearthly voice from the past grated out those famous words. What you need to appreciate is that sound coming from the Talking Dalek is not electronic; we’ve become too familiar with toys that have sampled digital sounds stored on computer chips. This is different. It’s an analogue, organic sound. The whir of the motor and the scratchy, wobbly sound echoing from the tiny disc. The Dalek toy is designed inside as a sound box which echoes and amplifies the sound, reverberating it throughout the inside of the Dalek.

Perhaps that why this was not just my favourite and most treasured toy; it was somehow alive. I wonder how he feels now, working again, being played with again. I wonder how he feels looking up with his red eye into my eyes, to see I’m no longer a five year old boy.

Palitoy Talking Dalek and boxIn February 1977 we sat on my parents bedroom windowsill, looking out into the evening as the snow started to fall. We watched it fall, my Dalek and I. First it covered the black tarmac with a powdery white covering. Within the hour it had hidden all sign of the curb as the pavement and road became a single blanket of white. We watched as the night fell and the street lights came on in the silence that only snow knows. Then it was tea-time. Outside the snow continued to fall and the wind blew drifts over the village.

That’s why there’s a value for me in this adventure. By restoring my Talking Dalek I’ve somehow re-connected, not with a old plastic toy, but with the little boy who used to treasure it. We are the same he and I, separated by a gulf of half a lifetime, of sorrows and joys. I need to remember that we are the same. Whatever trials and tribulations face me today, I owe it to that little boy to not let him down.

I also have children of my own now. There are at the age when they will be forming memories that will define for them their own history of who they are. It’s my job to facilitate and support that process in whatever form it takes. It’s unlikely to be a Talking Dalek that will excite and inspire them. They had fun pushing the button for a while before running off to play some other game.

My Talking Dalek also remind me that we are all unique in our loves, our passions and our journeys. My parents could not have guess the relevance of my Talking Dalek and I may probably never know what memory triggers my own children will find.

So have a think at what connects the dots in your life. Is there an artifact, a sound, a place that connects you to that small child from all those years ago?

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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Imagine and the Millennium Prayer

John Lennon beatlesIn 1999 I wrote an article about the two songs released at Christmas that year which competed for the number one slot in the UK single charts.

They were John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and Cliff Richard’s ‘The Millennium Prayer’ (the Lords Prayer sang to the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’).

As we approach the 31st anniversary of John Lennon’s untimely death, I thought it might be worth looking at again.

Both songs were saying very different things to very different people – or were they?

Both are very simplistic musically and lyrically, presenting quite complex ideas with enormous consequences in straightforward everyday language.

‘Imagine’ is John Lennon’s most famous song, but by no means his best selling (that honour goes to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’). It was composed a year after the Beatles split, at his house in Ascot in 1971, becoming the title track of his second solo album. Some of the lyric came from his wife, Yoko’s book ‘Grapefruit’. The song stands out on the album like a healthy thumb on a sore fist – its plea for world peace is at odds with the bitter and cynical songs that follow it. It was not released as a single at the time and had to wait until 1975 when it was released to promote a Lennon greatest hits compilation (reaching number 6). It was re-released following his death in 1980, taking the number 1 slot for four weeks in January 1981.

In April 1970 Lennon had walked out on the most successful and popular entertainment phenomena in history. After leaving the Beatles, he began the process of deconstructing his cheeky, friendly mop-top image, much to the disappointment of his fans. John had married Yoko One, an avant guard Japanese American artist in 1969 – from then on the two were never seen apart. John began his new role of dressing in white and parading around the world outraging his fans and critics alike by proclaiming peace and ‘War is Over – If You Want it’.

His message, like the lyric to ‘Imagine’ was simple and by his own admission, childish. If everyone stayed in bed for a week, there’d be no more war – Lennon knew he was no politician (who he described as ‘all insane’) but he knew he had a presence and the attention of the world’s youth. Outraged by the crisis of the late sixties and Britain and America’s involvement in Biafra and Vietnam he began his bed-in for peace campaign.

Born out of clownish stupidity John described himself and Yoko as the ‘Laurel and Hardy of the peace movement’ seeing their role as drawing the world’s attention to the issues then allowing the serious peacemakers who lacked his public appeal to take over. John wanted to fight the enemies of peace with humour, vowing he would never take himself seriously, because he said, ‘all the serious people like Ghandi, Kennedy and Martin Luther King got shot’.

After ‘Imagine’ was released, the World Church approached Lennon to ask to use the song as their theme. Initially he was interested until they asked to change the line, ‘Imaging no religion’ to ‘Imagine one religion’. Lennon flew into a rage saying that they had misunderstood the whole point of the song. But what was ‘the point of the song’?

John refers to himself as being regarded by the world as a dreamer. He knows that the sentiment of ‘peace’ sounds idealistic and even foolish. He then informs us that he’s not the only one and that someday hopes that we, the listener will join with him and all the ‘dreamers’ so that the world will live as one, in peace. To me that’s the most important part of the song. A personal request for us all, when we’re ready, to join those who dream of world peace.

The Beatles had been involved with religion before. In 1967 they attended a talk by the Marharishi Mahesh Yogi. Ringo never really got stuck into the eastern philosophy (he didn’t like the food) and Paul’s Catholic upbringing made him feel uncomfortable with it. George and John however dived in head first. George was the first to renounce drugs in late ’67 in favour of meditation. John’s affair with the Hindu mystic was short lived, pulling out of their stay in India after discovering that the Marharishi had urges that were certainly very human.

A year earlier had come the first sign of Beatlemania turning against them. John had mentioned in an article in a British magazine interview that he believed the Beatles were now more popular than Jesus. In Britain no-one took any notice, but the southern states of America went into a frenzy of burning Beatle records in numerous bonfire points culminating in the Beatles receiving a death threat from the Klu Klux Klan. In a very uncomfortable interview, John had to explain to a press conference what he had meant, and apologise. He said, ‘I didn’t mean that we were better, or greater than Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong, or was taken wrong and now it’s all this. I use the term Beatles as I see them…If I has said television was more popular than Jesus I might have got away with it.’

John’s involvement with the peace movement was always from a common sense point of view. He was attacked by critics for seemingly criticising protestors involved in the riots in 1968. His Beatles song ‘Revolution’ says that instead of violence, ‘You’d better free your minds instead’. In an interview around that time he said, ‘Ok, so you bring down the government, what then? You assassinate the leaders, what then?’ Lennon’s view was that it was the system that needed attacking, not the people and to attack the system people’s minds needed changing on an individual basis, a personal belief that he had found lacking in eastern mysticism.

Lennon gave up his peace protests in 1975 after the birth of his son Sean. Now living in America, he had been threatened by the CIA who had been bugging his telephone and had agents following him around over a period of two years. With the risk of him losing his permit to stay in America, he wrote to all the movements that he had been involved with, including his record company, saying that he was withdrawing from public life to bring up his son.

Lennon said in 1970, ‘Jesus was all right. It’s his disciples twisting it that ruins it for me.’ At that time he was surprised to hear that his close friend Bob Dylan had become a Christian. And yet in his last interview (two days before his death in 1980) he talked about studying early Christian gnosticism and had become an avid viewer of television evangelism.

Taken alone, ‘Imagine’ appears to describe a humanist utopia, but in the context of Lennon’s life and his other, rather large, body of work, it proves to be a reductionistic prose that, like the Lord’s Prayer, hints at a greater goodness. It would take many more words to explain fully but through gentle well chosen passages, stirring strings and a haunting piano, it manages to capture the attention of today’s impatient minds, perhaps just long enough for them to consider the message.

Lennon’s work alternately switched from proclaiming peace and love to proclaiming his own humanity and frailty. The line in the song, ‘Image there’s no heaven’ is presented as though he believes that it exists, like he believes there are countries and possessions. What he wants to achieve from the song is the removal of obstacles that prevent world peace and that prevent us living for today, the same message as ‘give us today our daily bread’ – we cannot eat yesterday’s or tomorrow’s bread, only today’s.

The message of ‘Imagine’ is the same as of most of the Beatles songs, essentially the same as the Lord’s Prayer, that of universal, eternal love.

In 1967 the Beatles were chosen to open the first satellite broadcast around the world to 300 million viewers. John wrote a special song for the occasion called ‘All You Need is Love’. George Harrison said of the song and the broadcast as ‘an opportunity to do PR for… God’. It wasn’t that he really thought that you don’t need food or water, only love, but instead that we actually do have everything already, but what we really need, the thing that is missing, is love.

What would Lennon make of his song being used for the Millennium? From his reaction to other things in his life we can safely assume that his reaction would not be the one we’d expect. Having his song used for a bland aimless celebration of nothing he would certainly have disapproved. But if in minds of the hedonistic aimless revellers at the white elephant of the £789 million Millennium Dome, it it stirred some thoughts on peace, he would have been pleased.

Cliff Richard’s ‘The Millennium Prayer’ was released by an independent record label, Papillon Records, after Richard’s own label EMI refused to release it. Proceeds of the single went to aid charity Children’s Promise. It was panned by the critics and many radio stations refused to play it. A 2004 VH1 poll labeled it the worst number one record of all time. (Imagine had been ranked by Rolling Stone as the third greatest song of all time)

The Millennium Prayer won the Ivor Novello award for the best selling single of 1999. It was Richard’s fourteenth number 1 hit, hitting the top spot on 4th December 1999 and was the third highest-selling single of his career. The re-release of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ sat behind it at number 3. Both singles were beaten to the Christmas and new millennium number 1 spot by Westlife with their ‘I Have A Dream’/’Seasons in the Sun’.

Creativity and the Beatles

This is adapted from my forthcoming book, Creativity and the Beatles.

Read more here.

Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

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Goals Are For Life – Not Just For Christmas

Have you sat down at the beginning of this year and make a list of things you want to achieve or change about yourself and your life? Do you perhaps call these New Year’s Resolutions? What happens next? What will be the outcome, some six months later?

For 87% of people, not much. If the resolution was about a change in behaviour or addition change then it may have lasted into late February. For 10% of people the resolution may have got this far in a watered down form or perhaps has just been forgotten. 3% are still in there and are reaping the rewards. What does it all mean?

A New Year’s Resolution is nothing more that a New Year’s Confession (“I confess I’ve got to lose weight”, “I confess I’ve got to stop smoking” etc). Now confessions are great as a first step towards setting goals but on their own they are useless and will never be achieved. The 10% who did fairly well turned them into goals (“I will lose two stone by April”, “I will cut down and the stop smoking by Easter”) so at least there was something to aim for – a goal.

We all know about goals, we all understand them. If they forget to put the goals on the football pitch at the new Wembley stadium what will the score be on the all the games played there? Nil-nil. We get the concept of goals so what goes wrong? What’s going on?

It’s because there are rules to setting goals. The first one is very simple, it’s what 3% of us did this year and that was to write the goal down. Simply doing that dramatically increases the likelihood of the goal being successful. But it needs to be written down in the right way, in the present tense and positive (“I weigh ten stone”, “I am a non-smoker”) as that is the only way to programme the subconscious. (An even better way would be “I am delighted with my consistent weight of ten stone”, “I live a vibrant, healthy life everyday”.)

The other thing you need to do to achieve your goals is to passionately believe you need the outcome. This is because your subconscious mind just won’t bother helping you to finding a way of getting it if it’s not that important. It’ll be concentrating on making sure you’re stocked up with chocolate and cigarettes as it’s going to be still convinced that’s what you need. You have to be busting for them for your subconscious to throw out the old rules and motivate you to get them.

If you needed to visit the toilet in the middle of the night, your subconscious will (hopefully) wake you up before something unpleasant happens. If you need a salary of £50k a year, and convince yourself that’s what you need, your subconscious will wake you up to do something about it and a way will be found. Have you ever tapped your head on the pillow six times before going to sleep to programme yourself to wake up at 6am without an alarm clock? If not, try it.

This is programming the subconscious to act as your own personal coach, egging you on, finding ways to overcome problems to reach your real goals. Without it, you’ll always fall at the very first hurdle.

If we don’t plant what we want in the garden of life – it’s soon going to be overrun with weeds. Or put another way – if you don’t set goals you’re at the mercy of someone who does.

Plan to succeed. Prepare to succeed. Expect to succeed. Demand to succeed. And most important of all do it NOW! Don’t wait until next year’s 1st January to see how far behind you are! Goals are for life, not just for Christmas.

The Colour of Christmas

One of the most important techniques for being creative is the art of noticing. In fact this is perhaps the most important technique in sentience and consciousness: ‘I think, therefore I am’ is really prefixed by ‘I noticed that I was thinking’.

It’s nearly Christmas and I’ve noticed something. So many decorations are using a new colour, completely unknown to Christmas until very recently; blue. As we change from high voltage bulbs to low power LEDs, someone must have noticed that high energy (and until very recently, expensive) blue LEDs are the brightest.

Can we have (as Shakin’ Stevens sang) a blue Christmas? What colour is Christmas? Most of us secretly want a white Christmas. The last one of those I saw was in 1980. Subsequent ones seem to have been more grey, if judged by looking out of the window. The archetypal colours of the Victorian Christmas were green and red. The green is brought into the house with the evergreen of the tree and holly, reminding us that life continues during the harsh winter. The red of the holly berries, robin red breast and mulled wine connects both pagan and Christian thoughts of blood and sacrifice. The outfit of the ‘jolly old elf’ has been fixed as red, with white trimmings.

One of the gifts of the Magi at the nativity was gold, in reality just a fairly uncommon heavy metal. It’s next to platinum on the periodic table which is rarer and yet gold is the emotionally evocative substance. Gold is the standard the world agreed to base its finances on. There is something about the colour of gold. Christmas is also a festival of light, representing hope that the sun will return. We bring lights inside our houses, the gold of candlelight and the reflected sparkle from tinsel. In recent years foils and tinsels seem to have fallen out of favour, replaced by an enthusiasm for electric flashing lights.

Christmas uses all these colours to evoke within us some form of emotional response, of excitement, of hope, of wonder, of the possibility of magic. I’m dreaming of a multicoloured Christmas.

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The Magic of Christmas

“What are you doing for Christmas?” – a question we could be asked at anytime from September onwards. No other public holiday commands such importance in Britain than Christmas that it is planned and prepared for almost six months earlier.

Christmas’ critics make the mistake of worrying that either the religious aspect doesn’t apply to them, or that the commercialisation has diluted the spiritual significance. A woman in America, after seeing that her local Church was advertising a Christmas service was reported to have said “Even the Church is cashing in on it.” It seems that paradoxes such as these that give Christmas its fascinating nature. Even in the cynical wonder-less world of twenty-first century there is still magic to be had – if you know where to look.

Christmas has a power, stronger than Cromwell who had it banned, only for it to survive underground and resurface when the coast was clear. It is from those sixteen years when public celebration was outlawed that the concept of spending Christmas with the family became a new tradition, which continues today.

The myths and traditions surrounding Christmas have their origins going back thousands of years, way back before the birth of Christ. The first 25th of December as a celebration of Christ’s birth was celebrated in Rome in AD 336. (Further east the date had previously been set as the 6th January, giving rise to the twelve days of Christmas, from the official date to the older date). It became an official celebration in Britain in AD 567 when the Council of Tours declared the twelve days as festaltide. Ethelred ordained it to be a time of peace when all strife must cease in 991.

Christmas is as multi-cultural as you can get. Just think of the ‘traditional’ Christmas day: the turkey; an Aztec bird, a German tree, a pudding made from Asian spices, a carol about the Bohemian King Wenceslas to the tune of a Swedish spring song, pagan magic, mistletoe and holly, wood spirits dressed up as angels and a Russian saint. ‘Christmas’ has had many names and many traditions over the millennia and has proved notably stubborn to give any of them up.

The religion of the Kalands gave us our calendar which sets January 1st as the first day of the new year. Prior to this, in the Celtic year, November 1st was New Year’s Day and it was on the night before, All Hallows Eve, that people believed the souls of the dead would return for just one night. It is from the Celts that we have the concept of ‘eve’ as they considered the evening before an important day to be as revered as the day itself.

There seems to have always been a festival on or around the 25th December. In the age of magic it was the winter solstice and later with other pagan influences including Roman ones, the festival of the unconquered sun and the worship of Saturn, which was also on the 25th.

During the agricultural age the twelve days of Christmas were granted as a holiday, but in the industrial age of recent centuries, the holiday shrunk, and continues to shrink to the bare minimum. The erosion of Sunday as a day of rest in recent years and twenty-four hour shopping has reduced the communal rest to levels unheard of since the Victorian workhouses.

But the modern world has had an effect to balance out those changes too. With television and mass communication, Christmas is a shared experience more than ever. The ingredients of Christmas are not spoiled if you look selectively. It has lost the odd custom here and there, but after the setbacks of the Cromwell years, Christmas underwent a massive resurgence in the nineteenth century escalating to the phenomenal proportions of today.

Everyone is familiar with the image of the Victorian Christmas, mainly from Charles Dickens’ novels like ‘A Christmas Carol’, but why did the Victorian fascination with Christmas begin? Perhaps it was because of the nature of society that had become the take shape during that time. For the wealthy, times were good and people had time on their hands to be miserable while for the poor, times were bad. Both sections of society then began the concept of looking back to a Golden Age when life was easier and simpler than the harsh world of their present. In effect then, the Victorians invented ‘retro’, the idea of borrowing ideas and style from the past whilst wishing today was as rosy as the ‘Good Old Days’. It was this imagined Golden Age that they tried to revive in Christmas celebrations, a time so rooted in tradition that it has become tradition for tradition’s sake.

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that we are at the end of time; Christmas is still evolving, still expanding. Some traditions fade away while some grow ever stronger. Take for example the jolly figure of Santa Claus, or to give him his British name, Father Christmas. There is an important difference between the two. Santa Claus is how he is known in America where he wears a bobble hat. In Britain, more so now in the North, he is still Father Christmas and wears a hood where his existence goes back long before Saint Nicolas, even back into pagan times as the god Saturn, the Scandinavian god of Yule and the Green Man. Until Victorian times his clothes were green and he wore a holly wreath if he wasn’t wearing his hood and cloak.

A popular Urban myth is that he was an invention of the Coca Cola company. This is not quite the case. What is true is that they used a more clean cut and standardised image of Santa Claus for their successful 1931 advertisements which was later adopted by other artists to form the definitive American Santa Claus, which America then began to ship back across the Atlantic back to Europe along with their version of Halloween which had all but died out in its native Europe.

New traditions of recent years have established themselves; the Christmas number one record, the Queen’s Speech, even the old tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas night has survived in the Christmas feature film on television. Nowadays we are just as likely to hear Bing Crosby or Slade’s Christmas songs as any ‘traditional’ carol. ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ is still in there but layer upon layer of the modern Christmas has been added.

Christmas is criticised for sentimentality and yet it is that sentiment that becomes good-will and charity at a time when those in need have greater need than any other time of the year. This Christmas sentiment is most notable in the phenomenal story of Christmas 1914 when the slaughter stopped in the trenches and enemies exchanged cigarettes and food and played a game of football. Christmas sentiment was the trigger, initially on the German side, to question the war. The truce lasted several days and in some areas up to a week. Only when the generals ordered fraternising with the enemy to be punishable with death did trust turn to suspicion and the guns started booming again. Alfred Anderson, who served with the 5th Battalion the Black Watch and the last surviving member of the Christmas Truce died in November this year aged 109.

Yes it is tacky and sometimes tasteless, but decking our homes in plastic trees, flashing coloured lights and silver tinsel is possibly the only way we know to rekindle the magic and mark the occasion as special, for a reason that is lost to most of us.

Christmas is the perfect marriage of our needs and desires, both ancient and modern. It is the ultimate festival, providing the greatest sense of occasion of all. It is an agreed, shared, communal lift. It is today as it was in ancient times: the festival of birth, of hope, of light, in the black barren darkness of winter. In our electric lit, atmospherically controlled world we have no obvious physical needs, but are there other needs? Does the festive season lighten the darkness in our hearts? Perhaps it does remind us of a Golden Age, the mythical Victorian Christmas or perhaps our own childhoods, if they were more tranquil than our current lives.

It is a celebration of the family and of friendship. A time of greed and yet of charity. A time, as in 1914, of questioning the world. It is a deadline, a marker, representing the achievements of the past year and all the hopes and dreams of the years to come, like standing on the edge of eternity.

Overall it is special, relieving us from the ordinariness of the rest of the year, so that for a very short time the leaden weight that oppresses us is somehow lifted to reveal our natural state of joy.

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