Wednesday 21 December 2016

Spengler and the Christmas Tree

A new Age of Miracles is upon us. For those not familiar with the works of Spengler, he had an idea that civilizations work in cycles. You have an Age of Miracles when all is wonderful, the woods are full of elves and it wouldn't surprise you in the slightest to meet a god on the way home.

Then you have the Age of Theology, during which all the sightings of the gods from the Age of Miracles are categorised and analysed and formalised and explained, and generally have all the magic taken out of them. And thus theology leads you to logic and logic leads you to an Age of Science.

In the Age of Science everything is logical and nothing is magical and this, according to Spengler, creates a great human thirst for something divine, which is why the Age of Science suddenly cracks, and the world is plunged back into an Age of Miracles, and the whole jolly cycle can start again.

Spengler used to be terribly fashionable, back during the World Wars when it looked as though civilization was really ending. And then even more so during the Sixties when it looked as though something completely new was starting up. But then the 1980s happened, and it was generally agreed that there would be no new miracles and that Mr Spengler had been wrong.

But now it turns out that Spengler was right. You see, I wrote in A Christmas Cornucopia that all true Christmas trees should contain a snake, because of the Christmas Tree's origin in the Paradise Plays of Medieval Germany. I even mentioned one Mrs Coulson of Swindon, who in the year 2000 found an adder in her tree. I even referred to it as a miracle, but as the last miracle.

Well, I was wrong and Spengler was right. The BBC reports that a lady in Australia has found a highly venomous tiger snake hiding in her Christmas Tree. Clearly a new Age of Miracles has begun. Why it should have begun in Australia, I don't know. Clearly God has a sense of humour.

And in case you were wondering what Christmas in Australia normally looks like, here's an illustration from 1881.

Riddled with kangaroos

N.B. Before anyone else points it out, that was a very, very, very rough summary of Spengler's ideas.

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Myrrh, Myra and Father Christmas

Image result for christmas cornucopiaIt's surprising the number of people who ask me what myrrh is. It's partly to do with having written a book on Christmas, and partly that people just like saying the word.

The answer is that it's a kind of aromatic resin that you get out little thorny trees in the Middle East. The reason that the Magi turned up with a bunch of the stuff is partly that myrrh was just a nice standard gift. It smells good. You can rub it on yourself, or even use it to freshen your breath (in the sad old days before toothpaste). But in Matthew's Gospel, it almost certainly has a more precise meaning.

Gold was a gift for a king, as it symbolizes worldly wealth and power. Frankincense was often used in religious rituals praising God and therefore points out that Jesus is both King and God. And myrrh was used to embalm the dead. This practice goes back to Ancient Egypt, but it continues in the New Testament where, in John's Gospel, Jesus is finally embalmed thus:

And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. 19v39

So the gift of the Magi was there to signify the little baby's ultimate painful death, which must have been lovely for Mary. Imagine turning up to a baby shower with a shroud.

Anyhow, one place that was very good for harvesting myrrh was in what's now southern Turkey. Indeed, there was a whole city there that was named after its most famous export: Myra. The Bishop of Myra in the early third century AD was called Nicholas, and later he was called Saint Nicholas and later still he was called Sinterklaas, and nowadays we know him as Santa Claus.

That's complete coincidence, of course, but I rather like it. I like the fact that the full proper title of Santa Claus would be Saint Nicholas of Myrrh.

Anyhow, for more such Christmassy curiousities, you can of course snaffle a copy of A Christmas Cornucopia. It's around and about and terribly available from AmazonBlackwell'sBook DepositoryFoyles and Waterstones.

Image result for christmas cornucopia
That's the ticket

Saturday 10 December 2016

Santa Claus Ate Father Christmas

Image result for father christmas seventeenth centuryChristmas is coming, the geese are getting distinctly plump, and I've written a piece for the Spectator on the origins of Santa Claus and how he devoured the English Father Christmas. You can read the whole thing here.

Also, of course, you can buy my whole book A Christmas Cornucopia: The curious origins of our yuletide traditions from AmazonBlackwell'sBook DepositoryFoyles and Waterstones, or indeed from any good bookshop (and some evil ones).

And for those wondering what the illustration is, that's Father Christmas in 1653.