There are some who said that the world would end today. Why some folk believed this is pretty definitely defined (see below), although nobody seems to be able to agree on just how these end-times were supposed to pan out. Suggestions range from a planetary collision or a run-in with a black hole to some sort of reversal of the earth’s polar axis – or even a zombie apocalypse (I’ll be in the pub if that ever happens…).
These eschatological theories had been circulating online for quite a while, and I was curious as to exactly what they were all about and where they had come from. Predictions giving a precise date for the end of the world are not uncommon even now (anyone remember Harold Camping‘s insistence that the apocalypse was due in 2011?) – and, in fact, there is a long list of such predictions going back almost a millennium.
So what is it that made the 2012 phenomenon different and so widespread? The existence of the internet has certainly helped disseminate these theories far and wide, but as with so many other things what has been said online is not always strictly accurate, and these end-times theories are no different in that respect.
What can be said for certain is that, ultimately, it all comes down to the intriguingly-named Mesoamerican long-count calendar (see here for an explanation of how this type of calendar works), which was widely used in Central America prior to the violent arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century.
As Edgar Allan Poe dramatically describes in his famous 19th century poem, the raven has an ominous and prophetic reputation in many different cultures and mythologies, similar in some ways to that of its cousin, the crow. This has long been so; as symbols of the underworld, the Greeks associated the raven with the goddess Hecate, and Norse mythology with the god Odin. During the medieval and early modern periods, the raven was commonly cited as a witches’ familiar in various parts of Europe.
So, who is he, this mysterious man in red? And why does he do what he does? At any other time of the year these days, a fat jolly bearded stranger (with several known aliases) landing on your roof and sliding down your chimney would result in a slap on the wrist from the Civil Aviation Authority, and a breaking and entering charge for the bearded one at the very least (if not an ASBO).
And, with cries of ‘animal cruelty’ ringing in his furry ears, poor Rudolph would probably be sent packing to a reindeer sanctuary somewhere in Scotland, and the sleigh would end up clamped and impounded by over-zealous traffic wardens. But before the nightmare of this horribly politically correct eventuality really does come to pass (and because I wouldn’t want any of you to wake up on Friday morning to an empty stocking), let’s find out exactly what’s going on here…
Santa Claus as we know him today is actually an amalgam of a number of different figures and archetypes, some real, some legendary. The first of these is probably the most important of all in the development of the Santa myth…
The 4th century saint
The first of the origins of the Santa legend can be found in a rather unexpected place. Not in the ancient nomadic tribes of Lapland or the North Pole, as we might expect, but in 4th century Turkey with the part-real/part-mythic St Nicholas. Like an increasing number of people during this early period in the development of the Christian church, Nicholas was a deeply religious man. In fact, the real Nicholas was a bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church. He was bishop of Myra, which is now in Turkey but was then part of Byzantine Anatolia, a position which meant he had a certain amount of power and influence.
Today is the shortest day of the year. As I write this, it is just gone three in the afternoon and there is already a hint of dusk about the sky. Within an hour or so, night will have fallen, and the Christmas celebrations will soon be one day nearer. But today is a celebration too – an ancient midwinter festival that has been celebrated in Britain for millennia, long before Christianity (or even the Romans) arrived on these isles. Today is also the Winter Solstice.
The word ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), which expresses the idea perfectly as the sun appears not to move on the horizon. In astronomical terms, the Solstice marks the shortest day – that is, when the sun is at its lowest arc in the sky because the tilt of the earth has moved our hemisphere furthest away from the warmth and power of the sun. This is the last day before the winter nights begin to shorten and the hours of daylight start to increase again.
To us modern folk, the reversal of the shortest day means little more than mild relief that we won’t have to get up in the dark of the morning for very much longer, but to our ancient ancestors it was far, far more important than that. Prior to everyone owning diaries and calendars which neatly divide the months and seasons by date, astronomical events, such as the movement of the sun across the sky and the phases of the moon at different times of the year guided the existence of our ancestors, controlling when they sowed their seeds or took their animals to be mated, for example. The sun, in particular, was very important to this process, which (partially) explains why the Solstice has long been celebrated as its return and rebirth.
Last Christmas, in order to take my mind off some personal issues, I decided to write an advent calendar on my old blog. This involved a blog post on a Christmassy subject every day from the 1st December all the way to the 24th. At the time, I don’t think I realised what a challenge this project would be, but I completed it and thoroughly enjoyed doing so. So I decided this year to resurrect some of the best of these Christmassy posts and share them on Another Kind Of Mind for those who won’t have seen the originals.
Today we’ll be looking at Christmas superstitions, but watch out for more to come on the Winter Solstice and the origins of the Santa Claus myth. In the mean time, I’d love to hear from you if you have any interesting or unusual seasonal superstitions in your family or community, or any Christmas stories to tell!
Midwinter has long been considered a mysterious and spooky time; the Christmas period particularly so. These beliefs probably go back to pre-Christian midwinter festivals and ideas of the death of the old year as well as connecting into the physically and psychologically protective qualities of lighting up the long, dark and cold winter nights – particularly during the period of the Winter Solstice (21st December) which was seen as a time of great spiritual vulnerability and risk in that the barriers between this world and that of the evil spirits would temporarily open. This makes it unsurprising that there are many (often ancient) superstitions associated with the rituals and traditions of Christmas; probably as many (if not more) than those associated with Halloween.
These superstitions began as rituals and charms, ways of protecting an individual and their families against the evil that was abroad in the dying weeks and days of the year. Midwinter festivals served the similar purpose of scaring away any evil spirits that might be lurking about in the darkness (as well as giving people something to look forward to at this cold and bleak time of year).
“I’ll haunt you, haunt your bed/Tap the windows, awake in dread/Pray that you’d loved me instead/I’ll haunt you, haunt your bed/And I’ll haunt you, sleep in fear…” – Seth Lakeman, ‘I’ll Haunt You’
Whether you are a true believer in the existence of ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night or you are a complete sceptic on the subject, Halloween has always been a good time for telling a few scary ghost stories. This time of the year has long been associated with the supernatural; nights are getting longer and colder and the boundaries between this world and the next become more and more amorphous… Or something.
I confess that, personally, I fall in between these two extremes – I come from a family which claims some psychic ability and grew up fascinated by tales of haunted houses and spooky legends. I still love ghost stories, whether fictional or ‘real’, and I’ve had quite a few strange and seemingly inexplicable experiences over the years, but I am a bit too cynical and sceptical to immediately and unquestioningly accept these as being supernatural.
However, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe – and Halloween is as good an opportunity as any to suspend that disbelief and try to scare the crap out of you all…