“If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die. —
That strain again; it had a dying fall:
O, it came oer my ear, like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing, and giving odour! Enough! No more.
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before”
– Duke Orsino, Twelfth Night: Act One, Scene One
Without doubt, those are some of the most famous opening lines in the history of English literature. You may recognise them from your school days; from studying Shakespeare in English classes. Twelfth Night is easily my favourite of all the Bard’s plays; it is fun, subversive and full of mistaken identities, game-playing with gender (and thus, to a modern eye, sexualities too), and out-and-out Shakespearean farce.
Far beyond the ‘boring Shakespeare’ many of us encountered at school, methinks…
Written sometime around the turn of the 16th century (dating Shakespeare’s plays is not an exact science), and probably first performed in 1602 at London’s Middle Temple Hall in the Inns of Court as part of that year’s Christmas festivities, the plot of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night vividly echoes the riotous reversals and noisy fun of the real life medieval Twelfth Night holiday celebrations – in fact, it was written to be (and often still is) performed as part of these Twelfth Night celebrations
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.