Friday, December 05, 2008

The indifferent death of Father Christmas

Hello all. Yes I know ... it's been days since I last blogged and I do apologise. I've been spending all of my time arsing around in a hammock getting blind drunk and gambling myself into penury.

Ha! As if. No, I've been busy. Boringly, mind-numbingly busy. But even though work and other scary grown-up manifestations of real life have got in the way of my blogpostering, I have been scribbling furiously in my notebooks and I have all manner of rants and raves, discussions and dissections, dissertations and drivel to share with you as and when I get a few spare minutes. Tonight I want to regale you all with a tale of murder, intrigue, subtle infiltration, and the inexorable and invidious invasion of this sceptred isle by an impostor in a blood-red suit ...

But first, a bit of a whinge. Bear with me. It is relevant.

I went back to Cornwall recently and I was yet again struck by how much it had changed since I was a boy. Of course, it's natural to see the world of our childhoods through nostalgic eyes, but when I was young, everyone I knew came from Cornwall or had been a resident for many years. They all spoke with variants of the Cornish accent and there was pride in local history and heritage. Special events - like Flora Day in Helston - were the biggest dates in the social calendar despite the fact that they meant nothing to the rest of the UK. The tourists came in their droves because Cornwall felt different from the places they'd left behind.

I've now worked in London for nigh on 30 years and all the while I've dreamed of moving back to Cornwall. I always saw my return as a reward for trying to do some good while in 'exile'. But now that those three decades are nearly spent ... I find myself not so sure. You see, the Cornwall that I've always dreamed of returning to doesn't seem to be there any more. That 'sense of place' that was so redolent when I was a child has been somehow suppressed by a kind of numb, featureless anytown homogeneity. It just doesn't feel like Cornwall any more. Well, not to me anyway.

Helston - my home town - was served by mostly family-owned shops when I lived there, places like Barnett's Gents' Outfitters and Salvatore Pisano's Gondolier Restaurant, ETS (featuring Dylan's amazing record shop), Tottle's Music and the always brilliant Eddy's Toyshop(1). But it's now just the same old brands, the same old names and the same old labels. I could be anywhere. And wherever I travel these days, the familiar old gaggle of names seems to travel with me: Gregg's the bakers, LIDL, KFC, Tesco, Starbucks, McDonalds, Aldi, W H Smith, Superdrug ... and pound shops. Dear imaginary friend!(2) Was there ever a bigger indicator of 'this town is buggered' than the pound shop?

1978 - A Cornish whinger in the making. That hair! What was I thinking ...

But it's not just the physical environment. It's the people too. I don't hear the Cornish accent as often as I should do, especially when I'm anywhere near the sea. Cornwall, uniquely, is the only British county that is connected to just one other county. A long, slim, vaguely rubber glove-shaped peninsula, it's surrounded by sea on three sides. Those three sides are where 99% of all the tourist attractions are sited and, therefore, where you'll find the most expensive housing. And, because most of it is beyond the pockets of local people, it's where Cornish accents are as rare as cocks' cocks. On some parts of the coast, you can walk into a pub, shut your eyes, and believe that you're in an episode of Eastenders. Like the Costa del Sol, parts of Cornwall now form an additional, albeit remote, London borough.

It's all very sad but we have to accept that it's progress. If someone has the money to afford a property why shouldn't they be able to buy what they want where they want? And it's no good us Cornish bleating about the inflated house prices ... who happily sold their houses to people from the South-east at those inflated prices in the first place, eh? Change is inevitable. But, it seems to me, that ordinariness and blandness are inevitable too. The world is getting samey.

The physical laws of entropy tell us that in any natural process there exists an inherent tendency towards the dissipation of useful energy. Things run down to a state of simplicity and stasis. Biology tells us that if you isolate any group of animals, eventually they'll arrive at a form where the whole population looks very similar. It's why lions are distinct from cheetahs despite their common ancestry but also why dingos all look the same despite being descended from a range of domestic dogs. Meanwhile, the principle of Occam's Razor states that, all things being equal, the simplest answer is probably the best.(3) It therefore follows that the simplest societies are those where everyone speaks the same language, shares the same philosophy and everyone looks similar. It's interesting that in much early Sci-Fi, the denizens of future civilisations were always depicted as nearly identical beings and wore the same silver, figure-hugging Bacofoil outfits. And our Hippie forbears who sang about 'great big melting pots' and the world being an onion, apparently, dreamed of a future human race undivided by race, skin colour or faith; those 'coffee coloured people by the score'. Well, I reckon it's coming. The minute that Baird, Marconi, Bell and Edison started to muck about with wires and cathode ray tubes and valves and rheostats, the end of regionality and geographical uniqueness was in sight.

I listened to a group of teenagers talking in a fish and chip shop in Camborne and was struck by the phrases they used: 'retard', 'laters', 'know what I mean', 'dudes' and the ubiquitous 'yeah?' used so frequently that it performed the role of punctuation. Despite the vestiges of a Westcountry twang, their speech patterns were modelled almost entirely upon the speech patterns I have to endure on episodes of shows like Pimp my ride, Cribs and the truly execrable Sweet Sixteen. I say endure as I occasionally have younger people in the house who profess to enjoying these things. Presumably in the same way that a woman 'enjoys' giving birth or a man 'enjoys' having his bottom examined to check for prostate cancer.

Then today, travelling back from London by train, a group of girls - aged about 14-15 I guess - were sat behind me; nice, well-presented, well-dressed and immaculately-groomed young ladies from undoubtedly Middle Class homes ... and they exhibited almost exactly the same speech patterns as the Cornish chippie kids. To a phoneme. But maybe a bit more plummy. The point is that we're slowly but surely losing a little bit of Britishness in this general side towards sameness. Give it a generation or two and there will be no differences in our accents at all. Our geography kept us all speaking in regional accents for thousands of years. But telecommunications have swept away all such barriers. TV, cinema, the internet and mobile telephonery will ultimately lead us all to speak the same way. I don't know what that accent will sound like, but I am convinced that it will happen. After all, kids absorb more from their peers than their parents - that's why all the kids of Scottish parents I know (that grew up in London) don't have Scottish accents. However, I will not be writing to the Daily Mail to howl and fume and snarl about this loss of Britishness. There is no point and, let's be honest, there are more important things to worry about. Change is unstoppable, I'm afraid, just as evolution is unstoppable. It's just a bit of a shame as I rather like things being a bit different.

One immediate problem of social homogeneity is that there will be competing terminologies and only the strongest will survive. There will be zits versus spots, retards versus idiots, granola versus muesli. They have to slug it out until one of them reigns supreme; one terminology to rule them all. A perfect example of this is the phrase 'nine-eleven'. When those horrendous events unfolded in New York in 2001, all of the British media talked about 'September the 11th'. And, for some time, that was the phrase synonymous with the attacks. But, soon, an alternative emerged - 9/11 - and, somehow, it won out. You rarely hear 'September the 11th' any more, not even in the UK. It's become 9/11, despite the fact that only America chooses to place the month before the date in this way and that the phrase is incorrect here (I can see kids in the future asking, 'Mummy, what happened on the 9th of November?'). Don't get me wrong, I have no beef with the expression '9/11'. But its usage means that one more piece of Britishness has been subdued; one more difference has been snuffed out. It may seem that I'm making a 'Britain versus America' case here. I'm not. It's Britain against any larger country that dominates international telecommunications. The USA just happens to dominate two of the biggest - the movies and the internet (as evidenced by the fact that if you choose 'English' as your preferred language in many software programmes, you get US English) - and is slowly taking over British TV as well. If the emerging super-economies of Europe, China and South Asia start to make an impact on this then we'll probably see a slow shift towards their way of doing things. Change is inevitable. What is a pity is that change seems to mean 'a return to the mean' these days, that mean being a kind of bland, corporate anonymity. The world is becoming a much less interesting place.

All of which brings me to Father Christmas. And, most importantly, to notifying you all of his death. In the words of folklorist and British historian Professor Ronald Hutton (University of Bristol), 'Father Christmas is dead. He was murdered and replaced over a hundred years ago by a sinister assassin from overseas, and his name ... is Santa Claus.'

Just today I saw a poster advertising a theatre production of The Snowman - based upon Raymond Briggs' excellent graphic novel - which Time Out magazine described as being 'As traditional as Santa and mince pies'. Oh really? So just how 'traditional' is Santa? As it happens, for us Brits, not at all.

Father Christmas - appearing as Sir Christëmas - first appears in 1610 in a carol written by Richard Smart, the rector of Plymtree in Devon:

'Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
Who is there that singeth so?’
I am here, Sir Christëmas.
Welcome, my lord Christëmas,
Welcome to us all, both more and less
Come near, Nowell!’

He was more thoroughly fleshed out by writer Ben Jonson in 1616 when 'Old Christmas' or 'Captaine Christmas' appears in his play Christmas his Masque, together with his sons: Misrule, Carol, Mince Pie, Gambol, Post-and-Pan, New Years Gift, Mumming, Wassail, and Baby Cake. In this particular entertainment, Old Christmas was described as the personification of Yule-tide. However, he was not a gift-giver (that bit is important) and he was definitely nothing to do with St Nicholas (that bit is also quite important). Old Christmas was the life and soul of the party at adult celebrations ... children didn't get a look in. Of course, the Puritans did their damnedest to get rid of the character as he was associated with fun and frolic and all of the other F words that made Puritans froth at the mouth, but he survived and eventually enjoyed a huge revival during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Victorian revival of Christmas made Father Christmas the ambassador of good cheer, but he still didn't look like the Father Christmas we know today. He was often shown as old and bearded but various images of him from those times have him dressed in furs or tartan or tweed and often in contemporary garb. One image that seems to have stuck in the public imagination was John Leech’s illustration of the Ghost of Christmas Present for Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol (1843). Here we see a huge Brian Blessed lookalike sitting among piles of food and drink, and wearing a loose-fitting fur-trimmed gown. All that's wrong is the colour scheme really. He has a dark beard and a green robe.

But then, things start to turn bad for Daddy C ...

While Father Christmas was wassailing and yule-logging and making merry with the grown-ups, across the sea in America a Dutch Saint called Sinterklaas - or St Nicholas, the patron saint of children - was making his presence known. St Nicholas travelled to the new world with Dutch colonists (New York was original New Amsterdam you may recall) along with his trusty sidekick, Black Peter (Zwarte Piet). Sinterklaas had a reputation for gift-giving - especially to children - on St Nicholas' Eve (Sinterklaasavond - December 5th) and on St Nicholas' Day morning (6th). Nicholas (280-342) was originally a Greek bishop who was often depicted as wearing long red robes, a bishop's mitre and a long white beard (see where this is going?). Black Peter, meanwhile, was a small dark child or dwarfish Moor who was rescued by St Nick but who later became associated with chimneys and chimney sweeps due to the peasant custom of using soot on the face to impersonate him. Zwarte Piet may have been the template for Santa's elves and, incidentally, why chimneys feature so prominently in modern myth. In some parts of Europe, Sinterklaas was accompanied by a gnome instead, wearing a red or brown outfit and was carrying a small fir tree (a sprig of which brings good luck and the return of Spring into a Winter household) and a bag of toys. The Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas and giving presents on St Nicholas' Eve remained popular in New York for many years among the descendants of the settlers.

But then, in 1823, along came an academic called Clement Clarke Moore and it was he who finally did for Father Christmas. In fairness, his only real crime was to write a poem.(4) It was called A visit from St Nicholas. It's the one that starts:

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse'

Moore supposedly wrote the poem for his own children but a friend, the Rev. David Butler who was much taken by the piece, arranged to have it published anonymously in the Christmas edition of the Troy New York Sentinel newspaper. The poem was an immediate smash hit, which is all the more odd for the fact that Moore made so much of it up. He took the basic Sinterklaas figure but transferred the action to Christmas Eve. He had St Nicholas driving a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer (he also invented the names we know today - except Rudolf of course, who was a later addition). He described his Sinterklaas outfit of red trimmed with fur and his big white beard. And, most importantly, he was the first person to make the connection between Sinterklaas's propensity for gift-giving to children and Christmas. The rest, as they say, is history.

Thomas Nast's famous 1881 image - a major player in creating the modern image of Santa.

Sinterklaas, in his new guise of Santa Claus, came across to the UK from America armed, as Professor Hutton puts it, 'with a particularly deadly weapon, that being the child market. One thing that Father Christmas never did was pay particular attention to children. That was Santa's secret weapon'. And wasn't it a powerful one? Within no time at all, Christmas became the new St Nicholas' night. Santa Claus had won. And Father Christmas effectively died.

As I said at the start of this rambling epic, we have to accept that change is inevitable for the simple reason that it is. You can't keep hanging on to things when the rest of the world is changing around you. It's for that reason that I don't subscribe to movements like keeping the British pound. What's the point? It's not even British anyway (invented by Italians, named in Latin and once the currency for the Roman Empire and widely used across Europe and Africa) and I, for one, get a bit fed up being one of the only Europeans on holiday who has to exchange my money twice - often for a fee - and then spend my entire holiday fumbling with unfamiliar coinage in the supermarkets while the Spanish, Dutch, Germans, French, Irish and everyone else get stroppy behind me in the queue. A single currency is inevitable. In some ways, the use of plastic is hastening the demise of the pound as a physical entity anyway.

There was always going to be a fight between Father Christmas and Santa, and Santa won. But how could he lose with the weight of the world's children behind him? I think that it's a huge shame because Father Christmas represented the good things about Christmas: parties, being with loved ones, celebration, eating, drinking and making merry. Santa, meanwhile, has become the patron saint of commercialism, greed, excess and parents fighting at toy shops to grab the last few Cabbage Patch Dolls, Ninja Turtles, Bratz and Tracy Islands. What was a sensible, family-oriented (and mostly adult) festival where, for once, the workers of this world could actually relax and chill out, has now become the busiest and most chaotic fortnight of the year. The old grown-up Yule celebrations have moved to the New Year instead but by then we're so stressed and so not looking forward to returning to work that we drink ourselves into oblivion.

I guess the point of this post is that we should celebrate difference while we still can. Difference is what makes the world an interesting place. The reason I travel abroad isn't the sunshine or the beaches. The reason I take such delight in exploring new parts of the UK isn't always the tradition and history. It's the difference. It's meeting people who have different ways of doing things, different viewpoints, different lives. It's seeing, hearing and otherwise experiencing things that are different from home. To walk on a volcano in Lanzarote, to see the Northern Lights in Norway, to fly over the Grand Canyon in the USA or scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef - it's all about the wonderful, extraordinary disparity of it all. And every little erosion of that difference makes this a poorer world.

Which is why Cornwall doesn't have the hold on me that it once did, why I cringe whenever I hear a young person say 'Oh-my-God!', and why every time I hear the name Santa Claus, I sigh a little sigh for the unfortunate, late Father Christmas.

Happy holidays everyone!

(1) I frequently visit Graham Matthews' Helston History website as the modern history shots from the 1960s and 70s never fail to make me nostalgic.
(2) Well, I could hardly say 'Dear God' or 'Dear Lord' could I? Not with my antecedents.
(3) Or, to put it another way, 'When you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras'.
(4) It is disputed that Moore wrote the poem at all. The other main contender is Henry Livingstone. In 2000, Don Foster, an English professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, used external and internal evidence to show that Moore could not have been the author of this poem, but that it was probably the work of Livingston, and that Moore had written another, and almost forgotten, Christmas piece, Old Santeclaus. Foster's analysis of this deception appears in his Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (New York: Henry Holt, 2000): 221-75.

My thanks to Thomas Green at Arthuriana, Ronald Hutton's excellent book The Stations of the Sun, and to John Lloyd at QI Ltd for the bits I lifted from his Museum of Curiosity Radio 4 show (series 1, episode 3).


chris hale said...

Welcome back, Stevyn. I suppose you could call this your Yule Blog.

To address your points in order.

1. Sadly, rampant commercialism and huge increases in high street rents has sounded the death-knell of the independent shopkeeper. I used to love those old ‘gentlemen’s outfitters’ that sold tweed trilby hats, motoring gloves and waistcoats. (I seem to remember you taking me into one in Helston many years ago!) And the only place you can find a ‘proper’ sweet shop now is on the internet.

2. Your hair - what were you thinking? It looks suspiciously like mine does now.

3. You’re right about the loss of accents. It’s one of the things I regret most. The words ‘Geez’ and ‘Bruv’ turn up in every pub conversation, be you in Penzance or Peebles. And this curious accent these ’young people’ have; somewhere between New York rapper and South London ‘Geezer’. Yeah?

4. Yep, it’s the locals that sell on. Who ever heard someone say, ‘No, I really don’t want £500,000 for my house, I want it to go to a local couple for half that.’

5. There’s nowt wrong with a bit of Baco-Foil. In the right context, of course.

6. Why do we allow US English to dominate? I think it’s all about who can shout the loudest, and about us taking the line of least resistance. It’s the same mentality that leads the UK government to obey slavishly every EU directive, whilst the likes of France and Greece sign up to it…and then quietly go about ignoring it! Things won’t change until Hugh Laurie et al say, ‘Yes, of course I’ll play that part…but I’m doing it with an English accent’. Sorry, Stevyn. This is your blog, and I’m rambling on again. One final point: I’ve read a fair number of US and UK blogs over the last few months, and find both sets fascinating, refreshing and vibrant in their variety, both in language and expression. National differences still flourish here in cyberspace. And long may this be so!

7. Excellent research re. Father Christmas, and well delivered as usual. It was always Father Christmas in our house.

8. That’s me done. Pip pip!

PS - Re footnote 3. I have a similar one from the Borough of Brent: When you hear a bang, think firearms, not fireworks.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Chris - Cheers matey! It says something about the quality of my visitors when their comments are are longer and better written than 70% of the blogs I visit! Of course, you lot make up the very excellent remaining 30% ...

VioletSky said...

Every time I return to the UK for a visit I am struck by the changes and decline in its "Britishness". So much character - the good and the bad - slowly being eroded.

It is often said that when people emigrate to a new country they eventually beome more [insert nationality] than in their old home country. They hang on to their memories for dear life.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Violetsky - It's certainly true of British expats in places. Visit my chum Stu Peel's blog. He lives in Spain and HATES the whole Costa Del Mob.

Darren Goldsmith said...

This is excellent, Steve!

Darren Goldsmith said...

This is excellent, Steve!