Groundhog Day

Do you have a favourite film? 

Or maybe you have a few movies that would be in your Top Ten? If you were making a list.

Are you an action movie fan, or a sci fi fanatic, or perhaps like me you prefer RomComs, a little light  romance and comedy? 

I have to admit, there are some movies that I can watch over and over and over and over and over... and not get bored. And one of those is linked to today.

February 2nd in North America - the USA and Canada - is Groundhog Day and I love the Bill Murray movie of the same name. More of that in a moment.

GroundhogBut first ... what IS a 'groundhog'

Well, it's a kind of rodent, and apparently belongs to the marmot or ground squirrel family. It's found in the USA, Canada and into Alaska. Among other characteristics, they have big teeth and they live in burrows. When fully grown a groundhog can be as long as 27inches (about 69cm) and can weigh as much as 14pounds (over 6kg). I've been doing my research and all I can say is, that groundhog is not a small squirrel!

One of the important things to know about the groundhog is that are hibernators. They often dig a separate 'winter burrow', which they build below the frost line, which means even when it's frozen up top, the animals can safely sleep away the winter months without fear of freezing to death. Usually, groundhogs hibernate from October to March or April, or thereabouts. 

And that's relevant to the tradition of Groundhog Day (the actual day) which apparently is an old superstition from the Pennsylvania Dutch community in America, which says that if a groundhog emerges early from it's burrow - on February 2 - then it can tell us if Spring is on its way.

So the legend goes, if the groundhog sees its shadow due to clear weather, it will quickly nip back into its burrow, and winter will go on for six more weeks. If, however, the animal does NOT see its shadow because it's too cloudy, Spring will arrive early!

All this predicting the weather is part of ancient 'weather lore' which is found in lots of cultures, including German speaking areas (and the Pennsylvania Dutch people come from Germanic-speaking areas of Europe) where the animal predicting the weather is usually a badger, but sometimes a bear or a fox.

And these weather lore predictions are also linked to the Christian festival of Candlemas, which we also celebrate today. Tradition has it that if the weather is clear on Candlemas, we're in for a long winter!

Now of course there's no scientific evidence for such weather predictions, but it's fun isn't it? 

In North America, February 2nd has taken on a special significance. Groundhog Day ceremonies happen on this day across the USA and Canada, but it's in a place called Punxsutawney in western Pennsylvania, that the most popular ceremony occurs, where the focus is a groundhog called 'Punxsutawney Phil'.

And that's the link to the 1993 movie that I mentioned at the start.

'Groundhog Day' starring Bill Murray and Andy MacDowell is largely located in Punxsutawney around the iconic ceremony and the film has not only helped to immortalise the seasonal celebration, but the concept of it has also added a new phrase to our dictionary.

If you haven't ever seen the movie then sorry for the spoiler. Bill Murray plays a cynical (and rather obnoxious) TV weatherman called Phil who is sent to cover the Groundhog Day ceremony, and then finds himself in a time loop through which he is forced to re-live February 2nd ... Groundhog Day ... over and over and over, until he becomes a better person. He learns to live each moment at a time, rather than always chasing ambition and celebrity.

As a result of the movie which was conceived, co-written and directed by Harold Ramis,  we now use the phrase 'Groundhog Day' for any situation which is monotonous, repetitive and even unpleasant and boring.

Since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, lots of us feel like we've been living Groundhog Day - don't we?

Working from home, staying in and not being able to go out and mingle with others, not being able to see family members - much of our time during 2020 and into 2021 has felt so repetitive and monotonous. I think 'Groundhog Day' is a great way of describing my pandemic experience.

But just as Weatherman Phil in the movie came out of his Groundhog Day a better person, so I believe we can emerge from the COVID19 experience improved and finer examples of humanity.

Early on in the pandemic, especially, we saw so many acts of kindness and caring. The Thursday 8pm 'Clap for Carers' which some are still doing as they Clap for their Heroes. People checking on their neighbours, delivering food and medicines, thinking of others. 

And although Covid fatigue might have stolen a little of that from us as the months have progressed, I believe this time has shown us what a kinder and more compassionate world can look like. 

I'd like to believe that a memory of that kindness might be part of the legacy of our Pandemic Groundhog Day, along with the realisation that life is short and that, no matter how much status and money and position and ambition we chase, perhaps we just need to take more time to breathe, to enjoy our environment and the beauty of the world around us, to appreciate our loved ones more, and maybe even take pleasure in the simple things - like a walk on a Spring morning - no matter when that might be.



Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant Hapus!

Today is St David's Day!

And if you're from the country of Wales, if you're Welsh, or part-Welsh (as I am) this is an important day.

On March 1st every year the people of Wales, and those of Welsh heritage wherever they are in the world, celebrate their patron saint. 

My Mum is Welsh so in our family we've always known about St David's Day. But it was when I spent my final two years of schooling in Wales that I realised how passionate people are about their saint, their history, their culture and their language. 

DaffodilOn this day, people wear the traditional symbols of Wales - daffodils or leeks - and enjoy traditional Welsh food ... my favourites are Welsh cakes which are like little griddle pancakes. Yum!

But who was St David?

Well in the 6th century, he was a Bishop of a place called 'Mynyw', which is the modern day St Davids, a city in the county of Pembrokeshire  in the southwest of the country.

David (Dewi) was born in Wales, although there's no clear evidence as to the year that happened. It is known that he was a celebrated teacher and preacher and that he founded monasteries and churches in Wales - St David's Cathedral is situated on the site of a monastery he founded in the Glyn Rhosyn valley of Pembrokeshire - in 'Dumnonia' (a kingdom in the southwest of England) and even Brittany in France. David is even believed to have visited the ancient religious site of Glastonbury

David established his own Monastic Rule, a system of religious and daily living for monks, and one of David's main rules was that when his followers were tilling the soil, THEY had to pull the plough themselves, rather than animals. Monks living by the Monastic Rule of David drank only water and ate only bread with salt and herbs - no meat, and certainly no beer. They were allowed no personal possessions and while David's monks worked in the day, they spent the evenings reading, writing and praying. 

So, why is David's feast day March 1st? 

That's the day when it's thought he died. As with his birth, there's a question mark over what year that was. Some say 601AD, others 589AD. 

David was buried in St David's Cathedral and his shrine was a popular place of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages. Invading Vikings removed the shrine during the 10th and 11th centuries but in 1275 a new shrine was constructed, the ruined base of which remains to this day.  

Although St David had been a popular saint in Wales since the 12th century, his religious feast day didn't become a national festival until the 18th century. And it's on March 1st every year that Welsh heritage people celebrate the man who now is their patron saint. Children especially are encouraged to celebrate as they learn about their history, and they often head to school for the day dressed as coal miners or in the traditional Welsh woman costume, with the girls often wearing a leek in their lapel. I remember at school one girl wearing such a BIG leek, a huge green vegetable, that it covered her whole chest and ... boy did it smell (like onion).

But why daffodils, and why leeks ? 

Well the leek became a symbol of the Welsh spirit because one legend says that St David advised his people to wear leeks in a battle against the Saxons. It was the days of hand-to-hand combat and wearing the leek meant that they would be recognised as Welsh by their compatriots in the heat of the battle - so no chance of someone killing a fellow Welshman! That's just one of the stories, but leeks were a popular food for many centuries and were also used for medicinal purposes, and the link with St David's Day is thought to be especially through the Tudors, who had strong Welsh roots and heritage.

And the daffodil?

This lovely yellow blooms appears in early Spring, around the time of St David's Day and it's just a joyful flower, isn't it?

But the floral link with Wales is fairly recent really and is thought to have been adopted as an alternative to the leek in the early 20th century, by which time the wearing of vegetables on your coat on March 1st had become a bit of a joke. Welsh politician and elder statesman David Lloyd George, who was British Prime Minister from 1916 to 1922, was said to be an advocate of the daffodil being used as a symbol of his Homeland.

The Welsh are a proud people and on St David's Day that pride is more obvious than ever.

If you're not aware, the country (now called the Principality) has its own ancient language. Welsh is a Celtic language - with links to the ancient Celtic Britons - and although for centuries Welsh was the common language of the people, it did fall into decline in the early 20th century as English became dominant. However in the 1990's the value of the native language was formerly recognised for its importance to the Welsh culture, heritage and future, with The Welsh Language Act 1993 and the Government of Wales Act 1998  regulating that the Welsh and English languages should be treated equally in the public sector, where sensible and possible.

These days there's Welsh speaking media, the language is taught in schools, as well as there being educational establishments where Welsh is the predominant language for conversation and teaching. I read recently that as of September 2020, it was reckoned that about a third of the population of Wales could speak the language and more than 15% spoke Welsh every day. It's been a real success story for the reinvigoration of a mother language that could easily have died out. And if you visit Wales, you'll see signs everywhere in Welsh and English.  

I know just a few words of Welsh ... passed down through my Welsh heritage ... but I'm no expert.

So, finally, today I could say 'Happy St. David’s Day!

But I instead will sign off by wishing you ...  'Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant Hapus!'


An Irish Blessing for St Patrick's Day

Today - March 17th - is St Patrick's Day.

It's the day that Ireland and Irish people or those of Irish descent across the world celebrate - well, BEING Irish - and one of their most important patron saints. In 'normal times' much partying is done , much Guinness is drunk and shamrocks are worn, but importantly it's a day when many people go to church to remember St Patrick and give thanks for him, because it is, first and foremost, a spiritual/holy day.

Don't worry, I'm not going to start a whole essay about St Patrick. That would take far too long because it's a very complicated story, with many twists and turns, legends and stories of miracles.

Just some highlights.

Patrick wasn't Irish but was born in Roman Britain. When he was about 16 he was captured by Irish pirates and taken as a slave to the island of Ireland, where he mostly looked after animals for about six years. It's while he was looking after those sheep that it's believed he 'found God'. He escaped and managed to get home to his family where he studied Christianity and eventually became a priest. Later he returned to the place where he had been imprisoned to spread the Christian message to the Irish, who mostly practised a form of paganism ... the ancient Celtic religion.

And if you're wondering why the shamrock, or the three leaf clover, is a symbol of Ireland on this day in particular, it's because Patrick is said to have used the little plant with the three leaves to explain the Christian Holy Trinity - God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - to those he was hoping to convert.

Patrick didn't have it easy. Standing up to the local warlords, often apparently getting beaten up, sometimes being imprisoned and threatened with execution. But he continued his mission and although there is evidence of a Christian presence in Ireland before Patrick, he is generally considered as the founder of the faith there. He became a bishop and is known as the 'Apostle of Ireland',  and his feast day is marked on March 17th, the day it's thought he died.

But we can't be exactly sure. There's lots of mystery surrounding Patrick, even question marks over when he lived. It's generally believed that he was a missionary in Ireland during the fifth century, and by the seventh century, he had become revered as the patron saint of Ireland.

So today, to mark the day and to celebrate the man who was St Patrick and the legacy of faith he brought to Ireland, I leave you with one of my favourite Irish Blessings.


Irish blessing road
*Oh and if you're wondering, the 'road' in this picture is La Grande Route de St Ouen in Jersey.


Happy St George's Day!

Today is St George's Day!

St George is the Patron Saint on England and so, actually, today could be considered the country's 'national day', except for a lot of people it will just pass them by. Some do 'celebrate' but it's not great partying like, for instance, St Patrick's Day in Ireland. 

Flag of st georgeToday, though, the flags will be out boldly displaying the red cross of St George which has been an emblem of England since the late Middle Ages. Of course, it's also part of the Union Jack which brings together emblems from all the British nations which were designed in when that flag was created in around the year 1606.  

But the story of St George goes back a lot further than that.

Down the centuries we've heard the story of George and the Dragon.  St George slayed ... well, a dragon. That's how he became famous. Right?

Well no  ... sorry to burst your bubble ... but it's a bit of legend!

We actually know little about George, the real man. Tradition says he was born around the year 280AD in a place called Cappadocia, an area that is now part of Turkey. He was born into a Christian family and George followed his father's profession and became a soldier in the Roman army.

He rose in the ranks to eventually become a member of the elite Praetorian Guard.  This was a highly esteemed unit of the Imperial Roman Army whose members served as personal bodyguards and intelligence for Roman emperors. George served under the Emperor Diocletian.

Over a couple of centuries since the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Christian faith had grown and although persecuted especially in the very early days, believers had begun to gain some legal rights. But during the reign of Diocletian and other emperors who served concurrently and around the same time  -  MaximianGalerius, and Constantius - a series of edicts were issued which rescinded those rights. This Diocletian Persecution has gone down in history as one of the most severe periods of oppression. One of the central features was that Christians were forced to comply with Roman, pagan, religious practices, including sacrificing to the Roman gods, and it was death for those who refused.

George was among the leading Christians who protested this persecution of his people and he did refuse to deny his faith, so Emperor Diocletian ordered his execution. He was was to death, allegedly beheaded, around April 23 in the year 303 AD, in Palestine, in a place called Lydda, now the town of Lod in Israel. His bones are buried in his tomb in the Church of Saint George, in Lod.

George was first written about a couple of decades later, around 322 by the historian Eusebius of Caesarea, and over the following centuries he became of of the most venerated saints and martyrs in Christianity. His story apparently made it to England in the early 700s and he was made patron saint of England in the year 1098, after soldiers at the Battle of Antioch claimed they saw him and he came to their aid. That battle was one of the early conflicts in what became known as the 'Crusades'  - a period of nearly 200 years when the medieval Christians fought Muslim rulers for control of what we now know as the Holy Land.

To mark his life, Saint George's Day is traditionally celebrated on 23 April, but it's interesting to note that it's not just in England that he's venerated. He's also the patron saint of Ethiopia, the country of Georgia, Catalonia and Aragon in Spain, the city of Moscow in Russia, and in several other states, regions, cities, universities, professions and organizations. 

And what about that dragon story?

Well the legend of Saint George and the Dragon was first recorded in the 11th century. It reached Catholic Europe by the 12th century. And one version goes something like this. 

A fierce dragon was causing panic at the city of Silene in Libya, and every day the people gave two sheep to the dragon to stop the creature killing the whole population. But when the sheep were not enough, or ran out, they turned to human sacrifice to satisfy the demands of that dragon. The person to be sacrificed was chosen by the people themselves, and eventually the king's daughter was selected. The monarch hoped someone else would step forward, but no one was prepared to stand in the place of the princess. 

Brave George was in the city and he saved the girl by slaying the dragon with a lance. The king was so grateful that he offered him treasures as a reward for saving his daughter's life, but George refused the gifts and instead he gave it all to the poor. People were so amazed by his bravery and kindness that many of them converted and became Christians.

It's a story which takes several forms and is actually attributed to different people and saints across time, including in the pre-Christian era. It's a legend known in many parts of the world and is familiar as being part of folklore called the Golden Legend. By the 15th century it was a popular story in England, thanks to a translation by William Caxton.  Among other things Caxton was a writer, He's credited with introducing the printing press into England in 1476 and he became the first person to sell printed books.

But was it true?

Well, maybe, but only if you believe in dragons...!

However, in Medieval England the tale of an heroic Christian soldier coming to the rescue of a beautiful princess suited the whole idea of courtly love, chivalry and the creation of social order. Think the mythical legends of King Arthur and his knights. It's similar stuff. 

There are, of course, many notions and theories of what it all means but the one I like is that the tale of George and the Dragon epitomises the enduring story of the fight between Good and Evil, Light and Darkness.

Fables such as these go back many many thousands of years and can be found in numerous ancient cultures. Many of our relatively modern 'fairy' tales often contain these deeply moral and philosophical lessons.

The legend may also have more of a solid foundation in the Christian faith which the  real George followed. The story may also reflect his fight against the evil of the persecution of early Christians and the execution and martyrdom of faithful ones like George himself, and the power of Jesus Christ to overcome evil and death.

Whatever the case, it's a great story.

So - Happy St George's Day!


Musical Memories

I'm not a classical music buff, and not particularly knowledgeable either. 

I like a bit of Beethoven and Mozart and a few other random composers but I have a lot to learn about that musical genre that we now call 'classical'.

But there is a piece of music that I love and which has specific memories for me.

In the Hall of the Mountain King - GriegIt's a piece of orchestral music called 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' by a Norwegian composer called Edvard Greig, who was actually born on this day - June 15th - in 1843.

It's from a wider composition or Opus called 'Peer Gynt' which was written for a five act play created in verse by another famous Norwegian - the playwright and  dramatist Henrik Ibsen.

'Peer Gynt' is thought to be based on a Norwegian fairy tale, and it's about a boy called Peer Gynt who was a rascal. He stole things, played tricks and never helped his mother. He was disliked by all who met him.

One day he went to a wedding and met a beautiful girl called Solveig. He fell in love and was determined to marry her, but Solveig's parents knew Peer's reputation and sent him on his way. Heartbroken, he left his village because he couldn't bear the thought of seeing Solveig knowing she could never be his. He ran into the mountains where he could be alone and that's where his adventures began. 

Peer arrived at the castle of the Mountain King, where disgustingly ugly trolls caught him and took him to the king, who was furious that someone had entered his domain.

But he liked the look of the young man and when Peer persuaded the king that we wanted to stay, the monarch was happy for him to remain in the mountain kingdom so long as the young man marry his daughter. Although she was beautiful, she was not a patch on Solveig, and anyway in order to marry her, Peer was told he would have to be transformed into a troll - one of those mythical Norwegian/Scandinavian creatures that is generally unfriendly and even thought in some cases to be evil.

Peer decided he did not want to be a troll and he made plans to sneak off when it was dark. Before his escape he stole jewels from the king, filled his pockets and ran. However, the troll guards heard him, and he was chased and surrounded. The stolen gold and jewels were discovered and he was dragged back to the castle where he was kept in prison until he agreed to marry the king's daughter, Anitra.

That's just part of the story but it's one that sticks in my mind.

And that's because I learnt about it in school.

I clearly remember my teacher, Mrs Jones, playing us the music that Grieg composed in 1867 for Ibsen's play, and telling us the story of Peer Gynt. Then we all had to draw pictures from the different scenes in the story and I remember drawing one - very badly because I am and never was an artist - of Peer in the Hall of the Mountain King and being chased by the trolls.

That must have been fifty years ago or thereabouts but still I remember that lesson or series of lessons. The story of Peer Gynt fascinated me then and it still does now. I didn't realise at the time what an iconic piece of music 'Peer Gynt' is ... listen to it below and you may recognise it.

But on this day as I think about that piece of music, and the man who composed it, I also remember Mrs Jones.  And thank her, all these years later, for opening another door into the world for me.

There are a few teachers I remember from my school years but not all!

Some teachers just have a knack of bringing subjects to life. They are often not appreciated by their students or even the wider world, and some rarely receive the recognition they deserve.

So today I say thank you not just to Mrs Jones, but to all the wonderful engaging teachers past, present and future. You may not think you're making any impact at all but there again you may be creating memories that last a lifetime for your students.

Meanwhile, here's that piece of music that inspires me ...

I give you Edvard Greig's 'In the Hall of the Mountain King'....





Summer Prayer

About this time of the year in the northern hemisphere of our planet, it's the longest day of the year.

Between about June 20 and 22nd there is more daylight than darkness, more days of sunshine hopefully because it's the moment when the path of the sun is farthest north. For those of us north of equator, it's the beginning of what is called 'astronomical summer'! Otherwise known as 'Summer Solstice'.

And this year the beginning of that season ... midsummer ... is today -  June 21 - when give or take the UK will enjoy around 16 hours and 38 minutes of daylight, with the sun rising before 5am and setting around 9.30pm.

Summer Solstice (and actually Winter Solstice which here falls on or around December 21st) has always had cultural,  spiritual and even religious significance for humankind. Many cultures assign importance to the elements and the seasons and so this is a time for celebration, holidays, festivals and rituals. In many countries and regions this is associated with religion and even fertility as the Summer Solstice marks the time when crops are growing, nature is thriving and people are enjoying the goodness of life and are optimistic for the future. 

At places like Stonehenge - the circle of prehistoric Standing Stones on Salisbury Plain in the county of Wiltshire in England - ceremonies to mark the rising of the sun on this day have been held for thousands of years, as people recognised the religious significance of the mysticism of creation.

The Summer Solstice was and still is a marker for the year and the rolling out of the seasons. Neolithic humans may initially have started to observe the summer solstice as a way to figure out when to plant and harvest crops. We know that in Ancient Egypt, the summer solstice corresponded with the rise of the Nile River so it helped people to predict the annual flooding, and that was obviously related to the viability of their crops along the banks of the river, and the potential harvests later in the year. If you fancy reading more about this time of year there is loads online, including a great website hosted by the History Channel.

But the significance of days like today transcends nature. Before humans understood how the earth interacts with our sun and why the days of light and darkness differ according to the seasons, this period of long days of daylight would have been connected with mysticism and powerful messages about the universe. The word Solstice is derived from the Latin words sol (Sun) and sistere (to stand still) ... this day it would have felt as if the sun was motionless in the heavens and so it would have had some spiritual significance and traditions and behaviours developed around the day.

According to pagan folklore, evil spirits would appear on the Summer Solstice so in order to ward these off, people would wear protective garlands of herbs and flowers. Some midsummer traditions involve dancing around the 'maypole'. Bonfires were lit, also to help banish those demons and evil spirits. Ancient 'magic' was thought to be strongest at this time of year and those bonfires were also thought to lead girls to their future husbands - again linked to that sign of fertility. 

The Summer Solstice is often associated with the ancient religions which pre-date Christianity and were closely aligned to nature and the seasons. And regardless of whether we are people of 'faith' or not, the Summer Solstice is a time when we can appreciate the warmth of the sun and the potential in our world, and be inspired for the future.

I could have given you all kinds of quotes about Summer Solstice today ... there are masses online ... but I found this prayer which, as a person of faith, says it all for me.

Enjoy this long day everyone!

And if you're in the southern hemisphere ... be assured that as you are now halfway through your 'winter', summer is on its way!

Summer Prayer





Saint Andrew's Day

It's the final day of November and it's St Andrew's Day!

St Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland so today is also a celebration of that country and all things Scottish!

But you may not know that St Andrew is also the patron saint of Romania, Greece, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Cyprus, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, San Andres Island (Colombia), Saint Andrew (Barbados) and Tenerife (Spain).

But who was Saint AndrewWell, according to Christian tradition and the New Testament of the Bible, he was an apostle of Jesus Christ, the brother of Simon Peter - Saint Peter.  In the Orthodox Christian tradition he is known as 'The First-Called'.

It's thought Andrew was born between 5 and 10 AD in Bethsaida, in Galilee. He and Peter were fishermen, and in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Gospel of Mark we read that Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where he saw Simon and Andrew fishing, and called them to discipleship... they were the first to become disciples of Jesus and "fishers of men". 

As one of the 12 disciples of Jesus he was among the small group that helped to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the days after Jesus' death and resurrection. Andrew is said to have been martyred by crucifixion at the city of Patras (Patræ) in Achaea, in  the year AD 60.  Early texts describe Andrew as being bound, not nailed, to a Latin cross - the kind on which Jesus is said to have been crucified. However, a tradition developed that Andrew had been crucified on a crux decussata, an X-shaped cross, or "saltire", which is now known as a "Saint Andrew's Cross". 

Andrew never set foot in Scotland yet in 1320 he was named as the country's patron saint.

So how did that happen? 

Well, one story goes like this.

Saltire crossIn the 9th century, King Angus of the Picts (Scotland) was facing a larger army of Saxons (English) at a place called Athelstaneford in what is now East Lothian in Scotland.

The night before the battle he was overwhelmed by a blinding light and then, during the night, he had a dream. The message Angus was given was that he would see a Cross in the sky and he would conquer his enemies in its name. 

The following morning King Angus looked into the rising sun and saw the Saltire Cross - that symbol of St Andrew - in its blinding light. He and his men were filled with great confidence and they were victorious. From that time Saint Andrew and his Saltire Cross were adopted as the national symbol for an emerging Scotland. It is now the flag of Scotland.

However, mythology claims that the link between St Andrew and Scotland goes back further than that.

One story says that Scottish people are descended from an ancient population called the Scythians, who lived on the Black Sea (now in Romania and Bulgaria), who St Andrew converted to Christianity.

In Scotland, and many countries with Scottish connections, Saint Andrew's Day - November 30th - is marked with a celebration of Scottish culture, and with traditional Scottish food and music. In Scotland the day is also seen as the start of a season of Scottish winter festivals encompassing Saint Andrew's Day, Hogmanay (New Year) and Burns Night - the annual celebration of the poet Robert Burns on January 25th. 

St AndrewIn the church - in many denominations - St Andrew's Day is a feast day, with special services. 

And one of the prayers to be read today in the Church of England will recognise St Andrew's role as one of the first disciples of Jesus, and his example to us all.

Almighty God, who didst give such grace unto thy holy Apostle Saint Andrew, that he readily obeyed the calling of thy Son Jesus Christ, and followed him without delay: Grant unto us all, that we, being called by thy holy word, may forthwith give up ourselves obediently to fulfil thy holy commandments; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. 



The Real Santa Claus

As we journey towards Christmas, across the globe millions of excited children are beginning to count the 'sleeps' (or perhaps days) before Christmas Day and the arrival of Father Christmas and, of course, gifts around the tree.

Of course, I know not every child will have these aspirations and for many many millions of little ones Christmas Day will be like any other - a day in poverty and distress, and certainly not blessed with gifts around a Christmas tree, and that's sad.

But today I still want to celebrate the magical figure who is called 'Father Christmas' or 'Santa Claus'.

And did you know that he's modelled on a real life person? A chap called Nicholas who died on this day - December 6th - in the year 343AD. 

Today is St Nicholas' Day - in the Christian church it's the feast day of St Nicholas, who's the patron saint of children (also, by the way, of students sailors, merchants, thieves, and pawnbrokers ... weird!)

Nicholas was an early Christian bishop of Greek descent. He was born in the seaport of Myra in Asia Minor - now the modern-day Mediterranean coastal town of Demre in Turkey. Very little is known about his life and much myth surrounds him, but it's thought he became a senior church leader really young, at about 30, and from an early age he was associated with many miracles, good deeds and kindness.

Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor - including the rescue of three poor  girls being forced into prostitution, the calming of a storm at sea, the saving of three innocent soldiers from wrongful execution and one legend also says that the saint brought back to life three children who were chopped up by a butcher to cure and sell as ham.. In fact, he became known as 'Nicholas the Wonderworker'.

And he had a reputation for legendary secret gift-giving. One story goes that when his parents died he distributed the family wealth to the poor. One of the traditions attributed to him is the custom of putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, a practice celebrated in some countries on his feast day - today! More of that in a moment.

St Nicholas PrayerNicholas lived an interesting and not uneventful life, including being imprisoned for his faith. His wasn't a life without sorrow and stress, but the thing he's best known for is that the legend of Santa Claus is based on his life.

The name “Santa Claus” is thought to derive from the word “Sinterklaas”, the Dutch name for St Nicholas after he became an important figure in Holland and in Dutch culture.

But the tradition of a kindly saint crosses continents. During the Middle Ages, often on the evening before his name day of 6 December, children were bestowed with gifts in his honour. In France in those days, nuns were inspired to continue the St Nicholas tradition of anonymous gift-giving at night. And although many of us give presents on December 25th, in quite a few countries, especially in Europe, it's TODAY that celebrations begin.

In fact, in some countries the traditional time of giving presents to children is today and running up to Christmas Day. I once knew a Danish family who began Christmas on December 6th and the kids got presents every day up to Christmas Day, with the final celebration on Christmas Eve. At the time it was a bit of a wonder for me, that other kids got presents BEFORE Christmas. Now I understand why.

There are different traditions associated with St Nicholas, Santa Claus and Christmas. In Holland, children traditionally receive three oranges which are said to come from Sinterklaas. The three fruits symbolise the three bags of gold St Nicholas gave in the legend where he helped three girls avoid slavery. 

In some countries, children receive their gifts in shoes, because St Nicholas is said to have left gifts in children’s shoes. It's thought that this is the concept behind Christmas stockings. In Eastern Europe, children leave their shoes by the windowsill on the evening of December 5 - St Nicholas' Day eve - and go to sleep hoping to wake up to shoes filled with gifts. In Central Europe, children sometimes place a boot called the 'Nikolaus Boot' outside the front door on the night of December 5. If the children are good and polite during the year, they wake up to a boot filled with sweets and goodies. If they are not, they wake up to a boot with a stick.

Apparently in France, some families await the arrival of the Saint while listening to stories about St Nicholas narrated by their grandparents. There's special food prepared for the day ... including spiced gingerbread biscuits and mannala, a brioche in the shape of a saint. When my parents lived in Paris in France we noticed that many people ate their main Christmas meal on Christmas Eve and then rested the following day.

In Italy, in some provinces, St Nicholas' Day is celebrated by giving gifts to children and also by hosting a fair called “Fiera di San Nicolo”. And there's a ritual called the “Rito delle nubili” on December 6th which is held for unmarried women who want to find a husband. 

Different traditions exist on different days in different countries but it was the Dutch (who else?) who are thought to have brought the legend of St Nicholas to America where down the centuries he became a central feature of the Christmas holiday season. That's the 'Santa Claus' we know today.

Other little touches which relate back to St Nicholas is the tradition of placing chocolate coins in kids’ Christmas stockings, symbolizing the gold coins the saint is said to have given away. And those candy canes which are a common Christmas decoration, especially in America, are based on the bishop's stall or 'crozier' which St Nicholas would have carried. 

In the United Kingdom, St Nicholas became known as 'Father Christmas' but Santa Claus has other names - including Saint Nick and Kris Kringle. Other names for him include Joulupukki (Finland), Julenissen or the Christmas Gnome (Norway), Pere Noel (France), Babbo Natale or sometimes Bobbo Natal (Italy), Black Peter (Morocco and Liberia), Shengdan Laoren (China), Santa No Ojisan which translates to 'Uncle Santa' in Japan, Ded Moroz which means 'Grandfather Frost' (Russia), Niklo (Austria) and Sing dan lo ian is another name for Santa in Hong Kong. 

In Spain they celebrate El Niño Jesús  - the Christ Child. In Germany, as well as Kris Kringle they also call Santa 'Christindl' or 'Christkindl' which also mean 'the Christ Child'.

In England, Father Christmas is officially documented as far back as the 16th century and the reign of King Henry VIII, when he was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He was the epitome of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food, wine and gladness.  And as England no longer celebrated the feast day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, the Father Christmas celebration was moved to 25 December to coincide with Christmas Day.

So that's why, as a child, I awoke to those Christmas gifts, rather than on December 6th like my Danish friends.

Father Christmas - John Leech 'A Christmas Carol'These days, we usually envisage Father Christmas as a fat man with a long white beard dressed from top to toe in red. But that's not always been the case.

Some traditions have him in green ...that's thought by some to date back as far as pagan, pre-Christian times in England when winter festivals would include a Father Christmas type figure. This green-clad character was fixed in the public's mind through a famous image by John Leech - the illustration of the "Ghost of Christmas Present" in Charles Dickens's  classic 1843 book  A Christmas Carol.  Father Christmas is a great jolly fellow in a green coat lined with fur who takes Scrooge through the bustling streets of London during 'Christmas Present', sharing the essence of the day with the old miser and all those with whom he comes into contact.

There are, of course, lots of myths that surround Santa Claus or Father Christmas, or whatever you want to call him. He lives in the North Pole, he rides a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer and he delivers gifts to the children of the world all in one night. 

And he wears red!

THAT particular image was consolidated by 20th century advertising by the Coca Cola company in the USA - the red and white matched their brand colours. But the idea of the jolly fat red robbed gentlemen goes back a bit further, including in the early 19th century. Many of the things we now associate with Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, are the product of imagination, literature and poetry, as well as branding.

In 1823 a poem called 'A Visit from St Nicholas' ... or 'Twas the Night before Christmas' by Clement Clarke Moore, describes 'St Nick' as 'dressed in fur from his head to his foot' but there's no mention of red. But he is described as being 'chubby and plump', having a 'broad face and a little round belly, that shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly' and being 'a right jolly old elf'.

On January 3rd 1863 a magazine called Harper's Weekly carried an illustration of Santa Claus by the American cartoonist Thomas Nast, in which Santa was dressed in an American flag (red, white and blue) alongside a puppet called "Jeff" - this reflected its Civil War context. In this drawing, Santa is also sitting in a sleigh pulled by reindeers! A few years later Nast also published other images and in fact some say he is responsible for the belief that Santa lives at the North Pole. The modern concept of Santa Claus was developing.

Today, as I said, the influence of Saint Nicholas is global.  And whether or not children celebrate or are given gifts today, and whatever they call him and however he is dressed, there's something special about celebrating the influence of kindness and gift giving at least once a year. 

There's something very special about creating 'magic' for children before the 'realities' of life hit them. That's what I think, anyway. I know some would disagree with me on this, but life can be hard when you grow up so keeping the innocence of Christmas, the magic and imagination and fun and laughter, is important. And there's something incredible about celebrating kindness and love, and sharing and caring.

So, as today we remember the 'real' St Nicholas, I hope we will all hold these Christmas sentiments and truths in our hearts.

Happy St Nicholas' Day! 

Happy Boxing Day!

Happy Boxing Day!

Now, all those who live in the UK or Great Britain, and some of you who are from other countries that were once part of the British Empire or are still in the Commonwealth of Nations may know what I'm talking about.

Others - probably most of the world actually - not so much! So maybe a little explanation might be in order?

These days, and for a long time actually, Boxing Day is the day after Christmas Day - so December 26th - and it's still a 'bank holiday' or national holiday here in the British Isles. So it's part of the Christmas 'break' that lots of people have from work. 

But why 'Boxing' Day?

Well there are a couple of explanations knocking around and it's probably a bit of a mixture of history actually.

Wind the clock back to the Middle Ages and in Europe there was a tradition of giving money and other gifts to those who were in need, the poor in the village, or those who 'served' the community in some way. One thought is that the 'boxing' could refer to the alms box placed in the narthex (the porch or lobby) of Christian churches to collect donations for the poor.

And the custom of people being encouraged to pop even small donations in the Poor Box is thought to date back even further, to the late Roman and early Christian era, when alms boxes were used to collect special offerings which would be distributed to needy people in the community on the Feast of Saint Stephen, which, in the Western Christian Churches, falls on the same day as 'Boxing Day' ... December 26th.

So today is not just Boxing Day, it's ALSO St Stephen's Day!

St Stephen's DayOh and if you're not aware, Saint Stephen's Day is a day set aside in the  Christian church to commemorate Saint Stephen, who is the first recorded Christian martyr. 

Stephen was one of the very early Christians after the time of Jesus and he so angered the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem with his talk of the Good News of Jesus Christ that he was accused of blasphemy and was stoned to death. We hear about this event and Stephen's influence in the New Testament and the Acts of the Apostles .. chapter 7 specifically.

Worth a read if you're interested especially as Stephen's story links back to helping the poor. In Acts Chapter 6 we read about Stephen being one of the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews who were selected to be part of a fairer distribution of welfare to Greek-speaking widows.

Anyway, St Stephen is remembered today in Western Christianity and tomorrow - December 27th -  in Eastern Christianity.  And his feast day is actually commemorated in many European countries. If you wonder why St Stephen's Day in this image is called the 'Second Day of Christmas' and are confused because you think Christmas ended yesterday ... on Christmas Day ... then stand by, because I'll explain this down the line. Well before the year ends anyway, because that's when this blog will draw to a close.

I read an interesting theory about all this which also links Boxing Day to the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas" and St Stephen's Day.

Wenceslas was the Duke of Bohemia in the early 10th century and so the carol tell us, he was surveying his land on St. Stephen's Day — December 26th — when he saw a poor man gathering wood in the middle of a snowstorm. So moved was he by the plight of the poor fellow that the Duke/King gathered up surplus food and wine and carried them through the blizzard to the peasant's door.

Here's a folksy version of the carol which I love ...

Helping the poor has always been part of the Christmas season but King Wenceslas' good deed came the day after Christmas, when the English poor received most of their charity. In fact, as we've already discovered, during Advent Church of England parishes would prominently display a box in which churchgoers were encouraged to place donations in the run up to Christmas, and on December 26th these alms boxes were broken open and their contents distributed among the poor. 

But there's another explanation for the 'Boxing' Day moniker and it's more to do with commerce that church. 

To discover more, we move a little further through history and find ourselves in Britain in the 17th century, where tradesmen often received "Christmas boxes" containing presents or money on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the past year. And this custom is thought to be linked to an older British tradition where, on the day after Christmas Day, servants of the wealthy were allowed, to visit their families - they obviously didn't get December 25th off work. Employers would give every servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses, and sometimes leftover food from their own Christmas table.

In Britain in the 1830's the day after Christmas Day is recorded as a holiday especially for postmen, errand boys, and servants of various kinds who would have been very busy in the run-up to the festive season. And on this day one tradition was to thank them for their sterling work with a 'Christmas box' which again might contain money or gifts. In fact, until the late 20th century many in the UK continued the tradition, giving gifts including cash to people like postmen and milkmen and others who served them in the community.

I can't say I've heard of that happening much these days ... but it's a nice idea, don't you think?

Just a way of saying 'thanks' to all those who quietly get on with their job throughout the year but who make a huge difference to our lives. Those who serve us in the shops and those who ensure the food gets to the shelves in the first place. Those who deliver our mail, those who sweep our roads and keep our infrastructure going. Those who serve us in cafes and restaurants ... I could go on ... but without their quiet service, our communities would be in turmoil.

So today, on Boxing Day ... or St Stephen's Day if you prefer ... let's think of all those who serve us and say .... THANK YOU!

And to everyone reading this ....

Happy Boxing Day