I went this morning to a lecture about the Byzantine origins of Santa Claus, which was the seasonal offering of the Colchester branch of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies. When I first became involved with the music society I was puzzled that so many members appeared to be involved in flower arranging, until discovering that what they were talking about was not NAFAS but NADFAS, which I'd never heard of. After a while they said that I ought to join. I demurred, thinking that I already had enough things to be getting on with, though I did go along to one lecture on the history of Russian Art, signed in by a friend, and enjoyed it.
At the start of this year they told me I really ought to put my name down because the waiting list was getting longer, so I forked out a fiver (deductible from the first year's subscription) to go on the list, thinking that if I made my way to the top in two or three years that would be fine. This morning I discovered that I was up to number six so who knows, maybe next year I might be in without resorting to Kind Hearts and Coronets tactics.
Santa, like most myths, seems to have some basis in ancient reality. There was an early bishop of Myra in modern day Turkey, Saint Nicholas, whose story became conflated with another slightly later bishop of somewhere else also called Nicholas. Throughout the middle ages they, by now he, amassed various acts of charity and rescue to their credit, gradually shifting their or his emphasis from distressed sailors to needy children, and the red bishop's cloak and mitre began to morph into the modern day Santa outfit. Indeed, one could make a case (entirely spurious but amusing) for Batman's origins dating back to the Renaissance paintings of Saint Nicholas appearing in dreams, flying. The lecturer didn't, though she did highlight the probability that Sweeney Todd owed something to the later, gruesome stories of three young men being murdered by an innkeeper (later butcher) and sold as meat before being restored to life by Saint Nicholas.
The reindeer apparently pop up out of nowhere in the mid nineteenth century, while Rudolph is a twentieth century addition. I don't remember ever actually believing in Father Christmas even as a small child, having been highly sceptical from a tender age. We got stockings but I don't think my parents tried very hard to convince us that they were brought by a strange fat man who came down the chimney and had reindeer parked on the roof. Perhaps half a century before the current academic theory they had already concluded that it was not a good idea to lie about these things to their small children. Even now I couldn't name Vixen, Blixen and co without looking them up on Wikipedia, while I always thought Rudolph frankly naff. But the stained glass of Chartres and Bourges cathedrals depicting the deeds of Saint Nicholas was beautiful, the expressions of the participants amazingly vivid.
The society was dishing out next year's programme at the meeting, and the list of lectures looked rather good. I'm beginning to hope I do get in next year.