Saint who started the present giving

HALCYON: The kingfisher is associated with the ancient Greek myth of a bird that nests on the calm seas in December

HALCYON: The kingfisher is associated with the ancient Greek myth of a bird that nests on the calm seas in December

First published in Countryman's Diary

YESTERDAY, December 6, provided a potent reminder that the Christmas season is upon us, despite Christmas meaning different things to different people and despite the fact that some shops have been displaying Christmas goods and decorations for several weeks. Indeed, in early November I spotted an advert for Easter eggs in one newspaper.

But for many of us, particularly parents of young children, the next few days and weeks are going to be rich with talk of parties and presents.

However, yesterday was a reminder that Christmas is a religious festival. December 6 is the feast day of St Nicholas, the man who gave us the period we have come to know as Christmas, and it is also known in some places as Old Christmas Day when the festival was celebrated.

It marks the beginning the Christian version of an ancient religious festival that dates from the mists of time, ie Yuletide, but many of us now associate Christmas with the birth of Christ rather than a pagan celebration.

St Nicholas, the man whose charitable work led to the name Santa Claus, was a real bishop at Myra, then in Lycia. This was a geographical region of Anatolia which is now the provinces of Antalya and Mugla on the southern coast of Turkey.

He was a kind man who cared for destitute children and today he is the patron saint of children everywhere.

He is patron of countless churches around the world, as well as patron of many nations in addition to sailors, merchants, pawnbrokers and others.

The pronunciation of his name in some European languages provides a clue to the origins of Santa Claus, although the concept of Father Christmas is said to have originated in America.

Nonetheless, the Dutch dialect name for St Nicholas is Sinte Klaas and in several European countries this refers to our equivalent of Santa Claus. He is depicted as a man who secretly visits our homes at night to deliver presents, in Holland leaving them in clogs on the hearth while in other areas he leaves them on window ledges or even doorsteps. In many countries, that secret delivery of gifts takes place on the feast of St Nicholas, December 6. Indeed, one of my sons-in-law is Dutch and consequently, some of our grandchildren celebrate two Christmas Days – a Dutch one on December 6 and the British one on December 25.

The alternative name of Father Christmas indicates the priestly origins of that nickname, while in Switzerland on December 6 a man known as Father or Pere Fouettard examines the behaviour of children in readiness for the arrival of Pere Noel, Father Noel, St Nickolaus or Father Christmas, depending upon which name he is known. Pere Fouettard does not seem to be a very nice character because he carries a big stick with which to beat the bad children while the good ones receive their presents from Pere Noel or Father Christmas.

In the following weeks there are several religious feast days that honour saints as we prepare for that most popular of festivals – Christmas Day.

RECENTLY I was carrying out research into the witchcraft beliefs of this region and came across a character who was the Lord Chief Justice and one of the most famous lawyers in England.

His name was Sir Matthew Hale, who was a remarkable man with a fascinating life history.

Born in1609, he was orphaned at the age of five and placed under the guardianship of a Puritanical vicar until he was 16. He then won a place at Magdalen Hall, Oxford University, where he was attracted to Holy Orders but changed his mind to become something of a playboy.

He joined the Army but later found himself defending his own patrimony in a London court. His counsel was the famous lawyer, Serjeant Glanville, who recognised the legal ability of young Hale and persuaded him to study law. He developed a passionate interest in all things legal and apart from studying law for 16 hours a day, managed also to research mathematics, physics, chemistry and anatomy. He was called to the Bar in 1637.

He rose to the top of his profession with remarkable speed and did his best never to get involved in politics.

But he could not avoid this – he found himself sitting in Cromwell’s Parliament as a member for Gloucestershire, and at the Restoration of the Monarchy, Charles II appointed him Chief Baron of the Exchequer along with a knighthood. Eleven years later, he became Lord Chief Justice of England.

It was his work as a lawyer, particularly some of his remarks about witches, that have ensured his name remains part of the witch lore of England. There is no doubt he was a very good judge who became a firm friend of many senior clergymen, but his career as a high court judge was not without criticism.

As late as 1664, when the persecution of alleged witches was declining, Lord Justice Hale found himself being severely criticised because he sentenced to death two women on a charge of practising witchcraft. He was further criticised for hastening the execution of a soldier whom he had reason to believe was about to be granted a pardon.

However, one of his famous quotations continues to be quoted in modern times. In a period when the truth about witchcraft was being debated at high level, Sir Matthew appears to have been unsure about whether or not there were really such creatures as witches.

He stated emphatically that: “There must be such things as witches because there are laws against witches and it is not conceivable that laws would be made against that which does not exist.”

Such a quotation cannot take away the immense reputation of Lord Justice Hale, who wrote many legal books as well as books about religion.

He died peacefully at Alderley in Gloucestershire on Christmas Day, 1676.

NEXT week marks the anticipated arrival of the Halcyon Days which are said to begin on December 11 and continue for 14 days.

According to ancient lore, the Halcyon Days were a period of mild, calm, and pleasant weather which were also associated with great happiness and prosperity.

Even today, the term suggests a time of idyllic happiness and wealth.

The halcyon, said by some authorities to be a type of kingfisher, was a mythical bird of Greece that was said to nest on the sea, a feat that could be achieved due to the wonderful calmness of the waves at that time. It was a fact that the seas around Greece did enjoy a period of unusual calmness during this period but it is perhaps surprising that the term has spread to many other parts of the world.

Here in Britain, we do have wild kingfishers but we do not associate them with our coastline or sea. However, if the weather turns extremely rough and cold with ice and snow, then our native kingfishers have difficulty surviving inland and are known to visit coastal areas where there is a better chance of food and survival.

I suppose we could refer to those times as halcyon days for kingfishers.

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