D is also for Doctor Who

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Ever since David Tennant's Tenth Doctor battled the Sycorax over London in his pyjamas, using a broadsword and a tangerine, on Christmas Day 2005, Doctor Who has been as much a part of the festive TV schedules as, say, the Queen's Speech or an Eastenders special misery-fest.

Russel T Davies' masterstroke was to make Doctor Who a family event, something that everyone would want to sit down and watch together. And of course Christmas screams family more than any other time of year.

Last year we had Catherine Jenkins and a flying shark, so what can we look forward to from Doctor Who this Christmas? Well, if you'd just like to watch the trailer below...

My next Doctor Who story, Terrible Lizards, is published on 2 February 2012 as part of Monstrous Missions, so make sure you keep some of your Christmas money aside for that one.

Happy Saint Andrew's Day!

Today, 30 November, is St Andrew's Day!

Although today Andrew is regarded as a good Scottish name, it originated, along with Scotland's patron saint, in the Holy Land. Saint Andrew (who died circa AD 60) started out in life as a fisherman. His home was at Capernaum, a settlement on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and he was the brother of Simon Peter.

Andrew was actually a disciple of John the Baptist before he became a follower of Christ, but nonetheless, in all four of the Gospels he is listed as being among the first four of Jesus’ apostles. He gets a special mention in the Bible for the part he played in the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:15-21) and also in the matter of the Greeks who wished to meet with Jesus (John 12:20-2).

Despite being such an important figure in the New Testament, scholars are not sure where he preached the Gospel (both Scythia and Epirus in Greece claimed him as their apostle), where he died or even where he was buried. However, the manner of his death is very well-documented.

According to tradition Patras in Achaia (in modern-day Greece) is said to be the place where Andrew was put to death as a martyr. He was reputedly crucified on an X-shaped cross, preaching to the people there for two days before he finally succumbed and died.

From the sixth century, his feast day of 30 November was universally recognised and celebrated. Churches were dedicated to him from early times in Italy, France and Anglo-Saxon England, where the earliest of which was in Rochester, in the county of Kent, the Garden of England.

Like most saints, a number of legends that have grown up about his life and holy work. One of these, regarding a journey to Ethiopia, is told in the Old English poem Andreas. But none of this explains how he came to be the patron saint of Scotland.

He was actually adopted as patron by a Pictish king called Angus, who was supposed to have seen a vision, when an image of the cross appeared in the heavens during a decisive battle. The saint’s relics were brought from Patras all the way to Fife by Saint Regulus, where he stopped at the place that now bears the saint’s name, the church at Kilrymont becoming the cathedral of St Andrews.

You can learn more about Saint Andrew and the Scottish city of St Andrews (along with its world famous university) in Scottish Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Scotland the Brave.

D is for Dom and Danny Do Christmas

In 2008 I was involved in the recording of Dom and Danny Do Christmas, for Radio 5 Live. When the show's producer contacted my publisher's publicist to see if I would be interested in taking part, the email she sent said that they wanted a Chrismologist.

I was referred as such by Danny Wallace at the start of the show (which you can listen to below) and the name just sort of stuck.

If you would like to listen to the whole hour's worth of Dom and Danny Do Christmas, you can download it for free from here.

Just before we went on air, Dom Joly got out a singing, plastic Christmas tree. When I happened to mention that the first artificial trees were made from goose feathers dyed greed, he turned to me in amazement and said, "You really do know everything about Christmas!" I obviously made an impression, because he later mentioned me in his column in the Independent - sort of...

Then, last week I was recording my Radio Five Live Christmas day special and invited a man on who'd written a book called What is Myrrh Anyway? It turns out to be an "embalming ointment".

Ah... Fame at last!

C is for Cards, Cake and Candy Canes

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The postal service is something we all take for granted, but without it there would be no convenient way of sending sackloads of cards every year. As a result, the greetings card as we know it didn't appear until the Victorian era when a reliable (and, more importantly, affordable) postal service was created.

The first true commercial Christmas card went on sale in 1843. It was designed and printed at the behest of Sir Henry Cole, a businessman and philanthropist, who had played a key role in introducing the Penny Post in 1840. Thanks to the Penny Post, it was possible to send a letter or card anywhere within Britain. Cole was also the director of the newly founded Victoria and Albert Museum in London and it was his idea to give stamps perforated edges (an affectation that self-adhesive stamps retain today, even there is no physical need for them).

Did you know...?
By the late 19th century, there were between six and twelve mail deliveries per day in London, permitting correspondents to exchange multiple letters within a single day. Sounds a bit like email!

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These are the last recommended posting date for Christmas 2011

Standard Parcels ~ Wednesday 14 December
Second Class and Recorded Signed For ~ Saturday 17 December
First Class and Recorded Signed For ~ Tuesday 20 December
Parcelforce express 48 ~ Wednesday 21 December
Parcelforce express 24 ~ Thursday 22 December
Special Delivery ~ Thursday 22 December
Special Delivery with Saturday Guarantee ~ Friday 23 December

Don't forget to stop by again tomorrow to see what I'll be covering under the letter D. In the meantime, you can read more about the history of the Christmas card in What is Myrrh Anyway? - and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.

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Tired of the same old Christmas cake? Then why not try Dan Lepard's caramel Christmas cake?

Interested in finding out more about the history of the candy cane? Then follow this link.

B is for Baubles

Monday, 28 November 2011

Ever since people have marked the passing of the old year with fertility rites and the like, they have also adorned their homes with decorations. Yule was the name given to the festive feast by our Viking forebears, and it was a time when light and new birth were celebrated in the face of darkness and death as witnessed in the natural world. It was at this time that evergreens were brought into the house; a sign that life persisted, even during these darkest days of the year.

During the festival of Saturnalia, held in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture, ancient Romans decorated trees with small pieces of metal. The first true Christmas trees - which, after all, are really just another example of an evergreen being brought into the home during the cold dark days of winter - were decorated with apples, as a symbol of Man’s fall in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of tree of knowledge. As a result, they were called Paradise trees. In time other decorations were added, in the form of nuts and even red ribbons or strips of paper. By the 1880s glass ornaments were all the rage, with baubles replacing the once traditional apples.

In 2007, gastro-genius Heston Blumenthal created a Christmas meal like no other for six celebrity diners: actor Richard E Grant, comedians Rob Brydon, Sue Perkins and Dara O’Briain, journalist Kirsty Wark and broadcaster Terry Wogan. Having enjoyed a glass of mulled wine that was hot on one side of the glass and cold on the other, the diners tucked into edible baubles made of blown sugar, filled with smoked salmon mousse.

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Stop by again tomorrow to see what nugget of Christmas lore I shall be unearthing next in connection with the letter C. (There are so many to choose from after all.)

And remember, you can find many such tasty morsels of information in my book What is Myrrh Anyway? - and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.

A is for Angels

Friday, 25 November 2011

There is much excitement in the Green household this half term because Darling Daughter has been cast as the Angle Gabriel in her school Nativity Play. The role of Gabriel is rather like that of the Pantomime Dame or Principal Boy, in that its a gender reversal role. Gabriel is male but is more often than not played by a girl.

It is of course an important part in the traditional Nativity, hence the outset of Proud Parent Syndrome. And it is because of the vital part they play in the Christmas story that angels have become so associated with the festive season.

The word 'angel' comes from a Greek word meaning 'messenger'. In the Bible, angels are represented as immortal divine beings, who act as intermediaries between God and humankind. Traditionally, pictures and poems on angels portray them as having human bodies with wings sprouting from their backs. The wings are said to symbolize innocence, virtue, purity, peace and love, qualities which taken together place the angels above humans, although they are still under God.

Nine ranks of angels are recorded in the Bible, with Seraphim and Cherubim angels being at the top of the rankings (as it were). Within this heavenly hierarchy, the chief angels are the Archangels Gabriel and Michael. However, it is interesting to note that Christian doctrine about angels evolved most rapidly between the years AD 1100 and AD 1200. An example of this change in theological thought can be seen in the teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Angels were, of course, instrumental in birth of Jesus Christ and hence play an important part in Christmas celebration and festivities. It was the Archangel Gabriel who told Mary she was to bear God's son. Another angel informed Joseph that he should marry Mary and look after the Christ. Angels were the ones that brought the news of Christ's birth to the wider world, via the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.

According to one particularly twee legend, God appointed a small group of tiny angels, who were just learning their angel ways, to watch over Joseph and Mary on their journey to Bethlehem. These tiny angels did the best they could but failed to help the couple find shelter in the infamously over-crowded inn, so the Holy Family were forced to make do with the stable.

Nonetheless, these tiny angels were so excited that they were to witness the birth of God's Only Son that they flew closer to the Earth and sang sweetly. The fastest among them caught sight of the newborn child from stable's roof and instantly understood their mission was to herald the birth. They were so filled with joy and mirth that they burst into a glorious thanksgiving song that reached the heavens and was so melodious that it could be heard all over the Earth.

Will there be a glorious, melodious announcement of Christ's birth in Darling Daughter's Nativity play? I'm just praying Archangel Gabriel remembers her lines.

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Stop by again on Monday to see what nugget of Christmas lore I shall be unearthing next. And remember, you can find many such tasty morsels of information in my book What is Myrrh Anyway? - and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.

The Countdown to Christmas...

... starts here!

There's only one month to go until the Feast of the Nativity of the Christ Child* and so from now until then, I'll be posting an A to Z of Christmas on this blog. Some of the subjects chosen will be familiar, some not so much, but all shall be enlightening and maybe, sometimes, amusing.

So stop by every day of the working week to see what nugget of Christmas lore I shall be unearthing next and remember that you can find many such tasty information morsels in my book What is Myrrh Anyway? - and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.

* a.k.a. Christmas Day.

How to beat The X Factor to the Christmas number one

Thursday, 17 November 2011

A guide to outsmarting Simon Cowell, by the man who should know, after he took Rage against the Machine to the top of the festive charts.

To read more, follow this link.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen!

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