Christmas, midwinter and the Arctic

This 2015 video is called [Nat Geo Wild] Wild Russia: Arctic HD (Nature Documentary).

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Grandfather Frosty’s seasonal box of delights

Saturday 24th December 2016

PETER FROST, the Star’s Santa, brings a whole cornucopia of midwinter stories to amaze, amuse, annoy and perhaps even inspire

SHOCK horror, Jesus wasn’t born at Christmas. He was actually probably born in midsummer. Luke’s gospel tells us the shepherds were in the fields at the time of the birth and they would not be out in the fields in the cold and wet Judean winter.

Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census. Such censuses only happened in the summer months when primitive roads were passable.

In about the fourth century the Christian Church realised there would be benefits in celebrating Christmas around the winter solstice. Most cultures and religions have a major celebration at midwinter. Pagans call it the birthday of the sun.

The Christians jumped on the midwinter bandwagon. Or should that be sleigh?

The reason midwinter is so popular is simple and doesn’t need a spiritual content. By midwinter primitive cultures could calculate whether the stores of food and winter fuel were going to last until the spring. If things were looking good then they decided to have a party.

While we are bursting a few Yuletide myths, here is another one. Don’t believe the story that the jovial red-cloaked Father Christmas figure we all know and love was designed by the Coca-Cola company advertising department back in the 1930s. It is an urban myth but with just a bit of truth.

The red suit and hat with the white fur trim have given rise to the belief among some that Santa’s outfit was dreamed up by canny ad men who recast him in Coke corporate colours.

When Coke stopped putting active cocaine in its drinks it needed a new, cleaner image. What better than a jolly fat Santa? However his colour scheme owes more to medieval ecclesiastical vestments than a brainstorm on Madison Avenue.

An early man in red was the original Saint Nicholas, who was the Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. Red and white were what traditional bishops wore.

Saint Nicholas is still remembered in some countries, particularly in the Netherlands and Poland on December 6 — Old Christmas as it is known.

In medieval England and for centuries afterwards, the figure of Father Christmas represented the spirit of benevolence and good cheer appearing in mumming plays.

“In comes I, Old Father Christmas, welcome or welcome not, I hope that Father Christmas will never be forgot,” is his typical first line in many of these ancient plays.

In the 19th century, Dutch emigrants took their story of a legendary gift-bringer called Sinterklaas to the US, where his name became Santa Claus.

Coca-Cola pinched the character in the early 1930s, when Swedish artist Haddon Sundblom started drawing ads for Coke featuring a fat Santa in a red coat trimmed with fur and secured with a large belt.

In fact his jovial character is a real internationalist, appearing all across the globe. All over Russia, for instance, at this time of year children and their parents are ready to welcome Ded Moroz — a character rather like our Father Christmas.

Ded Moroz translates as Old Man Frost, although Grandfather Frost is an even more common description. He normally delivers presents to children on New Year’s Eve when he is usually accompanied by his granddaughter and helper known as the Snow Maiden. The pair of them are dressed in silver-blue robes trimmed with white fur. Although over the years his long coat has been just as likely to be bright red as electric blue.

During early Soviet times Ded Moroz was seen as an ally of the priests and the kulaks, but only 10 years after the revolution he was back in favour as the main symbol of the midwinter pre-festival celebrated by atheists and the Orthodox Church alike.

In the Czech Republic they celebrate another saint and one well known to us too. Good King Wenceslas, who as everyone knows went out on the Feast of Stephen when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.

This Czech saint seized the throne of Bohemia in a coup. He was also undoubtedly gay. His page and lover Podiven had no shoes but the saintly king simply commanded him to walk in his royal footprints. Miraculously the footprints proved hot and the page’s feet stayed warm and toasty “where the saint had treaded.”

Podiven, church history relates, was closest of all the king’s many young pages. Wenceslas, it seems, used to wake his pages in the middle of the night to join him in doing “charitable works.”

Both Wenceslas and his beloved Podiven are buried side by side at St Vitus Cathedral in Prague, where many Catholics will come this Christmas to pay tribute to the two. I wonder how many of them realise they are at the grave of a same-sex couple?

Saint Nic, Santa Claus, Grandfather Frost and even Father Christmas are all supposed to live high above the Arctic Circle.

They may be the fictional inhabitants of these snowy and icy lands but there are plenty of real ones too. Polar bears, reindeer, whales, walruses and other marine mammals as well as many tribes of aboriginal peoples.

Sadly things in Santa’s back garden aren’t looking too rosy. The Arctic has experienced record lows in sea ice extent in November this year.

Despite what Donald Trump and his latest backwoodsman appointee Scott Pruitt want you to believe about global warming, the Arctic really is getting warmer all the time.

Warm temperatures and winds are driving record declines in Arctic sea ice. Arctic sea ice reduced by three quarters of a million square miles. That is an area of ice larger than Denmark, and this at a time when sea ice is usually growing.

The slump in November sea ice follows a persistent trend in the Arctic, where warming temperatures are causing problems for indigenous communities and wildlife, like polar bears and walruses.

The loss of reflective sea ice makes the warming process worse by exposing the dark sea, which soaks up more heat which in turn helps melt more ice. Sea ice and snow are white and reflect the sun’s warmth.

That warming is particularly difficult for polar bears, which venture out onto the pack ice in winter to hunt seals and walruses. Now they have longer and longer to wait before the ice is thick enough to bear their weight.

Although polar bear numbers are shrinking the Canadian government is still selling the right to kill one of these magnificent creatures for about £30,000.

Santa loves his reindeer and so do the Sami people who occupy the area of land at the most northern reaches of Sweden, Norway, Finland and western Russia.

The whole area is sometimes called Lapland and on these huge areas of Arctic tundra the Lapp or Sami graze their huge herds of semi-wild reindeer.

The Sami have for centuries been the subject of discrimination and abuse by the dominant cultures claiming possession of their lands right up to the present day. None of the countries in which the Sami make their home have ever treated these nomadic people well.

Norway is probably worst of all and has been greatly criticised by the international community for the politics of Norwegianisation of and discrimination against the Sami.

In 2011 the UN racial discrimination committee made recommendations to Norway, including on the educational situation for students needing bilingual education in Sami.

In Finland, Sami children, like all Finnish children, are supposed to be entitled to day care and language instruction in their own language. However the Finnish government has denied funding for these education rights.

More and more of the Sami’s traditional reindeer grazing lands are being stolen for wind farms and other such projects.

The rights and rich Nordic culture represented by these “people of the deer” all across the Arctic lands are being trampled underfoot in the name of something called progress.

Prospecting for oil in Arctic waters is another massive threat to the delicate balance of life in the ocean above the Arctic circle.

Whales and walruses are still hunted and their traditional waters are under more and more threat from pollution and the exploitation of the area’s undoubted mineral wealth.

So there it is, Frosty’s Christmas round up. Peace on Earth — if you ignore Syria, Palestine and a dozen other war zones.

Goodwill to all men and women if I can leave out Trump, Farage, Le Pen, the Tory Cabinet and a few other right-wing cretins trying to make the world a more frightening place.

Have a good holiday, eat and drink well and come back in the New Year fighting fit to get on with the job we all have to do: building a world of peace, equality and social justice. That’s all I want for Christmas.

What about you?

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