Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The Feast of St Nicholas

Is there a Santa Claus?


This blog first appeared on the BCYS site in December 2016

For some, the start of Christmas is when they first see the Coca Cola Christmas truck on the television. A real truck now visits towns around the UK over Christmas adorned with a huge image of Father Christmas on the side. It is often claimed that this isn’t anywhere close to the real St Nicholas, but a character largely created by Coca Cola to aid their commercial pursuits over the festive period. What is the truth in the story of a transformation from Turkish Bishop to a gift bearer from the North Pole?


Who was the real St Nicholas?


Sadly there is a lack of much historical evidence. However tradition suggests he was born in Patara, in Asia Minor and his family were wealthy; he was given a good Christian upbringing. His parents died while he was young, so St Nicholas became a priest and decided to use his inheritance for good and the benefit of others.

He was later ordained as a bishop with many stories told about his holiness and generosity - both of wealth and spirit. Some suggest he was imprisoned and tortured by Emperor Diocletian, others that he attended the Council of Nicea after being freed. One tale tells of how he intervened to spare three innocent men sentenced to death by a corrupt governor. St Nicholas confronted him and moved the governor to do penance. A popular story in the Middle Ages suggested that St Nicholas entered an inn whose innkeeper had just murdered three boys and pickled their dismembered bodies in barrels in the basement. The bishop not only sensed the crime had taken place, but resurrected the victims as well.

Perhaps the most famous story is how he helped a widower with three daughters. To save the girls from being sold into prostitution, St Nicholas tossed bags of gold through the window over three consecutive nights. He became the patron saint of both children and gift-giving.

Sources suggest he died at some point between 345 and 352 AD on December 6th, and was buried in his cathedral. However during later persecution of Christianity, his body was taken by Italian merchants in 1087 and reburied in a new church in Bari, Italy. His remains were used to reconstruct his face in 2014:




What happened between the 4th Century and today?


By the Middle Ages, St Nicholas was an incredibly popular Saint and from around 1200 to 1500 he was the undisputed bringer of gifts. Celebrations were centered around his Feast Day, December 6th. He had taken on some aspects of earlier European deities such as Saturn and Odin: white bearded men who had magical powers such as flight. Children were told to be good and say their prayers in order to get presents from St Nicholas.

The Protestant Reformation meant St Nicholas became far less popular. Dutch Protestants wanted to remove all Catholic links and renamed him Sint Klaes, which later became Santa Claus. They stripped him of his bishop's regalia and made him look more Nordic with a red suit.

Gift giving was moved to Christmas and linked to the infant Jesus instead. However as a baby, he was not able to deliver many presents, nor scare children into behaving. As such, Jesus was often given a scary helper to do this part of the job - it didn’t seem right to have baby Jesus threatening other young children!

These scary Germanic characters were given various names such as Ru-klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas), and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas). The worst was perhaps Krampus: a half-goat, half-demon, horrific beast who literally beat children into being nice and not naughty. Good children got sweets, ‘wicked’ children got dragged off to his lair to be chained and whipped.




The Dutch brought Sinterklaas with them as they travelled the Atlantic and settled in America. Yet the celebrating of Christmas was largely shunned in New England as it had become an outdoor, alcohol-fuelled, rowdy community blowout with no particular magical gift bringer. Things were much the same back in Europe.


Saving St Nicholas


Christmas was to be saved by a series of authors and poets in the early 1800’s. They wanted a return to the family celebration and to revive the legend of the original St Nicholas.

Washington Irving's book Knickerbocker's History of New York (1809) first portrayed the pipe-smoking St Nicholas flying over the rooftops in a wagon. He delivered sweets and presents to good children and switches (sticks) to bad ones.

An anonymous illustrated poem called The Children’s Friend (1821) portrayed a much more familiar image of Santa Claus and linked him with Christmas. Notably, there was no return to any religious connections in this portrayal of St Nicholas. It is the first instance of him with a reindeer:




The following year, Clement Clarke Moore wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas, more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas, for his own children. Despite its anonymous publication, the book became hugely popular and further developed the image of Santa Claus. In the book, he was plump, jolly and had eight reindeer.

Despite a variety of different versions of Santa being found during the remainder of the 1800s, by the end of the 19th century, his recognisable image had been fully established. He was an older man, dressed in red and fur, who lived at the North Pole and had a sleigh driven by reindeer. Cartoonist Thomas Nast (1882) is credited with the jolly, chubby, grandfatherly like face:




North America’s Santa Claus, then did a reverse migration to replace the scary gift bringers. He adopted local names such as Père Noël (France) or Father Christmas (Great Britain) but the image was largely the same.

Of course, Haddom Sundblom, an advertising artist for Coca-Cola (1931-1965), ensured Santa Claus would always be known as the red-suited, larger-than-life, Coke-drinking jolly character found on the side of the Coca-Cola Christmas truck. It is this image that has grown over the last 150 years and remains popular with both children and adults today.

Some countries have resisted this image, and have anti-Santa movements. This is either trying to keep their own traditions alive, or trying to return to a more religious celebration of Christmas.

A young girl called Virginia wrote to the New York Times 1897 to ask, “Is there a Santa Claus?”. The editor replied:

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.... Nobody sees Santa Claus but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.... Thank God! He lives, and he lives forever."

This certainly reads like a testament to the original St Nicholas. He continues to bring joy, generosity, kindness, love and excitement into our Christmas. For that, we should be incredibly grateful.

St Nicholas, pray for us.


Monday, 4 December 2017

The Great Textbook Battle



Last week I attended I attended the Policy Exchange event hosted by John Blake and featuring Nick Gibb, Emma Lennard, Robert Orme and Robert Peal. The event has been widely reported already (TES - Nick Gibb: 'Teachers will lead the move back to textbooks'). I am a textbook writer myself (GCSE and KS3 RE) and I realise the value of a good textbook, and want all my students to have access to one.

18 arguments for the use of textbooks in schools:

  • Knowledge has already been fact checked - rather than relying on Wikipedia on a Sunday evening
  • Knowledge is carefully sequenced - enabling students to successfully develop schema
  • Environmental impact is lessened - photocopying is often wasteful in schools, costs can be similar, if not less for textbooks over a number of years
  • Workload - Using a textbook rather than producing a resource from scratch is hugely time saving
  • Literacy - Students should be reading books; reading is good 
  • Differentiation - A well planned and constructed textbook can aid with differentiation not hinder it 
  • "DBPP" - Death by PowerPoint - Why do teachers spend hours typing up a textbook into a PowerPoint?
  • Tech Issues - Wifi not working, iPads not charged, Student X has downloaded Angry Birds...
  • A launchpad - To further reading, to carefully constructed activities... they do not kill creativity.
  • Social leveller - Geographical areas that struggle to get specialist teachers do not disadvantage students. 
  • Non-specialist areas - Even a history specialist may not be a specialist in all areas of History in new National Curriculum, or an RE teacher in all religions. 
  • Primary education - Is it possible to be an expert in all areas of curriculum?
  • Standards / Quality - How many lessons does a teacher deliver that are okay, but not brilliant?
  • Student preference - Many students prefer actual books rather eBooks
  • Student learning - Students appear to comprehend more, and remain more focused with actual book rather than digital resources
  • Academic study - A good textbook will cultivate a student and introduce them to more academic and rigorous content - rather than Horrible History approach. 
  • Copyright - Has already been sorted rather than resources 'nicked' from all over.
  • Resource sharing - If teachers are using the same textbooks, resources can be shared with ease. Some textbook writers have shared their accompanying lessons resources for free.

Some issues to overcome:
  • Some current GCSE / A Level books have been rushed due to speed of reforms - corrections can be made, but not helpful for schools who already have class sets.
  • Some are prohibitively expensive - schools need to carefully work out how to deploy funds, and budget accordingly. 
  • A culture (high stakes / accountability?) where there is a huge demand for board specific / exam focused / 'endorsed' textbooks - which naturally go out of date. 
  • Why...
    • Are teachers who use textbooks considered lazy? ("Just one page ahead")
    • Are (newer) teachers often actively discouraged from using them by colleagues?
    • Do many claim they "kill creativity"?
    • Do some refuse to even consider there could be good textbooks and dismiss them all?
    • Should we refuse to even look at international systems that successfully deploy textbooks?
If the problem is quality, let's write them. I have been fortunate enough to be given an opportunity to do just this. If this could reduce workload, and help ease recruitment and retention problems, surely it must be considered? 

Of course, no one knows your class like you do, but for how long can you make everything from scratch? Will the profession consider the evidence presented to us, or will we simply reject the idea because Nick Gibb said it?

Related blog: The Life of a Textbook Writer

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Greatest Story Ever Told?

The Greatest Story Ever Told?


This blog first appeared on the BCYS site


Quiz:
  1. How did Mary travel to Bethlehem?
  2. How long before Jesus’ birth did Mary arrive in Bethlehem?
  3. Which animals were present at Jesus’ birth?
  4. How many innkeepers did Mary and Joseph speak with?
  5. What kind of building was Jesus born in?
  6. When did the angels appear above the stable?
  7. How many wise men visited Jesus?
  8. What did the angels sing?


Despite the Nativity being one of the most frequently told, and certainly acted out, stories in the Bible. It is often inaccurately shared and its richness, depth and complexities overlooked. Few Christians realise that it only features in two of the four Gospels, that the Magi probably visited anything from six months to a year after Jesus was born, and that only Luke refers to the shepherds. Even Pope Benedict XVI felt the need to address commonly held Nativity myths in his book, Jesus of Nazareth - The Infancy Narratives [2012], after which the Daily Mail labelled him a ‘killjoy’ who ‘crushed’ nativity traditions.


The word Nativity has it’s roots in the Latin nativus ‘arisen by birth’, and gives us the start point of Christianity; the moment “God became flesh through Virgin Birth”. This monumental occasion deserves the undivided attention of all Christians; can we afford to be ill informed about such an event?


Often people's’ understanding of the story can be vague and superficial. Indeed the classic retelling of the story of the Nativity through primary school plays has adapted so that a cast of Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wise men is no longer sufficient. Reportedly in some schools there are now parts for aliens, punk fairies, Elvis Presley, footballers, a lobster and a drunken spaceman. Naturally carols have also been replaced with Christmas-themed pop songs including those by Justin Bieber and Michael Bublé.


As an RE teacher, I try to cultivate a love and interest in scripture study with my students. Anyone who says the Bible is boring or dull really hasn’t bothered to invest any time into understanding it’s rich and varied cultural, historical and poetic content. An example of this is its intricacies and complexities in the story of the Nativity.


It is easy to look at the two accounts and dismiss their differences as evidence that they are inaccurate. However to look a little closer, with even the most basic background knowledge, it becomes evident that they are far easier to reconcile than on face value. Luke is writing to a Roman official and Matthew is writing to Christians who were formerly Jews. In simple terms, Luke is writing to the oppressor and Matthew is writing to the oppressed.


Luke carefully omitted those things that would upset the Roman official, Theophilus, or any other Roman official that Theophilus might show Luke's gospel to. This included the Roman atrocity of Slaughter of the Innocents and the highlighting of Jesus’ Messiahship, which could be considered a political threat to the Empire. The shepherds were lowly, marginal visitors and so permitted for inclusion.


Matthew has similarly left out those things that would upset Jewish Christians. He only briefly deals with the virginal conception and birth of Jesus and then rushes on to the Magi. This story, with gifts of exotic and expensive gifts would have impressed a Jewish audience. Luke doesn’t include it as the Romans may have suspected that the Christians were making alliances with powerful people beyond the empire.


Such prudence is not sinful as St Paul says, "...try to fit your answers to the needs of each one." (Colossians 4:6) and as Jesus instructs, "... be cunning as serpents and yet as harmless as doves." (Matthew 10:16).


The symbolism of the story has been discussed by biblical scholars for generations. It was clear that there is much of Jesus’ nature and purpose being shared right from his birth, thirty years before his mission really began. Not only did he arrive without fanfare and riches, but his concern for the lowly was evident as he dwelt among humanity. The wisemen provided an insight into Jesus’ life to come with their gifts indicating his kingship (gold), priestly mission (frankincense) and significant death (myrrh).


When we look at the non-Biblical additions to Nativity scenes, it is important that we realise that many are there for a reason. The swaddling on Jesus is a symbol of the burial shroud, Mary wears red (lifeblood) and blue (sky and heaven) as the link between God and mankind, the Magi are often portrayed as coming from Europe, Africa and Asia to represent all nations. The ox represents patience, the ass humility, while the lambs are reminders of Jesus’ role as the Lamb of God; a cock is also often present in prediction of Peter’s denial. Sometimes you will also find contemporary figures linking the timeless importance of the Nativity.


This Advent, first of all consider carefully the story we are celebrating. Take the time to return and reflect upon the scripture. Read what is there, yet allow time to consider what is unwritten. Also look carefully on any Nativity scene you look at, what is included beyond the scripture? Why? The Nativity story is perhaps the greatest story ever told because over time it has grown into the story not only of Jesus’ birth but also the entire story of Jesus’ life, mission and ministry, as well as the story of our own salvation. The Nativity is unexpected, complex, yet absolutely joyous.


Back to the quiz...


Answers:
  1. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  2. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  3. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  4. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  5. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  6. We don’t know, it doesn’t say that they did.
  7. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  8. We don’t know, possibly nothing. Read more <here>


Read more: