Monday, December 14, 2009

Santa Claus is coming to Thomastown

Here's something from Ireland that it is even more preposterous than its politicians: the claim that Santa Claus is buried in Kilkenny.

[St Nicholas] was buried in the cathedral church in Myra, which became a pilgrimage site, but Irish historians claim the early crusaders brought his remains back to Jerpoint Abbey.

Riight. Medieval Europeans were, as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the era knows, mad keen on relics. As such religious institutions and individuals were often making extremely fortunate discoveries of particularly prestigious (and lucrative) relics. So it was that when St Regulus, so the legend has it, landed in Fife with what he claimed were the bones of the apostle St Andrew, the hitherto undistinguished settlement of Kinrymont became St Andrews, later the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland, on the strength of these bones.

A more famous example was Santiago de Compostella, which became one of Europe's leading centres of pilgrimage, a status it still enjoys today, when in 800 a local bishop suddenly discovered - through some miracle or other - that a previously obscure grave was, in fact, the last resting place of another apostle, St James. (There are cynics who have suggested the grave was, in fact, that of a heretic named Priscillian who was executed for sorcery in the fourth century; but where's the fun in that?)

Europe is full of charming antiquarian legends of this sort. The idea that the bones of St Nicholas, after they were looted during the fourth crusade, ended up in Ireland for safekeeping is a great story. But the chances of it being true are somewhat remote.

Another, even more portentous legend, was revived recently: that Jesus had indeed visited Britain in the company of Joseph of Arimathea. This old story is, of course, the inspiration for Blake's poem (And did those feet, in ancient times/Walk upon England's pasture green)?

I think the same rule applies for both hymns and headlines. If it's a question the answer is no. But not according to Dr Gordon Strachan who finds it a 'plausible' theory.

Coming this far wasn't in fact that far in the olden days," Dr Strachan told BBC Radio 4's The World At One. "The Romans came here at the same time and they found it quite easy."

Dr Strachan added that Jesus had "plenty of time" to do the journey, as little was known about his life before the age of 30.

We do know the Phoenicians had made it to Cornwall, so it is just about possible that the young Jesus hitched a lift on a tin-trading ship and used the opportunity to visit Glastonbury (it's just the sort of place one could imagine a long-haired drop-out and troublemaker like Jesus visiting).

Set against that is the fact that the Romans, as you might recall, found themselves doing quite a bit of fighting with the heavily armed and savage natives. They regarded Britain (we''ll ignore the anachronistic habit of talking about England at a time the Angles et al had never set foot in the place) as the furthest ends of the earth; a barbarous and sinister place, that was notorious for the savage mysteries of the druidic religion - most notoriously the practice of human sacrifice. Not, in other words, the sort of place an impoverished Jewish carpenter from the other end of the Roman world would chose to visit for a lark.

However, the story would explain the pagan and sacrificial elements to Christianity - and the cannibalistic aspects of the ritual of the Eucharist – I suppose (others have put this in the context of the cult of Adonis or the dying god; but I am not sure if this is quite Dr Strachan's intention.

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