Now the dust has settled…

A couple of weeks have now passed since the general election and most of the moaning and bickering seems to have subsided. But what was the biggest shock of the 2015 election? Was it that the Tories managed, apparently against all odds, to win a majority of the seats in the house of commons? Was it that three of the party leaders subsequently resigned (and one then performed the best comeback since Lazarus…and now might be going again)? Or was it even that the SNP almost entirely swept the board in Scotland? Well no, for me the biggest surprise is that we still operate with such an antiquated voting system. Why on earth are we still voting with pencils and paper?

I must admit that, like a penalty shootout (no one seems to like them either though), there is some added drama and tension in the system we currently have. Having to wait as the results trickle in, constituency by constituency, over the course of the following day is, for some, as exciting as it gets. For others, like me, it is tedium only broken by the satisfaction of watching some rather fatuous and arrogant individuals eat their words in the most publicly embarrassing way. But strip back the excitement and what you are left with is a supremely inefficient exercise that involves far more people than is necessary. The reality is that in the 21st century we are still operating with a process that existed when landowners and Lords were the only ones who could vote and rotten boroughs were still a legitimate way to manipulate the system. It really does beggar belief that we aren’t embracing the digital age and putting in a process that would mean we can know the result of the general election not hours after the votes are cast but minutes.

Of course, whenever you try and have a sensible conversation about this with someone the first objection that is thrown your way is that it wouldn’t be secure or anonymous and therefore easy to manipulate/ Well this is just simply naive. Anyone who works in IT and has any talent would be able to design a system that allows for completely anonymous voting, where the vote casting mechanism is completely uncoupled from any data about a person. And a lot more sensitive data than vote counts are stored online all over the world without any security issues. Quite simply, it wouldn’t be that hard to do.

So let’s think about the question of security for a moment then. Many people object saying that the system would be easy to manipulate but surely no easier than the current system, which if my experience is anything to go by would be incredibly easy to manipulate. My experience this year of wondering down to my local polling station was about as lax as you can get. I didn’t need my polling card and I didn’t have to present any identification. The only thing I had to do was say my name and address, which they then found on the sheet, ticked off and handed my the voting slip. As I am quite familiar with the names and addresses of a few other people in my area, and like everyone else I also have access to the electoral role, it would be beyond the whit of man to have voted many times under the guise of many different people that day. It certainly would have been easy enough to have found out who wasn’t voting and go and cast on their behalf. No CCTV, no actual checks. I could have turned up with a bus load of homeless people, given them all a name and address and said “go and put a tick in the first box”.

The current process is not only slow, arduous and prone to error, it is also fundamentally insecure and easy to manipulate. Surely we are now in a position where we should be using a digital process? Other sectors abandoned pen and paper years ago, in favour of more optimised ways of working. The benefits of going digital on the election are quite clear and the objections to it are not things that couldn’t easily be solved. Only five years to develop the right system…but I suspect we’d need a referendum to decide whether we want to do it!

Should sacking Clarkson mean the BBC lose their charter?

With over one million people signing a petition for Jeremy Clarkson to be reinstated by the BBC, representing two thirds of the amount of people who watch an average show, and a 25th of the entire license paying public, should the BBC lose its charter for not therefore renewing his contract? Well the answer is obviously no. The BBC should not lose their Royal Charter and publicly funded status because of sacking a man who assaulted his co-worker. But the subject raises some interesting considerations in terms of the corporation and its responsibility to the public at large.

After the incident of the alleged assault, the BBC had to take action. There is no denying that Clarkson seems to lack self control and, after so many incidents with the presenter over a prolonged period, they had to stamp on his behaviour. He left them in an untenable position, but that a million people very quickly signed a petition to reinstate him clearly shows that the public thought he shouldn’t have been sacked because of it. What that actually means is that one million people couldn’t imagine a worthwhile Top Gear without him involved. They are right to think that, the idea of a Top Gear without Clarkson, and therefore without May and Hammond as well, would clearly mean that the show will have to undergo a reinvention. But the main consideration this raises here is, when should a publicly funded organisation, with responsibilities to the public at large, listen to a public outcry and when should they feel that they can go against the public opinion and act on their own beliefs?

The BBC’s Royal Charter details under what conditions it should be allowed to be publicly funded and the debate has raged for quite sometime about whether or not it still meets the requirements handed to it. The basic premise is that the corporation should produce a range of content to meet the large majority of the interests of the general public, catering for minorities, niche audiences and the general populous. This should be delivered under the three principles of educating, informing and entertaining. It is this foundation which means they operate multiple channels, with multiple focuses and run specialist radio stations that cater for Pop, Classical, News, Alternative Music, etc. It is also the reason why regional news used to be a key and substantial part of the news delivery on the BBC. For many decades the main reason for the Royal Charter was to make sure that the limited television service available to the public, limited to only a couple of channels, provided a variety of content that everyone could enjoy (at least parts of), rather than producing content that would only ever appeal to a small proportion of the population.

Whether or not the BBC should remain publicly funded is a debate that has raged on for quite some time. Since commercial television became a power, and freeview means that hundreds of channels are available and specialist content across these channels caters for almost everyone, there have been questions asked about whether the BBC continues to fulfil a vital roll. What is clear is that the corporation is no longer required to provide varied content simply because it would otherwise not be available. In fact, the reality is that people now get the vast majority of their specific needs from other networks and specialist channels that far better meet our taste needs. With this in mind, the BBC should be more focused than ever at producing content that meets their requirements under the charter. But are they? Do they meet the needs of the general public and are they even listening to the public? Are they even asking the public for their opinion? In my opinion the answer is no.

The nature of the BBC is that in so many ways it is an outdated institution that needs to be reformed. Many would argue they have kept current but that would be in their output, but in the way the institution operates it is still very archaic. At the end of the day they need to make sure they are meeting their objectives and they need to put the public first. That means listening, and not just to the one or two people who are writing in to points of view, but to every one of the 25 million license payers.They should be required to undertake a census style research program, which is a rolling project that aims to have feedback from the majority of their license payers. This would be the only way to guarantee they are on the right track.

A good example of this is the BBC news output, which in many ways you could argue is industry leading. But as I mentioned before, one of the major benefits for people in the past has been the regional coverage. This used to be a substantial part of the news broadcasts but recently has been reduced to a five minute bulletin like segment, which barely scratches the surface of local needs. To replace it they have increased coverage on things like major sports. It is a clear example of where the public have been put behind the pandering of executives to higher profile stories. It is also an example of where they are clearly not meeting their requirements under the charter.

The BBC needs to become a more agile institution rather than an old fashioned corporation. This means listening to the people it serves and having people in positions of authority who are new thinkers rather than old hands. This means reform and a change in culture. It is imperative that they become more independent, driven by opinion and less wasteful. And that means actually understanding what people want and what they need. It needs to be more regional and more on demand.

The problem with the BBC is that is sits in a system that has allowed it to stay stagnant and pretend it is evolving when below the surface it is not. It suffers from the same thing as the NHS, the rail network and the power network, where profits drive decisions rather than customer needs. All of these institutions need to be reformed. The public need to be put at the heart of their delivery rather than relying on the opinion of those who are out of touch, or have never been in touch. If a strategy of understanding actual needs was at the heart of all of these organisations then there wouldn’t be any debates about profit-mongering in the NHS or power suppliers not passing on cuts in prices. Perhaps one of the parties vying for government at the moment should focus on that, instead of arguing with each other over things that don’t really matter. But then, if there was ever an example of an institution that doesn’t actually listen to the general public, then government is it!

The art of copyright

Last week an American jury decided that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had breached copyright with their song Blurred Lines, by copying Marvin Gaye’s song Got To Give It Up. The official reasons were “for similarities based on inspiration and not replication” which sets a very worrying precedent.

The case was brought by the Marvin Gaye Estate,  and has been led by a group of lawyers who are reportedly pursuing a number of cases along similar lines. In this case it has resulted in the artists of the biggest selling song of 2013 having to pay in excess of £5million in compensation to the Marvin Gaye estate. After they’d won the case, Nona Gaye gave a teary statement where she said she finally felt free of the hold that Thicke and Williams held over them. It seems pretty heavy for someone who was only eight years old when her father’s song was released. I wonder whether she would have been so bothered if the court case had been against a small emerging artists and wasn’t worth over £5million to her!

Skepticism aside, the main issue here is that someone has lost a copyright battle not because they have replicated someone else’s work, but because they has been judged to have had similar inspiration. So they have lost not because they have copied Marvin Gaye’s work, but because they have had similar inspiration. In a world of art, where it is impossible to be completely original – there will always be similar works out there – the ramifications are huge. Does it mean that a composer who has never even heard another track before, but unwittingly produces something with similarities, has breached copyright? Similarly, if I was to be inspired by the sun setting over London and wrote a song about it, would I be breaching copyright for Waterloo Sunset based on inspiration? Ok, these examples are a bit silly, but the principle stands and now there is a legal precedent for any lawyer to see an opportunity for a quick buck.

This week on BBC Radio 4 they have been discussing the possibility that one of J.S. Bach’s Cello concertos might have been written by his wife, rather than him. The only suggestion of this is the interpretation by one man of the note scribbled on one of the manuscripts which says ‘written out by’ his wife. Anyone who knows about music will know this is referring to her work copying the original music out onto sheet, but it is a convenient opportunity for another conspiracy theory. Any competent cello player will attest to the consistency in style of the suite, which almost certainly supports that Bach himself wrote the piece. Why do I raise this? Well the argument is not dissimilar. The idea that one person could write something that was ascribed to another is not only plausible, it happens all the time. But similarly it is also possible for someone to compose something that is very similar, or in places the same, to another piece without ever having been exposed to the other piece.

The joy of the arts is that it is creative. It is inspiring to see and listen to and is inspired by a variety of things. When you start to apply limitations, such as the idea that inspiration itself can lead to copyright, then this will only serve to stifle that creativity. Copyright exists for very good reasons. It prevents people copying work and claiming it as there own – replication. But the idea that you could claim someone has copied your work because they were inspired by the same thing is ludicrous. It serves only the claimant and no one else.

50 Shades of Dismay

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to radio four and they were discussing the new Fifty Shades of Grey film. The conversation involved two film critics, one male and one female, and the presented of the discussion show. What is interesting about this film is that it seems to have split opinion almost as much as the books did, but for different reasons.

The consensus of the male critic, who had already seen the film, is that the Director had managed to ‘rescue’ a good film out of a relatively poor book and managed to make something really rather credible. However the female critic, who hadn’t seen the film, seemed more interested in proclaiming that the books, and therefore by association the film, were anti-feminist pieces of filth that were derogatory to women, portrayed an immensely stupid and naive character in Ana Steele that undermined women everywhere and that Christian Grey is the worst kind of man imaginable. Her view was very much that there is no place for that kind of sexual relationship in society.

Now I have to take issue with her views on more than one level, but as a starter why don’t we focus on another feminist comment made very publicly recently. Yesterday Patricia Arquette used her OSCAR acceptance speech as an opportunity to make a point about equal rights for women in pay in the USA. Now this is a point that I can completely get on board with. The concept that because you are a woman that you should be paid differently to a man is abhorrent. The idea that your gender can in some way dictate your ability and skill level is laughable, at best and should have gone out with slavery. It certainly has no place in a supposedly modern and forward thinking world. My issue with this ridiculous film critic suggesting that 50 Shades of Grey is derogatory to women and that it is an anti-feminist story is that she has firstly completely failed to appreciate the fundamental focus of the book, and secondly she is using the feminist movement is completely the wrong way.

So let me examine this in a bit more detail. The premise of this woman’s objection to E.L. James’s book is that the story features a man exerting power over a woman. Her view is that it suggests it is ok for a man to use violence in the context of their sexual relationship and that the male is repressing her and taking her power away from her by degrading her, simply treating her as an object and possession. Perhaps she should read the book again and actually take note of what is happening.

There is no doubt that Ana Steele is a naive woman, but stupid? No. If you strip all of the sex out of the trilogy you end up with two things; a much much much shorter story and also a compelling look at how two characters, through love, completely change through their dedication to each other.

The interesting thing about this critic’s stance on 50 Shades of Grey is that she has completely failed to see that the power in the story lies not with Christian but with Ana. Unintentionally, and at times completely intentionally, Ana manipulates Christian. She puts him under a metaphorical spell that he has, by his own admittance, never been under before. She transforms his world, through a reluctance and refusal at times to engage on his terms, from one where he is always in control to one where he must accept the control, or at least involvement, of others. And by the end of the story Christian is a very different man, whereas Ana is by and large the same woman.

So what about the sex? There is a valid argument that Christian exerts his power and influence in order to coerce Ana into taking part in acts that she wouldn’t otherwise choose to do, but she does this mostly willingly. She certainly lets him know when she is not happy about it or when something has gone too far and the consequences are emotionally harder on him than on her. In fact in many parts of the story Ana is the one yielding the power, teasing Christian or suggesting that she would like to do things. She becomes the leader as her confidence grows and Christian has to sing to her tune.

The idea that the more risque end of the sexual spectrum is anti-feminist is simply unfounded. It is not at all unhealthy for a couple to engage in these sorts of acts if they wish to and to suggest that this should not exist in society displays a lack of understanding. Different people are turned on by different things and, as long as those are legal, there is nothing wrong with that. The reaction of thousands of women to the books shows the repressed attraction many people harbour for playing with their partners in this way. And the DIY stores did well out of it as well.

So what is my point? Well mainly this. Feminism has an important role in a society where women still do not receive the same professional respect and benefits as men to. It serves a valid purpose, one which Patricia Arquette quite rightly used her fame to make comment on yesterday. The problem though is when someone cheapens it by taking half-truths, misunderstandings and a completely lazy reading of a story to then try and suggest that a story is anti-feminist, when it clearly is the opposite. As a writer I find it amazing that someone can criticise a work so fiercely without understanding it, as a film lover I find it amazing that a critic could be so against the film without even having seen it, and as someone who believes in fairness I find it annoying that feminist movements that are doing a huge amount of good constantly get tarred with the same brush as this foolish woman!

At the end of the day this is a story that reveals a compelling lifestyle, one which clearly affects a large group of us in many ways. Like all good stories it gets us talking, we feel involved and we feel compelled to watch, read and discuss. We don’t need anyone telling us how we need to feel about it though, we can judge that for ourselves.

In the pursuit of mediocrity

For the next 90 something days we have to put up with an ever increasing amount of what politicians would like to think is rhetoric, but which is largely just hot air. That is because the circus is coming to town again, as it does every five years, and all the favourite clowns are on the bill again, with some new ones making their debuts as well.

One thing is certain, this election is going to be quite different to any other we have seen before. Chiefly the reason for this is that more people are taking notice than previously because they genuinely believe there may be an alternative vote to red or blue. The rise to public notoriety of the beer drinkers choice, Nigel to his mates, has opened an interesting new door. He is a moderate version of the outright racist BNP and more importantly his views are resonating with a disaffected and growing population who might previously have relied on Labour. But there is also appeal from Tory defectors who feel the blues have gone soft on immigration. UKIP won’t win the election, but they may well be the balance point in who becomes our Prime Minister in May.

So what choices do we have? Realistically Ed Milliband or David Cameron will be Prime Minister, but how they get the title will be the more important issue. It will either be a hung parliament or, more likely in my opinion, we will get another coalition. And this is where UKIP could make the biggest difference. But the major concern for me is that whichever party gets in, it looks like we are in for five more years with a lack of ambition, a lack of commitment and a continuation in the decline of a once great nation.

Let’s start with Labour, English politics’ answer to Henson’s workshops. Leading them, in the loosest sense of the word, is someone who seems incapable of eating a sandwich and generally doesn’t seem to have any actual points to make. The problem with the Labour party is that they don’t seem to have any answers or any detail. They talk about sweeping changes they will make, but no idea of the actual detail of what they are going to do. They have the map and they are sailing towards Eldorado, but the problem is the map doesn’t have any details on it. The most concerning thing about what they promise is that it is entirely at the expense of the wealthy and the elite. They plan to punish big business, handcuff wealthy individuals and force high performing institutions to focus they time in areas that will distract from the good they are already doing. Take private schools, responsible for a high percentage of the highest academic achievers this country outputs. Labour plan to force these schools to engage with mainstream schools with the aim to help them improve through resource swapping. And if they don’t do it? They will lose their charitable status and relevant tax breaks that brings. This is blackmail which palms of the problems inherent in the current mainstream schooling system rather than actually dealing with them. They plan to do the same with the NHS, a hugely wasteful institution currently, rather than dealing with the actual issues. If the issues aren’t dealt with then a short-term sticking plaster will fall off and the wound will be festering underneath. Labour have got some great ideals, but without actual answers they won’t be able to fix the problems. One thing is certain, they won’t listen to the people, they don’t even intend to ask the question of whether we want to be in Europe, a question that the public deserve to have their say on. More worryingly, their process they will alienate the wealthy and cripple the high performers. Wealth drives economy, that is a fact of economics. They will be like the blind man walking through a field of cow pats.

So what about the Conservatives, led by a toff, protecting the toffs. Their big pledge is an in/out vote on Europe. The irony about Dave is that in very many ways he is very similar to Tony Blair. He likes to talk like he is one of the people, despite the fact we know he isn’t. But he genuinely tries to be one of us and to understand us, even when his butler brings him the milk in the morning he will ask how much it costs for a pint at the shop now!

Unlike the Labour outlook, the Tories are interested in fixing the problems we face without crippling the country in the process. Austerity isn’t something any of us like, but it is better than running to a pay day loan lender when we realise we have completely cocked it up and there are no rich people left to chip in because they’re all moved their bank accounts to Luxemburg. Tighten the purse strings and we’ll get there. The problem with the conservative plan is that it is just that, too conservative. With UKIP offering anything for your vote from a Berlin wall installation at Dover to personal beer delivery every Tuesday (ok, that one isn’t real) and the Labour party pandering to the working classes by telling everyone that if you have money you’re evil, the conservatives need to stand up and show the people they also care about the most talked about issues; namely immigration, the NHS (which they haven’t yet mentioned) and tax avoidance.

I grew up with the ethos instilled in me that doing the best you can is the only outlook to have. My daughters attend a school where the motto is “In the pursuit of excellence”, and they truly mean it. The results are excellent because the environment is setup to encourage that very outlook on life, not just in the pupils but in the families as well. England was once a great nation on the world stage and that was largely founded on the same principles. We had the best armies in the world, the best education in the world, one of the best economies in the world. That is driven from the top down. Unfortunately, looking at the current outlook of the election pledges, England’s new motto is soon to be “In the pursuit of mediocrity”.

Sorry to drone on…

At last week’s tech show in Las Vegas there buzz was all about one thing, drones. It seems that you can now get almost any type; big drones, small drones, pink drones, selfie drones, drones on a stick!

It isn’t just the techys that are getting all hot under the collar either. At Christmas at least three of my friends and my god son (who is only five) got one as well. I even noticed that the BBC used one to get footage from above of the Hoegh Osaka cargo ship that had beached on the sand bank in the Solent last week.

It would seem that these drones are everywhere, or at least they will be soon. And whilst it is incredibly fun to waste ten minutes of your life trying to stop the thing crashing (the batteries only last for ten minutes) it does raise a few concerns.

In the USA there are already some laws in place about the usage of drones. The FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) strictly regulate the commercial use of drones there, but this doesn’t yet extend to privacy. The BBC’s use of a drone for footage demonstrate the potential issues well. Whilst hovering over a stranded ship isn’t a problem, it does become a problem when one is hovering over your house.

Last year a case arose when a woman noticed that a billboard featuring an aerial shot of the housing estate she lived in had been erected. The problem was that she had been sunbathing topless in her garden whilst the shot had been taken and she was therefore featured in the photo. She contacted the company who were advertising with the image and it was duly changed, red faces (and other parts) were avoided and life goes on. But this is where the problems start. Although the image was taken from sufficient enough a height that her face wasn’t visible, nonetheless she should have been able to assume that her back garden was a place of privacy. Instead her privacy was invaded. I’m sure most of us find this story quite funny, but the fact that drones are cheap means that it will make getting photographs of areas that are otherwise off limits is now easier than ever.

You might ask the question “it isn’t really that bad, is it?” But lets put this into perspective for a moment with a couple of scenarios. The world was up in arms a couple of years ago when a French pap managed to photograph a topless Kate Middleton from over a wall. She was in a resort and should have been safe from prying eyes but Pervy Le Pew still got his shot and a magazine still published it. If he’d had a drone then his shot might have been a lot closer and a lot more invasive. But no one really cares about celebrities and Royals do they? They’ve got it coming.

So here is scenario number two. Your children are playing in the paddling pool in your enclosed garden on a hot sunny day and over comes a drone with a camera attached. It catches images of your children which are beamed back to the dark hole that some horrible character resides in and then they add them to the personal collection on their laptop, or worse, the web. Access to this technology opens up whole new ways for pedophiles to access images in a way that we currently have no real way to stop. Personally the idea of someone hovering their little machine outside of my bathroom window whilst I’m taking a wee doesn’t exactly cheer me up.

Which presents another question, what are acceptable actions to take to protect your privacy? Would it be acceptable if one of these little gadgets came hovering over my garden wall to hit it with  baseball bat. And if it was hovering above my house at 50 feet, in ‘my airspace’, could I take a pot shot at it? I am guessing that before the dust had even settled I’d have a claim for damages on my hands. And bearing in mind we live in a country now where a burglar can break his leg whilst breaking into a house and win damages for it, I’d probably have to pay up as well.

Another consideration is that if we all go out and buy one of these things and start flying it around then the sky is going to be blackened by a locust swarm of the things. And if people fly them like they drive cars then the courts are going to be very busy with damage claims. The potential for crashes will be huge, not to mention what happens when Granny Ethel gets one round the face on the way home from the shop. She won’t be able to get any treatment because the A&E has declared a crisis and she won’t get a doctors appointment because no one can cope with a cold any more.

So what to do? I suppose at the moment it doesn’t much matter because by the time you’ve got your drone in the air it has run out of battery. And if you do own one that can last for over ten minutes then it will probably crash before much damage can be done anyway. But soon enough the battery life will be improved and they will be much more stable, and then what? Well here is a novel suggestion, that you have to get a license in order to fly one and that includes both practical and moral sections. If you want to fly a drone then you should be able to prove you aren’t either a moron, deviant or pleb. The punishment for subsequently being caught acting like an arse? Well it’s obvious, you should have your genitals removed!

Christmas in three words…

When I was a young lad, in my more mischievous days, I would attend church with my parents. Christmas was a particularly good time to attend church, not least because the biscuits would be replaced with warm mince pies and the candle light mass, rather than the drab electric lighting, made the building take on a rather more magical feel. One particular Christmas sermon though that still stands out in my mind today was when the vicar preached about “Christmas in three words…”.

That particular year Marks and Spencer had released their Christmas advert. This was in the days before John Lewis had set the precedent for elaborate stories and adverts were simple things that featured products. And after we’d seen hansom couples wearing sweaters and children in scarves and hats, fancy food on a Christmas table in front of a roaring fire…you get the idea…a final voice over said “Christmas in three words? Marks and Spencer”. All in all it was an inoffensive portrayal of a family Christmas and an honest and clever advertising message from a much loved high street store.

Well, not so much for the vicar, who seemed to have a right old holy bee in his bonnet about this. In fact, I think the breaking point for him had been when he was stood in the queue to buy stamps (remember those?) in the post office and heard two old ladies saying to each that Christmas is “all about the children, isn’t it dearie?”. Well that was enough for the vicar’s dog collar to get in a tizz. He informed them that Christmas was in fact not about ‘the children’ and was all about the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour…who is apparently actually the messiah and not a very naughty boy as I thought…I might be getting mixed up with someone else there?!? Either way the vicar stormed off out of the post office without even buying his festive addition stamps. At least they featured some nativity scenes!

Well, his dog collar was so thoroughly in a twist that our dear old vicar felt the need discuss this issue at length with us on Christmas morning. He informed us that Christmas was not about shopping, or about the children, or even about presents and the sharing of gifts. Christmas in three words, according to our vicar, was about “the holy birth” and this was not up for negotiation.

Some fifteen years on and adverts are no less controversial, stamps are phenomenally more expensive, vicars are almost all women and some are even bishops (heaven knows what will come next!) and my mind still, for some reason, remembers that particular sermon. Now I’m not a religious man, and can’t quote the bible and nor would I want to. It certainly isn’t my bedtime reading book of choice. But as we approach Christmas once again I began to think a bit more on our long retired vicar’s sermon and how, in fact, his three words are rather inaccurate as well.

I can understand why he would get upset. Christmas isn’t just Marks and Spencer’s busiest time of year. The church receives more people at Christmas than any other time of year. In fact the holy order must rather think of it as their copyright. After all, it is the big boss man’s son’s birthday and all. But what if I was to suggest a rather more controversial Christmas in three words…’Stolen from pagans!’

The premise of the vicar’s sermon on that day was basically that Christmas should remain about the religious significance of what Christians would believe is one of the most significant moments in human history. Hence the name. But where did it come from? It is almost entirely certain that the man known as Jesus was not born on Christmas day. Basil Fawlty may or may not have had room in his Inn, and there was no census around that time as far as historians are aware. So if Joseph and Mary had decided to take the donkey express to Bethlehem it was most likely for a summer break. Even the church admit that they have no idea exactly when Jesus was born. The main reason that Christmas is celebrated in December is simple, when Christianity spread throughout Europe in the early centuries the pagan religions celebrated Yuletide. The word ‘Yule’ actually predates Christianity and is Norse in origin. The long-bearded god Odin bears the names jólfaðr (Old Norse ‘Yule father’) and jólnir (Old Norse ‘the Yule one’) – perhaps part of the beginnings of Santa Claus? When Christians marched across Europe, converting pagans, they changed Yuletide to Christmastide. Let’s be honest, it was a better way to do it than cancelling Christmas altogether…that didn’t exactly work for Oliver Cromwell either!

Along the way, some of the pagan traditions will have been absorbed as well. But the most significant thing to remember is that the winter solstice, when the Sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees (when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the Sun) has actually been celebrated for thousands of years. In ancient human society this was one of the biggest parties of the year. A time to ask the gods for favour in the coming year and to thank them for the harvests past. There is no doubt that this festival, which is still observed today by some, is a big factor in what later became Yuletide and then Christmas.

So what about the other things that we associate with Christmas? The Christmas tree is an interesting one to consider. There are many theories about where they actually originated from but what is certain is that in England Queen Victoria was one of the first people to start decorating a fur tree in the modern sense. They would cover it in ornamental candles, and it was a sign of their prosperity. But long before that the tree is frequently traced to the symbolism of trees in pre-Christian winter rites, in particular through the story of Donar’s Oak (more on that one another time, perhaps). But the use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands was also common in ancient Egypt and in China and by the Hebrews. Tree worship was common among pagans and survived past the conversion to Christianity. Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year, to scare away the devil, and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime, still exist. Our vicar’s claim to Christmas is beginning to look a little shaky!

Mistletoe is another symbol of Christmas. Who doesn’t like to try and get a cheeky kiss at the party…it is the modern losers only way to get a kiss! Well Mistletoe was originally significant to druids in ancient culture, particularly in significant ceremonies like the solstice. And similarly the association of holly with winter celebrations almost certainly pre-dates Christianity. Druids wore holly wreaths on their heads as well. They loved a bit of nature those guys!

Which brings us on to our dear old friend, and what Christmas is all about for everyone under the age of ten (and a few of us a little older!)…Santa Claus. I hear people already getting on their high horse about Coca-Cola but calm down, that is a myth. Coca-Cola no more invented Santa Claus than you or I did. But the modern vision of him is in fact mostly due to the significant influence of the 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. The poem is still a tradition in our house, it is the modern romantic vision of Father Christmas, Pier Noel, Santa Claus, St. Nicholas (how many names does he need?) that we all know and love. But definitely not to do with Coca-Cola. They have the modern monopoly now in Christmas adverts but that is “largely to do with lots of trucks and even more lights! “Holidays are coming, holidays are coming…”

To be fair to our vicar for a moment, the mainstay of the concept of Father Christmas is seated in St. Nicholas, the fourth century Greek Bishop who used to deliver presents to the poor. But the modern symbol bears little resemblance to him and has taken on a life of his own (literally). No matter how you look at it though, the argument that Christmas is a Christian trademark simply doesn’t stack up. So how about this for an alternative Christmas in three words, “evolved from many”?

So what is Christmas then, at the end of the day? It is a time when we all can be united in celebrating our friends, family, our fortunes, and indeed our religion if we are that way inclined. Christmas is not and cannot simply be considered a Christian festival, even if they have bullied their way into monopolizing it. The fact of the matter is that the traditions behind Christmas are just as much pagan, or ancient, as they are about the church. It is an amalgam of cultures, beliefs and traditions from not just a few centuries, but millennia. Like languages, it has evolved. We get all snooty about the use of the English language, arguing that it should remain classical, but how many of us wonder around talking like Shakespeare? And our language is about as varied as any could be. It has been bastardized and changed by centuries of influences; Roman, Viking, Saxon, Celtic, Flemish, the list is long and convoluted. Christmas is the same, it has evolved to mean many things for many people…but I am not aware of any of those things being particularly negative.

For me Christmas is about spending time with family. It is about appreciating what we have and being happy in a world that can so often be miserable. It brings us together and gives us a focus when we are often not able to get together as one at other times of the year. So what would I say now to our pent up vicar who insists Christmas is about the baby Jesus? I would say Christmas in three words, “friends and family”.

To quote a jolly fat man and his antlered friends…”Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”