Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Merry Christmas!

I like Christmas. There, I've said it.

I like the way it breaks up the dull midwinter with a few weeks of licensed overindulgence. I like the familiarity of its rituals, going back home to see my family (some of whom I don't see at other times of the year unless there's a wedding or a funeral, since I've been living in London), the exchange of cards and gifts (even if the stress of deciding what to buy people is a hassle), the crap TV. I know that there are now other ways of keeping in touch with people we don't really want to see all the time (it's called Facebook), but it's nice to be forced to stop and think about Aunt so-and-so once in a while, especially since she doesn't have a computer. I like turkey with all the trimmings, Christmas pudding, arguing with my mother, the whole kit and kaboodle. I'm sorry, but I don't want to do something alternative and help people in Africa with a goat (the best way to help them is to get the EU to dismantle the protectionist Common Agricultural Policy), or promote ethical this that or the other. The whole point of Christmas is the consumption. It's once a year, just roll with it. Indeed, if we didn't have Christmas, I think we'd have to invent it. Which of course we did. Or that is, pretty much every society that lives outside the equatorial belt has invented a winter festival of some sort, be it Hannukah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia, Yule or Samhain, to help them get through the long winter nights. This history of different cultures with their different ways of doing a winter festival is why Christmas has become such a glorious mishmash of other traditions, from the fir trees, Yule logs and deity on a flying sleigh from the Norse and Germanic solstice festival of Yule, through the gift exchange, drunkenness and overeating of Roman Saturnalia (Saturn still turns up, but now at the end of the year, with his white beard and robes, scythe and hourglass, as Old Father Time), the holly, ivy and kiss under the mistletoe of the Druids, to the grafted-on Christianity that has slowly accreted ever since Constantine decreed it would be Rome's state religion. If there was ever a multicultural festival, it is surely Christmas.

Occasionally there is a bit of atheist angst over Christmas, but that presupposes that Christmas is in any way a Christian festival, which it never really has been. The Puritans recognised this by trying to ban Christmas as 'pagan', and you can see their point (even if you can't sympathise with such a bunch of killjoys). It makes me laugh every year as another po-faced commentator opines about Christmas's commercialism or attempts to "ban Christmas", as they completely fail to recognise that this is simply Christmas reverting to type. For all of the cloying hard sell to children of a baby surrounded by cute animals and being given presents, the Nativity is pretty much beside the point; a clumsy attempt by a Gospel writer to ret-con Jesus into Isaiah's (amongst others) prophecy about the Messiah, complete with a fabricated census to ease the confusion over where he was supposed to be born, the mistranslation of 'almah' as 'virgin' and a few lost Zoroastrian priests (Magi) turning up from Persia for no very good reason. The birth of Jesus is arguably the least interesting thing about him, which is presumably why two of the Gospels ignore it completely, and the other two give contradictory accounts. His ministry and execution (and, if you believe it, resurrection) are surely the main point of the story.

So never mind the Disney-esque manger and shepherds stuff, let's celebrate the solstice as it has always been celebrated, with food, drink, presents, and family. Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and Io Saturnalia!

How high is a nobleman?

Something has been bothering me lately, and its something that I've not really ever seen much discussion of in textbooks and the like: to what extent was nobles' potition at the top of society reinforced by them simply being taller than peasants?

The theory runs something like this: height in adulthood is at least partially (about 10% according to figures I've found on the web) down to diet in childhood. That is, someone with a protein-rich diet will end up about 10% taller than someone without. I think that underestimates the effect, personally - you can see the effect in modern Japan, where the post-war generation are up to 12-18 inches shorter than the current burger and Kobe beef chomping one. We know that people were on average shorter in previous ages (or do we - see below). We also know from their suits of armour and skeletal remains that people like Henry VIII and John of Gaunt were well over six feet tall. So presumably medieval nobles (with a comparatively meat-rich diet) were similarly about a foot taller than medieval peasants, and therefore people literally looked up to them as superior beings, a bit like the elves in Tolkein.

Unfortunately, to quote Blackadder; "there was just one thing wrong with this theory... it was bollocks."

After some research I found that I wasn't the only person to have wondered this, and someone had done a proper study of remains from grave sites, indexing height with nutrition in previous ages, and found that there was no support for my theory, as well as that longevity and average height actually haven't changed as much down the ages as is popularly believed.

It's still a relatively small sample, and it's not quite enough to make me completely change my mind, but it looks like I have to accept that if there was such an effect, it was much smaller than I imagined - maybe one or two inches at most on average, and certainly not the 6-12 I had imagined. So much for that idea, then.