Press Column Saturday 23 December 2000

The blood of San Gennaro has failed to liquefy this year, apparently in shock that the prosecution in a loan-sharking case has only asked for a sentence of three years on the Cardinal Archbishop of Naples. The story comes from the foreign pages of the Daily Telegraph, which has a magnificent picture of the prelate enthroned, looking at the camera much as a codfish might study a shrimp it is planning to bite. The Cardinal seems to have been drawn into crime by family affection. His brother rang the loan-sharking ring, and his nephew is charged with them. But though he admits giving his brother more than a billion lire, some of it in the form of a book of blank cheques for him to fill out, his lawyer has announced that the "bland" sentence demanded by the prosecution shows it has "not a shred of proof". The brother who received all these blank cheques, incidentally, was himself a bank manager: he is alleged to have turned down applicants for legitimate credit and then offered them his extortionate private rates instead. The trial is being held behind closed doors, rather like Christmas in Bethlehem.

Victoria Combe was sent by the Daily Telegraph to Israel to report on the way the Christmas has been shut down this year ó you read it first in the Sun ó but most of the other stories of Christmas were both domestic and traditional. "Church backs Saint Nicholas in bid to give Santa the Sack was the Sunday Telegraphís take on Jim Rosenthalís latest campaign. Some of us have been wondering what he has been up to ever since he masterminded the press operation at the Lambeth Conference. Some of us wondered what he was up to then. Presumably, his emergence as a champion of St Nicholas is a charitable gesture designed to put heart into the National Secular Society at a time when its members face a lonely and dispiriting midwinter solstice.

The Provost of Newcastle was quoted in the piece as saying "Personally I donít mind the figure of Father Christmas as such. What I think is important is that people know he was based on St Nicholas ó a person who really did exist." But of course nothing is known of St Nicholas except that he was a bishop, which is not quite a sufficient qualification for immortality or even sainthood. Though I love the story that his house flew across the Adriatic to settle in Bari, or even that he restored three murdered children to life, I donít think that either of these facts are completely established to the satisfaction of historians. Itís hard to see what difference it could possibly make to anyone to say that Santa Claus is based on someone about whom nothing is known. The same could just as well be said of James Bond.

Santa Claus does have one important religious function in modern Britain, though; and this is to serve as a standard for metaphysical reality. The general rule that if ever a clergyman says something obviously true and commonsensical this is scandalous news holds double in the case of Santa. The Revíd Clive Evans told primary school pupils that there was no Santa Claus, no manger, and no kings bearing gifts. It was only the last which aroused the ire of the Sun, which printed a leader on the sublect: Donít panic kids. Never mind what the vicar says. Let The Sun put your minds at rest. Of course there is a father Christmas. How else would millions of you get presetns on Christmas Day? Everyone knows that Mum and Dad buy some prezzies. But you donít think theyíve got enough money to buy them ALL, do you? Thatís where Father Christmas comes in. The Rev Clive Evans should keep his daft ideas to himself."

Of course they donít have enough money to buy them all. Thatís where credit card companies come in ó or, in Naples, you can apply to relatives of the Cardinal Archbishop.

There is something profoundly satisfying about the newspaper rushing to defend the one statement Mr Evans made which everyone knows is and must be untrue. Nothing could more clearly illustrate the idea that the job of the clergy is to tell lies we all want to hear without really believing. I canít see any satisfaction to be had from the fact that the headmaster of the school in question wrote to the parents of every child apologising for the vicarís indiscretion. Surely she has better things to do than sink to the level of the newspapers.

Another great Christmas tradition is of course the loony theory about Jesus; and the Daily Express collected twelve of them into a wonderful posy: "Did Jesus live here? Was Princess Diana his descendant? Were there two messiahs?" Once you have put these questions in large type at the top of the page, the difficulty lies covering forty eight square inches of newspaper with the answer "no" before the reader notices what has been done. Ruth Cowen made a heroic effort, by listing ever more exotic questions to which the answer was almost al the same. I particularly liked "Did Jesus ever live in England? Ö Historians believe Jesus took Joseph with him on business trips to Glastonbury and that Jesus actually settled there to study and meditate, building Ďa small house of mud and wattlesí." If she can produce these historians, and they turn out to be historians I will buy her lunch with Christopher Morgan.

Perhaps we shall all just have coffee instead. The Daily Mail gave a whole page to the decision of Judge Charles Gibson to allow Rasta Brown to appeal to the High Court to establish his human right to smoke Cannabis as a religious sacrament, on the grounds that it was like churches holding coffee mornings . You had to read the piece very carefully to see that what he actually believed was that coffee is not a sacrament at all, but something "ancillary to the practice of religion" which parliament might ban without contravening the human rights act at all.

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