Friday, January 29, 2016

Anahit Arustamyan writes


You were in your elegant suit in a restaurant to dance. There was wine and beer in that crowded place. You were waiting for me, sir. A magic carpet didn't take me there. The melodies were loud as the night was awake. Each bulb reminded of a candle flame. Your arms and the phantom's shoulders joined to dance. You expected Santa Claus to take me through the mountain range. However, there was emptiness all over his silver sledge. Don't blame Santa Claus, as he came! He didn't know I lived somewhere. You were waiting for me, sir. Don't blame Santa Claus or the magic carpet of the fairy tale! You were dancing with the phantom, sir. It was me flown over the boundaries without a body shape. Do tell me what promised the full moon night's glance!


  1. The idea of a "magic carpet" as a means of transportation is a very old one. The prototype seems to come from "kitāb ʾalf layla wa-layla" ("One Thousand and One Nights," usually referred to in English as "The Arabian Nights"), a series of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic (probably in the early 8th century) that were collected over many centuries by various authors, translators, and scholars across North Africa and West, Central, and South Asia, and also came to include genuine Middle Eastern folk tales that were not part of the original Arabic versions of the story but were added by various European translators. Many of the tales themselves have ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Mesopotamian, Indian, and Egyptian origins. The framing story itself (which serves as a sort of subtext for Anahit's poem) is probably derived from the no-longer extant "Hazār Afsān," a Pahlavi Persian work with Indian precedents; it concerns Shahryār (from the Persian word for "king'), a "Sasanian king" ruling in "India and China," and his wife Scheherazade (also from Persian, possibly meaning "of noble lineage"). The king had his first wife executed for infidelity and then began to marry a succession of virgins, only to execute each one the next morning before she has a chance to betray him. His last wife, Scheherazade, begins telling her husband a story but does not finish it, so the king postpones her execution; the story goes on every night for over three years, at which time the king and queen become permanently reconciled. One of her stories related how Prince Husain, the eldest son of the sultan of the Indies, obtained a magic carpet in Bisnagar (Vijayanagara) in India: "Whoever sitteth on this carpet and willeth in thought to be taken up and set down upon other site will, in the twinkling of an eye, be borne thither, be that place nearhand or distant many a day's journey and difficult to reach." (tr. Richard Burton). An earlier figure associated with the carpet, though perhaps long after his death, was Solomon (Shlomo), who succeeded David as the last king of a unified Judah (ca. 970-931 BCE), the builder of the First Temple in Jerusalem, and the author of various Biblical books. Widely regarded as history's wisest man, by the first century he became the subject of the apocryphal "Testament of Solomon" and came to be known as a magician and exorcist who possessed a green silk carpet with a golden weft that measured 60 miles wide and 60 miles long: "when Solomon sat upon the carpet he was caught up by the wind, and sailed through the air so quickly that he breakfasted at Damascus and supped in Media." The wind followed Solomon's commands, and he was shielded from the sun by a canopy of birds; when Solomon was overcome by too much pride, the carpet gave a shake and hurled 40,000 to their deaths. (Sulamith Ish-Kishor, The Carpet of Solomon: A Hebrew legend).

  2. Another mythical figure in global popular culture is Santa Claus (Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Santy, or simply Santa), derived from Saint Nicholas (Hagios Nikólaos or Sanctus Nicolaus), a 4th-century bishop of Myra (modern Demre, Turkey). He is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students. In 325, at the First Council of Nicaea, he physically assaulted Arius (Aryus), a heretical Berber priest from Alexandria who emphasized the divinity of God the Father over Jesus the Son (in opposition to the Trinitarian doctrine of co-equality between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as being "of one essence," consubstantial, and coeternal, which became the basis of the Nicene Creed). He is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker due to the many miracles attributed to him. For instance, during a famine in 311–312, to feed the people of Myra, he prevailed on sailors to unload part of their wheat, destined for the emperor, but when the ship arrived in Constantinople the weight of the original load had not changed, even though enough had been removed to feed the populace for two years. He is also credited with resurrecting three young boys who had been lured into a butcher's house, murdered, and put into a barrel of brine to be cured for the purpose of being sold as ham. Another story concerns a man who could not afford a dowry for his three daughters: over three nights Nicholas threw three purses filled with gold coins into their house. (Some versions have him throwing one purse at a time over three years, on the night before each daughter came of age.) After the first two purses were delivered, the father tried to detect his benefactor's identity, so Nicholas dropped the third bag down the chimney instead of through the window; in one account, the purse fell into a stocking that the daughter had washed and hung over the embers to dry. He thus gained a reputation for secret gift-giving, so that on his feast day (6 December in the Gregorian calendar, in Western Christianity; 19 December in the Julian calendar, in Eastern Christianity), celebrants leave shoes out to be filled by others with coins. The day used to also be associated with a wild feast marked by costumes, overturning normal roles, and mass public drunkenness.

  3. In 1071 the Seljuq Turks defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert and gained temporary control over much of Asia Minor. Nicholas' tomb in Myra had become a popular place of pilgrimage, so in 1087, sailors from Bari removed part of his remains to their city in Italy in order to protect them from the Muslims and to acquire the commercial advantages of a major pilgrimage site (a decade later, during the First Crusade, other sailors moved the remaining relics to Venice for similar reasons). In 1442 Alfonso V of Aragon conquered Bari, which was thus part of Spain until the 18th century. Meanwhile, the count of Flanders, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, conquered Holland and, in 1433, united most of the Holy Roman Imperial and French fiefs in the lowlands in a personal union. The House of Valois-Burgundy and their Habsburg heirs thus ruled the area until 1581. The Habsburg emperor Charles V (who was also Charles I of Spain) formally created the Seventeen Provinces and extended Spanish influence in the area, including strengthening the cult of St. Nicholas. However, the Calvinist Protestants in the northern provinces (the modern Netherlands) revolted against Catholic Spain, gained their independence from Philip II, and prohibited celebration of saints and abolished public celebrations for a time. The government eventually allowed private family celebrations in honor of "Sinterklaas," a mythical figure whose name came from a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of the saint's name. In addition to Catholic and Spanish associations, Sinterklaas had also acquired traditions associated with the region's pre-Christian worship of Odin, including his flying on a gray or white horse, giving chocolate letters to children (Odin had given rune letters to mankind), carrying a staff (similar to Odin's spear), and being accompanied by black-faced helpers who listen at chimneys and then report to Sinterklaas if children are bad or good, much like Odin's ravens that reported to him about the activities of mortals after listening in at the holes in the roofs that allowed smoke out of their homes.

  4. Jan Schenkman combined most of the modern elements together in his illustrated children's book, "Sint-Nicolaas en zijn knecht (Saint Nicholas and his servant): delivering presents by the chimney, riding over the roofs of houses on a grey horse, arriving from Spain by steamboat, and the figure of Zwarte Piet instead of the medieval depictions of mock devils. The modern festivities begin on the first Saturday after 11 November), when Sinterklaas, on live TV, arrives from Spain by steamboat at a designated seaside town, parades through the streets on his horse, while the Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters), thought to be African Moors from Spain, or to have faces that are blackened by delivering presents via chimneys, throw candy and cookies into the crowd of cheering, singing children. Originally Sinterklaas was only accompanied by one Zwarte Piet(or sometimes two), but just after the liberation of the Netherlands in World WarII, Canadian soldiers organized a Sinterklaas party with many Zwarte Pieten, and ever since this has been the custom, each Piet normally having his own dedicated task. Sinterklaas carries a big, red book that contains a record of each child's behavior in the last year, and all of the characters carry a bag with candy for good children and a chimney sweep's broom made of willow branches to spank naughty ones. Some of the older Sinterklaas songs claim that bad children are also put in the bag to be taken back to Spain. Following the national arrival, towns with a dock celebrate their own local arrivals later the same day, the next day, or the following weekend. If the place is inaccessible by boat, Sinterklaas arrives by train, horse, horse-drawn carriage, or fire truck. Over the next few weeks, Sinterklaas visits schools, hospitals, and shopping centers. The formal gift giving occurs on 5 December in the north or on 6 December, Saint Nicholas Day itself, in the Catholic south. Before going to bed, children Sinterklaas songs and put their shoes next to the chimney of the coal-fired stove or fireplace or close to the central heating radiator, along with a bottle of beer for Zwarte Piet, a cup of coffee for Sinterklaas, and a carrot or sugar cubes or some hay and a bowl of water left nearby for the horse. The next day they find a small present or some treat in their shoes, typically candy, hot chocolate, mandarin oranges ("from Spain"), letter-shaped pastry filled with almond paste or a chocolate letter (the first letter of their name), chocolate coins, marzipan figures, gingerbread cookies, or a chocolate Sinterklaas wrapped in colored aluminum foil. (When children are old enough to give up their pacifier, they put it in a shoe (for "safekeeping by Sinterklaas") and find it replaced with chocolate the next morning.) In addition a note may be delivered telling where the main presents were hidden, or a neighbor pretending to be Zwarte Piet will knock on the door and and leave a sack outside, and they will be displayed and opened the next day.The presents are often creatively packaged in some humorous, unusual, or personalized way, and may be accompanied by poems "from Sinterklaas" bearing a personal message or humorously referring to bad habits or other character deficiencies.

  5. Sinterklaas is the basis for the North American figure called Santa Claus. During the American Revolution, New Yorkers reinvented their Sinterklaas tradition, as a symbol of the city's non-English past (it had formerly been the Dutch city of New Amsterdam). In 1810 John Pintard published a pamphlet advocating that St. Nicholas be named the patron Saint of New York; it included an English translation along with an old Dutch Sinterklaas poem that referred to him as "Sancta Claus." Two years later Washington Irving revised "A History of New York," inserting a dream sequence featuring St. Nicholas soaring over treetops in a flying wagon. In 1821, an illustrated poem, "A New-Year’s Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve," described Old Santeclaus in a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents for good children, and two years later "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (usually called "the Night Before Christmas") appeared, written perhaps by Clement Clarke Moore, professor of Divinity, Biblical Learning, and Oriental and Greek Literature at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church, though it may have actually been composed by his wife's distant relative, Henry Livingston. It was this poem that solidified most of the iconic features of Santa Claus, which were also beginning to permeate the United Kingdom.
    By 1852 the Scots were discussing children on New Year's Eve"hanging their stockings up on each side of the fire-place, in their sleeping apartments, at night, and waiting patiently till morning, to see what Santa Claus puts into them during their slumbers," and in 1853 a character in a newspaper short story in Ireland noted "...tomorrow will be Christmas. What will Santa Claus bring us?" But 1854 marked the English publication of "Carl Krinkin; or, The Christmas Stocking" by the American author Susan Warner, which featured both Santa Claus and Father Christmas. From that point on, the two figures began to merge into one in English custom. The first known English personification of Christmas was associated with merry-making, singing, and drinking: A 15th-century carol attributed to Richard Smart had "Sir Christemas" encouraging his listeners to drink: "Make good cheer and be right merry, And sing with us now joyfully: Nowell, nowell." Every year (until the archbishop prohibited it in 1572) York celebrated a figure representing Yule who carried bread and a leg of lamb while throwing nuts to the crowd. In the 16th and 17th centuries, "Captain Christmas,", "Prince Christmas," or "The Christmas Lord" presided over feasting and entertainments in grand houses, university colleges and Inns of Court. When the fundamentalist Puritans took over the government in the 1640s, they (like their Calvinist brethren in the Netherlands) made war against Christmas due its association with sin and pleasure. In 1647 Parliament actually abolished Christmas and the other traditional church festivals of Easter and Whitsun. In response, by 1658 anti-Puritan pamphleteers began linking "Old Father Christmas" with traditional English institutions and values. When the monarchy was restored in in 1660, most traditional Christmas celebrations were revived but popular interest waned, though Father Christmas himself survived as a stock character in the Christmas folk plays known as mummers plays. It was not until the Victorian period that Christmas customs enjoyed a significant revival, especially after the 1843 appearance of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol,"
    and Father Christmas was regularly represented as a jolly-faced, bearded man surrounded by food and drink in illustrated magazines of the 1840s. Until then, he had been concerned essentially with adult feasting and games, with no particular connection with children or with the giving of presents. But that changed as Father Christmas became synonymous with Santa Claus.


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