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Monday, 19 December 2011


Father Christmas, garbed in blue as traditionally described, bringing a little magic to my bookshelf! (Dr Karl Shuker)

It is nothing if not timely today to blog about the most elusive crypto-primate of all. Glimpsed on only a single night each year, when it is usually seen clambering over roof tops and disappearing down chimneys, it is famed for its distinctive red and white pelage, profuse facial hair, rotund body form, readily recognisable ‘ho ho ho’ triple cry, predilection for sherry and mince pies, and unique symbiotic relationship with reindeer.

Or, to phrase it another way, certain books of mine, most notably The Unexplained, Mysteries of Planet Earth, and Dr Shuker’s Casebook, have shown that my interests in mysteries and legends are not entirely limited to those of the cryptozoological and zoological varieties. Indeed, I have plans for another casebook, which, with stunning originality, will most probably be entitled Dr Shuker’s Second Casebook, and will include the following festive preview. Happy Christmas!


The exchanging of gifts is an intrinsic part of the Christmas celebrations, a popular tradition dating back to the very first Christmas, and even earlier - when the Romans offered tributes during the late December festival of Saturnalia, which Christmas replaced.

Today, the personification of gift provision at Christmas is Santa Claus. Nevertheless, this jolly red-suited, white-whiskered, rotund figure with a zest for ho-ho-hoing, reindeer roof-riding, and chimney-descending as he delivers presents to children is only of fairly recent origin - the modern-day product of many fascinating transformations and identity mergings down through the ages.

Indeed, Santa the gift-bringer most probably began life as we know him as a god - Odin (Woden), the chief deity of the Norsemen or Vikings. They believed that during December, Odin descended to earth in a chariot drawn by goats, or riding his famous eight-legged steed Sleipnir, temporarily deserting Asgard - heavenly abode of the gods - in order to bring gifts to his loyal human worshippers, thus helping to sustain them during the bleak, icy weather characterising winter in northern Europe. Odin typically wore a long blue hooded cloak, and possessed a profuse white beard - features retained in slightly modified form by his successor, Father Christmas.

In an attempt to limit the worst excesses of winter and to placate this fearful embodiment of Nature, later Scandinavian traditions involved nominating someone in each community to personify Winter. This fortunate person would then find himself invited to everyone's home, where he would be richly regaled with food and drink in a symbolic effort to pacify Winter.

Although, after having ingested and imbibed at a succession of houses, Winter's human ambassador was undoubtedly rendered exceedingly passive (if not entirely prostrate!), whether the same can be said for Winter itself is another matter entirely. Nevertheless, the custom proved popular, and travelled far, eventually reaching the British Isles, where the person representing Winter became known as Father Christmas.

Paradoxically, therefore, Father Christmas originated not as a giver but as a receiver of gifts. All this would change, however, courtesy of a much-loved archbishop from Myra in what is now southwestern Turkey. He lived from 280 AD to 6 December 345 AD, and was later canonised - becoming the patron saint of many diverse people, including boys, pawnbrokers, dockers, coopers, brewers, unsuccessful litigants, unmarried women, and sailors, as well as the inhabitants of Aberdeen and Russia. His name? St Nicholas.

Some of Santa Claus's most enduring traditions stemmed from the life or legends associated with St Nicholas. These included his bringing of gifts, because St Nicholas was well known for his great generosity. Moreover, he allegedly saved the three daughters of a poor man from being sold into prostitution by secretly throwing pursefuls of money into their house through an open window. One of these purses accidentally fell into a stocking that had been hung up to dry after being washed, which gave rise to the custom of putting out stockings at Christmas to be filled with gifts by Santa.

The celebration of St Nicholas became very popular in Europe, but especially so in Holland, where he was called Sinter Klaas. During the early 1600s, Dutch settlers established colonies in North America, and took their traditions of Sinter Klaas with them. Here they flourished, giving rise to a new Yuletide gift-giver, who became known as Santa Claus.

A fairy story from 1906 in which St Nicholas is depicted with many of the characteristics nowadays associated with Santa Claus

In Britain, meanwhile, Father Christmas reigned supreme, but also more sternly than his New World counterpart. For although Father Christmas ultimately became a gift-giver too, according to British custom he only gave gifts to good people, and he (or a helper) carried a cane for punishing those who had been wicked during the year.

Elsewhere in Europe, other gift-givers had also appeared on the scene. In Germany, for instance, Father Christmas is merely a messenger, communicating children's requests for gifts to Heaven - it is the Christ Child (Kriss Kringle), an angelic fair-haired child dressed in white, representing Jesus, who brings the gifts. Spanish children, conversely, receive theirs directly from the Three Kings; whereas in Russia a grandmotherly figure called Babouschka does the present-providing honours.

In southern Italy, a broomstick-riding woman called Befana drops presents down the chimney of every house on 5 January in the hope that one of them will be received by Jesus - to whom she did not give a present when He was born. This was because she was so busy sweeping her home with her broom that she was too late to visit Jesus before Mary and Joseph fled Bethlehem with Him to escape King Herod.

A modern-day cartoon representation of Befana, who is often depicted as a broomstick-riding witch-like figure more befitting of Hallowe-en than Christmas!

As for America: the evolution of today's Santa Claus continued apace with the penning in 1822 by a New York languages professor called Dr Clement Clarke Moore of his now world-renowned poem 'A Visit From St Nicholas', with its famous opening line: "'Twas the night before Christmas". This magical poem contained many of Santa's modern-day attributes, including his plump jolly form, vigorous laugh, sack of toys, reindeer-drawn sleigh, and his inimitable mode of entry into a house via the chimney.

In 1863, Harper's Illustrated Weekly published the first in a classic series of Santa engravings by Thomas Nast, who bestowed upon him an even more rotund, bewhiskered, beaming, toy-laden image. This transformation was completed during the early 1930s by a highly influential Coca-Cola advertising campaign, starring a jovial red-robed Santa skilfully designed by artist Haddon Sundblom. This rapidly became the definitive Santa Claus, delighting generations of children ever since - and not only in the U.S.A.

Just over a century ago, Christmas commercialism in America began to cross the Atlantic, infiltrating Europe and thus bringing the New World's legendary gift-giver with it. Inevitably, Britain's Odin-descended, blue-cloaked, hooded Father Christmas and St Nicholas's red-garbed, nightcap-wearing Santa Claus eventually merged into one. Indeed, many people today assume that these are merely alternative names for the same person - blithely unaware of their entirely separate origins.

Although, from a strictly historical perspective, this is undoubtedly a sad situation, I very much doubt that there will be many children eagerly anticipating the arrival of a certain sleigh-riding visitor this Christmas Eve who will worry too much about which name they should call him by - as long as he has brought with him a sackful of presents!

Typical representation of Santa Claus, garbed in red

Thursday, 15 December 2011


Rick Hart is and has been many things – a Vegas bartender, a US Air Force military man, an accomplished writer and eloquent poet (as this book readily demonstrates), a highly-skilled martial artist, and much else besides. But first, foremost, and forever, he is a biker.

Me with my copies of Rick's books (Dr Karl Shuker)

Sin City Rider: Memoirs Of A Vegas Biker, Rick's second book, following on from his equally enjoyable and insightful Lines On The Bar – Whiskey On The Rocks, is a thrilling eye-opener of a read, recounting his years as a member of a back-patch motorcycle club beginning in the early 1970s. In it, he strips bare the many romantic, nonsensical images of what being in what is often termed an outlaw club is all about, revealing the true, sometimes gritty, often eventful, but always honour-bound reality. Because despite what you may have read elsewhere, being a club member is much more than riding a bike with your buddies and wearing the colours – it is about loyalty, dignity, being there for your bros, and – above all else – commitment.

Back cover of Sin City Rider

In his club, Rick – or Turk, to give him his club name – was the Sergeant at Arms, responsible for maintaining order and discipline, and the club certainly chose the right man for the job. Rick is someone who others cherish greatly as a friend, knowing that he will ever be there for you, but fear greatly as an enemy, knowing that he will never not be there against you. And once again, the key theme to these twin aspects is commitment – never giving up on anyone or anything, and as his book so evocatively confirms, Rick never does.

This overriding sense of commitment shines through every page of Rick's words, with which he recounts in an engagingly laid-back but ruthlessly honest style of writing just some of the many adventures, good and bad, that he and his fellow club members experienced over the years. There is humour, frustration, surprise, tragedy (I guarantee the final chapter will tear your heart out!), revenge, joy, disappointment, and so much more here, plus a section in which he describes how he felt one night when entirely alone in the Nevada desert outside Vegas with just his Harley for company that is quite simply some of the most evocative poetry that I have ever read.

Many bikers (myself included) have dreamed at some stage or another in our lives of what it must be like to belong to an 'outlaw' motorcycle club, but few of us have shown the courage and single-minded determination to live that dream, to abandon so much of the trappings and chains of the modern age in search of freedom and comradeship, a brotherhood linked by two wheels and the open road. Rick, however, is one of those few who did just that (the chapter in which he describes how he became a patch holder is one of my personal favourites), and this fine book is a moving, spirited testament to that choice.

If you're a biker like me, you will devour page after page of Sin City Rider with a gnawing hunger to experience those long runs with Rick and his bros down the wide, starkly beautiful desert highways – I read it from cover to cover while on holiday recently, and enjoyed every last word. And if you're not a biker, then I strongly suggest that you read this book without delay, and see what you've been missing out on all these years!

And don't forget to check out Rick's previous book too, Lines On The Bar: Whiskey On The Rocks, for an exhilarating, eye-opening insight into the other, much less glamorous, darker side of Las Vegas.

To order either or both of Rick's books online, just click on them at,,, or directly from their publisher, Xlibris, at - or, if you prefer, you can order by phone from Xlibris on (within the U.S.A.) 888-795-1274 ext 7879, or place an order through your local bookstore.

You need these books! (Dr Karl Shuker)