Saturday, December 17, 2011

How to Improve the Holiday

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, it’s nearly Christmas.

This is one of the things that has sort of snuck up on me this year, more than most years, and as I emerge out of my semester-long immersion into ancient world history (want to know about Mansa Musa? Go ahead – ask me anything…) the fact that the Yuletide season is here is sort of hitting me all at once. There’s been no lead-in time this year. One minute it was mid-November and I was vaguely thinking about Thanksgiving and wondering what had happened to the Halloween candy, and the next: Fa-la-la-la-la up to my ai-ai-ai-ai-eyeballs.

Now, Christmas has long been one of my favorite holidays. But the old story about the boiled frog is definitely in play this year – I’ve had not time to get used to the season gradually, so a lot of things that normally just float by me unnoticed are a bit more front and center.

And some of them, frankly, have got to go.

So here are a few things that I think the Christmas season would be better off without. Don’t say I never gave you anything.

1. Commercials where grown men try to sound like elves.

I don’t know why this happens every year, but for some reason advertisers – especially local advertisers – seem to feel that if you put things in elfin terms people will be more likely to buy them. Of course the big local example this year is a car dealership trying to get you to purchase the latest M-1 Abrams SUV (“Complete with its own zip code!”), which sort of makes me question the wisdom of the whole “elf” motif, but there you go. Remember, folks – grown men trying to sound like elves is not cute. It’s creepy. Go easy on the helium, lay off the psychedelics, and hire better writers.

2. Similarly, any commercial that pads its soundtrack with incessant jingling.

Seriously. It’s not festive. It just sounds like you’re playing with your keys too much, and I’m not about to shake hands on a deal with someone who spends that much time with their hands in their pockets.

3. Country/western Christmas carols about how new shoes are a sign of God’s love.

I’m fairly sure this isn’t in the Bible anywhere. I’m also fairly sure that gift-giving – while intensely fun and certainly nothing I will ever complain about (too much) – is not the center of the season. Dressing it up in 4/4 time and a smothering string arrangement is schmaltz, not sentiment, and the irony of that is just way too much for me right now.

4. NBA basketball

Am I the only person in America who was sort of disappointed that the NBA decided not to cancel their season? I’ve never really understood the appeal of a game where you’re not allowed to play defense and teams routinely score over a hundred points in increments of two so I’m probably not their target market anyway, but somehow the knowledge that oddly elongated men are out there bouncing a ball around on Christmas Day does not make me feel merrier. Oddly enough, though, football games do. I’m not sure why.

5. White men in blue suits pretending they’re fighting a beleaguered defense of what is, after all, the most popular holiday in America, in some personal fantasy world they call “The War On Christmas.”

First of all, these guys need to get a life. Wars involve bloodshed, chaos and no small amount of personal courage, and mouthing snarky, demonstrably false talking points from comfortably appointed newsdesks hardly qualifies. You want to fight a war in defense of Christmas? Go to North Korea and see what you can do. You won’t even have to start a new war, since the Korean War is still technically ongoing.

Second, the only people in what is now the United States who have ever seriously argued for making Christmas illegal – and who actually succeeded in doing so – were Puritans, who felt that the celebration was an ungodly travesty of true faith. Given that the 17th-century Puritans lived their Christianity in a way that modern Americans can’t even conceive, let alone match, I see no reason why I should have to put up with blowhards trying to score political points with idiots by pretending to defend my holiday. Christmas doesn’t need you, gents. Now crawl back under your rocks and leave the rest of us alone.


vince said...

I pretty much could care less about any professional sports, or college sports (professional-lite). So as in the past, I'll continue celebrating Christmas in part by not watching basketball.

As for the "War on Christmas", if you haunt the right places on the Internet, you'll see a lot of conservative Christians who have launched their own "War on Christmas", claiming it is crass commercialism filled with pagan rituals on a date with no pretense to historicity. I present Exhibit A: We Don't Celebrate Christmas Because.

David said...

Well, that was an interesting link.

"Wen don't celebrate Christmas because ...the name Christmas came from "Mass of Christ," and Christians hate the Catholic mass."

Seriously? All Christians? Don't Catholics count? I wonder about those people, really I do.


Actually, while I was familiar with it from my own historical studies, I have to say that the whole Puritan conflict with Christmas was brought back into my mind by your excellent post on the subject last week, Vince. For those interested, it's at:

I can remember researching my first dissertation, the one that never passed my adviser's "Great story, so what?" test. It was centered on Samuel Eaton, who was the Congregationalist minister at Harpswell, Maine, from 1764 to 1822 or so (the exact dates are fuzzy to me now). I was rather surprised to read the primary sources and discover that he never celebrated Christmas either.

Learn something new every day if you're not careful.

John the Scientist said...

Catholics aren't Christians Dave. We need to send you to a Southern Baptist re-education camp. ;p

A couple more things Christmas can do without. The @T$#@&$@#^@$)ing (yeah there were a lotta swear words to blank out) 12 Days of Christmas. Conspicuous consumption for titled medieval inbred clowns is just not cool.

And the Chipmunks. I swear, if I ever invent a time machine, the first thing I'm going to do is go back and snuff out Ross Bagdasarian before he can write Witch Doctor, that racist piece of crap he used to create Alvin and company's irritating sound. Yeah, I could use a chill pill, why do you ask? :D

Rufus Dogg said...

Thank you for bringing a sense of history to the discussion. All these "religious freedom" idiots have no idea that the Puritans were kicked out of England, then Holland and stuffed onto leaky boats and shoved off the shores toward the edge of the flat Earth with the hopes that they will drown and take their power-hungry sin-infested attitudes with them because they wanted to impose religion on people, not allow them religious freedom. But they survived through a lot of dumb luck and help from unsuspecting natives and kept procreating into the mess we have today with the Tea Party, Evangelicals and Fox News who want to set up some sort of theocracy in these United States of America.

But not ban Christmas because that is when Jesus was born, not when filthy heretical peasants celebrated with wine, women and song.. right? Right?

Most people in this country need to crack a book. Christmas is a secular celebration that has been co-opted by religious wing-nuts. Thank God (or someone) for Macy's and other retailers for showing us the true meaning of Christmas; spiked eggnog, parades and reckless spending on crap we don't need.

Fortunately for me, I was raised Catholic (and don't you dare call us Christian! That's like calling a Ritz a cracker) so I can go to confession after I pepper-spray a defenseless mother and her child (not THAT one) in the face whilst fighting my private war for a Wii.

Damn, I need a drink.

David said...

John, sending me to a Southern Baptist anything would just not end well. ;) I’m with you on the Chipmunks, though I stopped being able to take The Twelve Days of Christmas seriously in high school, when my choir director made us learn The Twelve Days After Christmas.

Rufus, Christmas is another example of the early church co-opting holidays they couldn’t beat, much like Easter. I don’t have a problem with that, particularly. By doing so, the church effectively conceded control over those holidays, which is why the hardliners often don’t celebrate them (see Vince’s link).

I will say that the Puritan attitude was a bit more complex than just straight theocracy. They sought religious freedom, which to them meant “the freedom to practice religion correctly” rather than be interfered with by the English and Dutch and all their “tolerance” stuff. This is why they were not tolerant – why go to the trouble to set up a colony just to tolerate what they saw as error?

Except that the more radical Puritans took it a step further and argued that the church should stay uncontaminated by the world and out of politics altogether. Thus you get Rhode Island, whose separation of church and state in the 1630s represented a firm tolerance and a challenge to the theocracy of Massachusetts.

Eventually the communitarian aspect of Puritan culture ended up trumping the theocratic aspect – Rhode Island wins – muting it into Congregationalism and then into more and more diffuse religious strains until you get a fairly open culture.

The modern evangelical movement has its origins in the Second Great Awakening which began in New England, but it is not really a New England thing – it has its deepest roots in the Appalachian and Deep South regions, where it continues to reign. The modern theocrats tend not to be Yankees.

John the Scientist said...

The Second Great Awakening was the worst thing to ever hit the South, General Sherman included. You can still see the Cavaliers in some of the more decadent stuff in Margaret Mitchell (and in certain white trash counterparts), but for the most part, the South looks more like the Puritans than the Northeast does. However, there is still some remnant of those strains in the Yankee propensity to stick their nose in other peoples' business, and in the stubborn refusal of my state to repeal Blue laws. It's strange how the Northeast is now mainly tolerant (never saw so many Unitarian churches until I moved up ehre) with undertones of Purtianism, while the South is mostly Puritan with undertones of the Cavaliers. A complete role reversal that the SGA brought on.

David said...

I can see I’m going to need to do a post on this all by itself!

I firmly agree with you that the 2GA was a cultural calamity of … (wait for it) … Biblical proportions as far as the South is concerned, but to say that this means it looks more “Puritan” than the northeast is to misunderstand both Puritans and the 2GA.

Universalist churches are what you get when Puritans stop having theology and start having coffee hour after church (which I do not mean as a criticism). They’re an offshoot of Congregationalism that got big in the late 18th and early 19th century, mainly as a descendent of the Enlightenment-influenced “Liberal Christianity” of Charles Chauncey, et al – the version of Christianity that the 1GA was created to oppose. Sometimes it’s called “moderate Deism” to differentiate it from the radical Deism of the French Revolution. It was highly intellectualized, relatively bloodless, easily contained within a Newtonian Cosmos of natural laws, and the antithesis of both 1GA and 2GA thinking, albeit in different ways.

2GA evanglicalism is a whole different animal from Puritanism. Where the 1GA was a call to Puritan roots, the 2GA was a blend of 18th-century Dissenting theology (notably Baptists and Methodists) and 19th-century liberalism (equality, perfectionism, individualism). It looks similar on the ground in some ways – a persistent and coercive moralizing, a refusal to mind one’s own business, an insistence that church and state are not separable – but it is not Puritan in mindset or intent.

TimBo said...

Just to get back to the point of your post, Mansa Musa:
- Sign?
- Favourite colour?
- Turn ons & turn offs?

John the Scientist said...

Oh, yeah, I know the roots are quite different, but practically, it just means there are two paths to reach the same patch of idiocy, no?

Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR came from different roots, but on the ground (and within both Parties) the situation in both looked remarkably simlar, or at least had striking similarities.

The main difference between Purianism and the results of the SGA that I can see having lived in both areas, was that the progeny of the SGA were not spearatists, but Evangelicals. Evangelicals are willing to stick their nose not only into their neighbor's business, but into the business of people they don't even know. The Puritans in general had a very local outlook.

John the Scientist said...

Oh, and the closest to the Puritans we have today are not the Evangelicals, but the Amish, in their separatist ways.

Rufus Dogg said...

@Dave Yes, the Puritan thingie is more complex, but nuance doesn't play nice with snark. As such, I am now eagerly awaiting the post where you guide us through how the Puritans got here, the trajectory they stuck the US on and why politicians keep harkening back to them as an example of religious freedom.

BTW, my daughter is mostly all the way through a BA in history and we have long discussions about the influence of religion and literature on our present-day America, i.e., how the heck did we get so screwed up. Me with my strict Catholic upbringing and English degree and her with her agnostic upbringing and inquisitive mind, it gets a bit exciting. She finds the latter part of the Antebellum Period .. um "enlightening," which tells me that we are probably terrible about teaching it in high school. I think I will include your blog now on the very long list of stuff she should be reading (which I'm sure she will get to eventually.. yes, I am sure...)

David said...

I’m just going to answer these individually. :)


Mansa Musa was the ruler of the African empire of Mali between 1312 and 1337, and one of the most powerful men in the world at the time. He vastly expanded the West African empire, to the point where it began to bump up against the northern African Berbers, and he ruled over a population roughly double that of England. His government was far more efficient than anything in Europe and was on par with the contemporary Yuan Dynasty in China in terms of sophistication.

My favorite story for him is that when Mansa Musa made the hajj – he, like his empire, was Muslim – he stopped in Cairo on the way and “spread upon Cairo the flood of his generosity” to such a degree that he single-handedly managed to devalue the currency of Egypt and cause ruinous inflation for a generation.

That’s wealth.

David said...


Well, I suppose it depends on how broadly you define “same patch of idiocy.”

Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR looked the same because they were the same. Both were totalitarian states bent on reshaping their citizens from the ground up and the inside out, which meant a reliance on propaganda, secret police, extra-judicial state power, and violence in the search for a new citizen. That Germany was a Fascist state (the totalitarian form of nationalism) and the USSR a Stalinist state (the totalitarian form of socialism) spoke to the specific goals and motivations of each, but in practice the tactics and practical realities were largely identical. I spend about four classes, all told, setting this up in my Western Civ II course.

I don’t think we’re going to agree on this one, because to me the differences between Puritans and Evangelicals are just too great to be patched over by tactical similarities unless you’re willing to lower the requirements for “same patch of idiocy” to “willingness to impose a narrow religious viewpoint on an entire society.” In that case, you’d be right and I suppose you could substitute “theocracy” for “totalitarian states” in the previous paragraph for the analogous argument.

But the religious viewpoints in question are so dramatically different that I’m not sure that analogy would hold. Where the Puritans were communitarian, Calvinist and hierarchical, the evangelicals were individualistic, perfectionist and equalitarian. Puritans valued intellect; evangelicals see no use for it and prefer emotions. Puritans valued theology; evangelicals are almost Quaker in their insistence on an unmediated personal relationship with God. Puritans expected self-sacrifice in the name of common good; evangelicals stress the atomized individual (which is why their otherwise baffling love of Ayn Rand almost makes sense). Other than a general sense of a religiously defined society, the two don’t look anything alike even in tactical terms on the ground.

Most Puritans were not Separatists. Only the most hard-core Puritans called themselves that. We call them Pilgrims, and they founded the colony of Plymouth. The overwhelming majority were Non-Separatists – those were the ones who founded Massachusetts and every other New England colony. The German Anabaptist sects (Amish, Mennonites, etc) come from a very different tradition, and their Separatism looks nothing like the Separatism of the Pilgrims. Amish separatism is about separating from a sinful world. Puritan separatism was about separating from a corrupt church.

I’m not really sure who the closest analogue of Puritans would be these days. I’d have to think about that.

David said...


Snark is so much more fun than nuance, isn’t it? ;) I will try to work on that post, though it may take me a while (and the more I think about it, the more it seems like it will have to be more than one post – well, at least I’ve got ideas!)

Thanks for the recommendation to your daughter! I appreciate it. The influence of religion on American history is vast and often distorted by both people who wish to minimize it and people who wish to maximize it. I always tell my classes that the US is not a Christian Nation – the Founding Fathers were very clear about that in the late 1700s, and even if you go back to the colonial foundations there are any number of different answers to that question – but it is a nation made up (historically and currently) overwhelmingly of Christians, and some of the most zealous Christians on earth at that. You cannot hope to understand American history unless you understand American religious history.

The latter part of the antebellum period is enlightening in many ways. For one thing, it was the last time the US got into a serious Culture War in its national politics. And you know how well that turned out.

TimBo said...

That's interesting stuff about Mansa Musa, but you've avoided my questions. "Want to know about Mansa Musa? Go ahead – ask me anything", you said. I'm askin'.
a) What is his sign?
b) Favourite colour?
c) Turn ons & turn offs?

David said...

As historians have best reconstructed the data:

Sign: “Merge Left”
Favorite color: Gold
Turn-ons: Power, wealth, long walks on the savannah, women with big … uh … dowries.
Turn-offs: Encroaching desertification, smugglers, debased Egyptian currency, dishonesty, infidel beliefs.

TimBo said...

Nicely done. Much more amusing, in my eyes, than any discussion of any Great Awakening.

Jeri said...

1) the original Twelve Days of Christmas is far inferior to Bob and Doug's excellent version, which ends with "And a beer. In a tree."

2) Is it wrong that your original post made me want to go shoe shopping? Really, my closet demonstrates that God loves me very much.

David said...

Is it wrong that your original post made me want to go shoe shopping?

Not as long as you don't sing about it. ;)

tellthestories said...

Heard the dang song on the radio on my way back from a meeting. Punched the "off" button on the radio instantly.