Category Archives: Holidays

Halloween, Christmas, and other occasions to celebrate

Inventing Christmas

While not always classified among the most intellectual of writers, Charles Dickens was a complicated man. Able to conjure words that reflect emotions, often making readers laugh and cry, he was the undisputed bestselling author of his day. This holiday season the movie The Man Who Invented Christmas explores one of the probable reasons for Dickens’ celebrity—the resuscitory success of his first holiday novel, A Christmas Carol. The film was based on a non-fiction work by the same title, written by Les Standiford, subtitled How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. As an author who found early fame, it might seem counterintuitive to those of us who’ve never found any that Dickens’ career would need rescuing. In the publishing world, fame has to be sustained since few books keep on selling and selling. And Dickens didn’t always help himself.

Dickens’ choice of Christmas as a theme was, obviously, driven by his own warmth regarding the season. As Standiford makes clear, however, it was also driven by money. Like many in today’s world, Dickens had established his comfort at pecuniary liability—he lived on credit. He also supported other family members and although he cared for the poor he often resented those who cost him money through irresponsibility. Christmas was a time when, he hoped, people might be encouraged to give. Some of that money, naturally, would go toward the purchase of his book. Although the story was secular, it gained the approbation of many in the church—it encourages thinking of others and being generous. Complicated.

As we get closer to Christmas this year, it seems that Dickens’ message bears loud and constant repeating. Here in the States, our government has taken on a decidedly Scrooge-like cast when it comes to the poor and unfortunate. Indeed, “bah, humbug” might well be the new motto of the Grand Old Party. Shown evidence of the guilt of the miser in chief they only claim that those who discover such truth are lovers of false truth, such as claiming that the poor really suffer with want. They close ranks to ensure that the downtrodden can never vote them out of power and claim that Bob Cratchit’s problem is that he’s lazy and Tiny Tim is a burden on the misunderstood wealthy who only ever wanted to help others. A huge difference is that Dickens knew his novel was fiction. This holiday season the ghosts visiting us will be the emaciated spirits of democracy past, present, and future, and that of human decency.

Popularity for Purchase

I only watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with one eye. Since my office is just two blocks from the store, it’s a little too much like work. Still, I can’t help but hear the music and announcements. Is it just me, or are most of these floats and balloons trying to sell me something? Okay, so it takes a while for the light to dawn—it is Macy’s parade, after all. This is the kickoff to the holiday shopping season. Santa Claus is the greatest shopper of them all. We are a nation that defines itself not by what it can produce, but what it can consume. Conspicuous wealth. Showing what you’ve got. I’m afraid I just don’t get it.

Those of us who grew up poor, so the thinking goes, should want to display our accomplishments like a peacock. We should want to show others that we’ve made it. That we can play the spending game just like everybody else. We’ll always have the poor with us, so why not demonstrate to them the vapidness to which they can aspire?

An old-fashioned guy, I check my email on a computer. Gmail divides my messages up into three tabs so that I can pay attention to people who actually want to contact me. The third tab is reserved for those seeking my money. Sitting in a waiting area, I decide to check my email on my phone. It says I have close to two-thousand messages. It’s that third tab. I tend to ignore it since I already know what everyone wants me to play. The messages in tab three build up to biblical proportions while I try to figure out how to handle all the other things I have to do.

Not only did I grow up poor, I was also a small guy. That meant when teams were being picked in gym class I was always among the last selected. I’m not aggressive. The indigent know their place. My religion taught me that this was about right. Seeking for one’s self instead of for others is wrong. Although I’ve been through advanced training since then, those early lessons remain with me. When those who have goods to offer discover my email address, they crowd it full, hoping that I’ll be one of many to spend the little I earn on them. Instead, I remember standing on the vacant lot while the neighborhood kids are dividing up into teams. The lines are getting small, and I’m awaiting someone to notice my potential. Of course, they’ll have to wait until I get through all of this email because, in reality, I’m obviously quite a popular guy.

Inventing Breaks

Breaks are good for many things. Time with family and friends. Hours of non-bus time for reading. Watching movies. So it was that we went to see The Man Who Invented Christmas. It really is a bit early for my taste, to think about Christmas, but the movie was quite welcome. Being a writer—I wouldn’t dare to call myself an author—one of my favorite things to do is talk about writing. Watching a movie about it, I learned, works well also. The conceit of the characters following Dickens around, and refusing to do what he wants them to should be familiar to anyone who’s tried their hand at fiction. My experience of writing is often that of being a receiver of signals. It is a transcendent exercise.

Not only that, but in this era of government hatred of all things creative and intellectual, it is wonderful to see a film about writing and books. The reminder about the importance of literacy and thought is one we constantly have to push. If we let it slip, as we’ve discovered, it may well take considerable time to recover. Getting lost in my fiction is one of my favorite avocations. Solutions to intractable problems come at most improbable times. Although publishers tend to disagree with me, I find the stories compelling. In the end, I suppose, that’s what really matters.

On an unrelated note, this is the second movie I’ve seen recently that attributes non-human actors their real names in the cast listing. What a welcome break from the blatant speciesism that pervades life! Animals have personalities and identities. Humans have often considered the privilege of being named to be theirs alone. True, animals can’t read and wouldn’t comprehend a human art form such as cinema. But when they communicate with each other, they may well have names for us. The beauty of a story such as A Christmas Carol is that it reminds of the importance of generosity. We should be generous to those who take advantage of our kindness. Our time. Our energy. We should also be generous to those who aren’t human but are nevertheless important parts of our lives. The movie may have come too early for my liking, but the holiday spirit should never be out of season. If we’ve made a world that only appreciates kindness because much of the rest of the year is misery, it means we’ve gone too far. Films can be learning experiences too, no matter the time of year.

Spinning Wheels

That warm, secure feeling of being home for the holidays never goes away. Admittedly Thanksgiving takes on a different cast for those of us who are vegetarians becoming vegan, but it’s not about the food, really. It’s never been only just about the food. Thankfulness as a way of life seems to hard to obtain when your own government has turned against all the principles that once made America a wonderful nation in which to have been born, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be grateful. As a commuter, I’m especially thankful for time. Each day’s normally spent riding a bus, working, and riding again. Over the past several days I took a train to Boston for the AAR/SBL annual meeting, and then a long train ride back. Followed by a single-day drive to Ithaca and back. I’m thankful for a little time not to be on the move.

Among the many memories for which I’m grateful is a mountain road that divides Glen Kinglas and Glen Croe in Scotland. Known for its splendid view, it’s one of many places that I have had the privilege of visiting. Although sitting still, here in my chair, I recall yet another busy day of driving with friends. Poor graduate students all, we nevertheless knew the value of good company and taking little for granted. As someone who grew up poor, I had managed to move to Boston, travel to Israel and work on a dig, and now I was living in Edinburgh, working toward a doctorate in one of the world’s great universities. That afternoon, however, I was out viewing what the wider world had to offer. The name of the viewpoint on the A83—from which that world all seemed visible—was “Rest and Be Thankful.”

The name speaks volumes. New Jersey certainly isn’t Scotland. My job is not that for which I trained. I continue to live as if I were a graduate student while friends have purchased houses and furnished them nicely. Today none of that matters. I’m not on a bus, train, or plane. I’m not glued to my seat in an automobile. I’m thankful to have some time to sit and reflect. Catch up, perchance, on a little bit of sleep. Unstructured time is perhaps the rarest commodity in a capitalistic society. Today I have it in relative abundance. No turkeys have lost their lives on my account and I’m able to rest and be thankful. There’s still a long way to go, but for today I’ll enjoy family and stillness. And I am thankful.

All Hallows Eve

I can tell that I’ve been far too busy when I don’t have time to prepare for Halloween. I don’t mean commercially—running out and buying decorations and the like—but mentally. For reasons perhaps only understood by psychologists, Halloween is my favorite holiday. I love the comfort of being with my small family on Thanksgiving and Christmas, huddled inside while the cold whistles against our windows. The sense of relief at not having to go to work even though it’s a weekday, and that increasingly rare luxury of simple breathing space. Still, Halloween takes me back to a childhood with which I resonate in a way against which other holidays only vibrate in sympathy. The days are undeniable darker. My fears, I’m told, are not unfounded. I wear a mask and am free to be myself.

Commuting prevents me from getting out to see the decorations for which some neighborhoods have become notorious. The large, billowing, air-filled frights, however, are just hot air. Even the younger generation at the office, whispering among themselves that this is also their favorite holiday, decorate their cubicles in a way that’s more cute than chilling. No, I’m not a fan of gore—this is more subtle than that. Those who’ve long dwelt with existential angst are connoisseurs of dread. We know, for example, that it will be many months now before we step out into the morning light or come home from work able to see our way clearly. The shades of darkness aren’t always the same. There’s a texture to them. To prepare properly, you need time. The very commodity of which I’m being drained.

Those who know me as a mild, “uncomplicated” sort of person don’t know me. They’ve only become accustomed to the Halloween mask that I wear almost constantly now. Life can do that to you. Instead of the creepy novels which generally crowd my autumn, I’ve been spending time with the existentialists, listening to them reflect on death and its meaning. Or lack thereof. Religions, of course, hurl themselves into that void offering plans of escape. And yet in October that man who walks his dog before dawn wearing a white bathrobe sure looks like a ghost to me. And I’m standing on this street corner utterly alone as the wind blows down the avenue, chasing frightened leaves past me, sending a chill down my spine. I’m looking forward to sitting on a bus to get out of the cold. I’m complicit, I realize, in the death of Halloween.

Nicholas of Myra

It may be a little early to start thinking about Christmas, but archaeologists don’t often worry about timing. A piece in the Washington Post announced something of potential interests to hagiographers everywhere—Saint Nicholas may still actually be in his tomb. According to the article by Cleve R. Wootson Jr., bandits broke in and stole the relics of the saint centuries ago. In fact, they took them to Bari where a thriving cult grew up around the giving bishop. It seems, however, that they got the wrong tomb. If the analysis is correct, Nicholas of Myra is right where they put him sixteen centuries ago.

Photo credit: Bjoertvedt, via Wikimedia Commons

None of this, however, impacts Christmas as we know it. The relationship between the historical Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus is a wide-ranging and fascinating one. Stories of generosity surrounded Nicholas during and after his earthly life. It took centuries of evolution to get from that to what we now accept as standard Christmas mythology. In the early—pre-rampant capitalist—United States Christmas wasn’t much observed. It was even illegal in some places. Too Popish to appeal to the dissenter sensibilities that made up the colonial majority, the holiday season simply did not exist. It was, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “winter without Christmas.” For those of us who grew up with warm memories of presents, special foods, and days off the obligations of school, such an existence is difficult to imagine.

The feast of Saint Nicholas falls on December 6. Because of its proximity to the revisionist birthday of Jesus on December 25, the gifts of the Magi and the storied presents of Nicholas to families in need eventually merged. The holy days eventually became spending days and the whole jumble of Yule and other solstice celebrations got mixed into a wonderfully tolerant holiday. And all this time we thought Saint Nicholas was missing. He was missing in his own grave.

Miracles are attributed to the relics of saints. I suspect they work even if the wrong bones are plundered. Belief is like that. Historically, little is actually known of Nicholas of Myra. Little is known of Jesus of Nazareth, for that matter. The holiday that grew up in the wake of those willing to give, and to give to those who were undeserving, is a lesson that seems to have been interred with their bones. “So let it be with Santa,” you can almost hear Mark Antony say, standing before Congress, itching to slash any safety nets so one-percenters can have the happiest holiday season ever. Yes, Saint Nicholas is well and truly dead.

Ocean Blue

I suspect with Trump in office Columbus Day will get a boost. After all, it’s the narrative of the white man coming to America and improving on what anybody else had done. Making America great, one might say. That wobbly narrative has been justifiably under fire for some time. Not least for historical reasons. We know beyond reasonable doubt that the Vikings were here before Columbus. Ironically, the savage Vikings appear the more benign of the two. A friend recently sent me a story from Realm of History that asks “Did The Irish Reach The New World Before The Vikings And Columbus?” The story by Alok Bannerjee tells of St. Brendan, a sixth-century Irish monk who may have made the voyage even before the Vikings. And don’t get me started on the Bat Creek inscription or the Kensington Runestone.

The problem with early history is that it’s early. Evidence, when it exists, is rare and often perishable. We know that the technology to cross the Atlantic existed at least as early as the Phoenicians. And we know that no matter how crazy others tell us we are, people are insanely curious. And those who go down to the sea in ships might even make it into the Bible. Objections to anyone making it to the “New World” prior to the Vikings tells us something of the nature of orthodoxy. Yes, historians and scientists have it too. Orthodoxy is where evidence crosses the line into belief. And belief, as I’ve often said, is difficult to dislodge.

So, am I throwing open the doors for any who wish to claim they were here first? Hardly. Well maybe. My own opinions aside, when unorthodox evidence arises, what should we do? The traditional response of “when in doubt, throw it out” may not serve us well. Perhaps we should have a shelf, or locker somewhere. A receptacle in which we might store the stories. When I was a kid learning about Columbus, teachers doubted Vikings had made it this far. Orthodoxy has had to back off on the Norsemen, of course, since archaeology now backs them up. Vineland was a reality, it seems. Even before the purported Irish or Phoenicians, the first nations were here. Where is their federal holiday? We don’t like to think about that. Far too much investing in “superiority” has gone into it. It’s Columbus Day and most of us are at work anyway. Some of us dreaming of new worlds all the same.