Category Archives: Holidays

Halloween, Christmas, and other occasions to celebrate

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.

Diverse Colors

After a warm snap, we’re not at peak color here in New Jersey. Some trees have changed, yes, and leaves have begun to fall, but green prevails. While on a walk with my wife—a luxury only available on weekends with my commuting schedule—I spotted a bit of red amid the leaves on a local stream. Litter, and not just the leaf kind, is a bit of a problem in Jersey, but this splotch of red seemed intentional. It was taller than it was wide. It was standing in the middle of a shallow brook. Its placement looked intentional. What couldn’t be discerned from the bank is just what this was. It might be a Buddha. It might be Ganesh. It does seem, no matter how it’s reasoned out, to be religious.

Archaeologists often find objects with no known utility. If an artifact has no practical function such an object is generally deemed religious. For much of human history, before the madness of capitalism, people owned only the necessities. Life was hard and lifespans were short. Accumulating stuff as an end in itself was a luxury only for kings and priests and the relatively few merchants in urban settings. An object found from that time, then, with no known function, must somehow be religious. An object of cultic devotion. Those of us trained in the history of religions would sometimes laugh at this predisposition. Religion is the basket for anything that can’t be otherwise explained. So it seemed with this red statue—it was clearly human-made—standing in the stream. We were walking by a ritual site, perhaps. Maybe it was just a joke.

Then I recalled Ganesh Chaturthi, the ritual submersion of Lord Ganesh that transpired in late August this year. It is a numinously charged season, this descent into autumn. My Jewish friends have just celebrated a new year. Pagans made proper observation of the equinox. Preparations, at least of the commercial kind, are well underway for Halloween. They are all colors. Although spring’s first buds are welcome after a monochromatic winter, soon we transition into the green of summer. We miss the benefits of many colors. At moments like this on the banks of a brook with yellow and brown highlighting the green that remains on the trees, I’m again reminded how wonderful diversity truly is. I am in the presence of a god. It may not be my deity, but I’m not threatened by the difference. Nature is a patient master for those willing to attend to the lessons.

Sense or Ship

I can tell I’ve been too busy when I haven’t planned for Banned Book Week. A kind of unofficial holiday since, well, it’s about banned things, the point of this observation is that we should be free to read. A fairly large portion of the fiction I read anyway, at one point or another, ends up on the banned list. Not surprisingly, most banned books have diversity content—racial or sexual minorities portrayed in sympathetic ways. Trump has shown us clearly how dangerous such thinking can be. It’s well known that such perspectives are allied with some evangelical Christian interests, or, perhaps I should say, lack of tolerance. There are lots of ways of looking at the world out there, and many of them aren’t evil. I should’ve planned ahead.

Censorship implies a certain arrogance. One way of looking at things is right and all others are wrong. Although we all know that any logical system runs up against its limits (we call them paradoxes) we’re reluctant to let go of that which we suppose, with or without justification, to be right. Banning is an effort to control minds. It’s no coincidence that many of the titles on banned and challenged lists are intended for younger readers. Those who favor censorship want to close the eyes of the young and pretend the real world will just go away. Yes, many of the banned books are fiction, but fiction tells us truths. Those who ban books are uncomfortable with such truths. That’s not to say all literature is created equal, or that all banned books are great literature. As someone who writes fiction, though, I can attest how difficult it is to get it published. That in itself tells us something.

It’s banned book week and here I am without a banned book to read. I’ve got some ideas, of course. My wife and I both take on book reading challenges each year. One of this year’s books (at least) was a banned title, but one that I read too far in advance. Besides, although we have too many books in our apartment already, I used Banned Book Week as an allowance to go to the bookstore. What better way to fight literary fascism than to buy a book? The problem is deciding which one. The lists are long and grow longer each year. Intolerance, it seems, knows no limits. I’m about to do my civic duty for this time of year. I’m about to go to a bookstore and buy a banned book.

Ned Ludd and Company

I’m sure you’ve seen them too. Maybe in the movies, or on a newsreel, or maybe on a filmstrip in school. I’m referring to those scenes, usually in some foreign location, where bicycles, ox-carts, cars, buses, and pedestrians all crowd the same streets in a holy confusion of conflicting human intentions. Some can afford no transportation at all beyond their own feet. Others can own, and use, automobiles. On a scale like this I’d put myself around either the bicycle or ox-cart-driver level. I’m referring to technology, of course, and not actual transportation. At a recent family discussion I was left completely in the dust and exhaust fumes of new technology, trying hard to comprehend the words that other family members were speaking so fluently. Software names, devices that do things I can’t divine, and what is a dongle anyway? I’ve fallen behind not only on my movies and books, but on technology as well.

Tech develops quickly despite how slowly the rest of the world moves. Some members of my family don’t have computers or use the internet. Others have devices so advanced that they might’ve been salvaged from Roswell, and I wonder how all this happened when I thought I was paying attention. I’m a late joiner when it comes to tech. Although I’d been warned, I made it through my Master’s degree having barely touched a computer. When I took a decidedly low-tech job teaching at a medievalizing seminary, we couldn’t afford television service and we haven’t really watched TV since. Now I hear that you don’t need to pay for the privilege. If you have the time, black boxes, sticks, and even software downloadable on your phone can be your television. I look at our flatscreen at home and wonder where the on/off switch might be. How have I fallen so far behind the times?

The real problem, from the view on my bicycle seat, is that in order to maintain some level of expertise in my field of study, I have to dedicate quite a bit of time to it. While others tickle their devices on the bus, I’m reading my books made of genuine paper. I’m thinking such activities will make me better informed. Most of these books address the past. If I want to upgrade from to an ox-cart, however, I have to learn a whole new language and the nouns that accompany pieces of hardware that look an awful lot alike to these antique eyes. Perhaps we have become cyborgs after all, and I just missed the introductory session. I wouldn’t know; I’m too busy trying to keep this bicycle out of the path of that speeding lorry.

Miracle on 34th Street

It smelled like Christmas. I was out of the office for a rare lunchtime errand, and I had just turned the corner from Madison Avenue onto 34th Street. It hit me like childhood—the scent of pine. I couldn’t believe it as I looked ahead. Wreaths lay piled up on the sidewalk. At least a dozen newly harvested trees were leaning on a makeshift frame along the street. Long disused store windows from B. Altman’s were fully decorated with Christmas scenes. Five minutes later, after my errand, I walked through the scene again. Tourists were snapping photos to paste on Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook. Clearly the people responsible were getting ready for the holidays extremely early even for money-grubbing New York. Of course, it was all a set for a television shooting. Working in Manhattan is like being on a movie set most of the time.

It isn’t at all unusual to walk through the line of trucks and trailers parked along one of New York’s lesser used cross streets on my way to work. I see set artists working to make a store front look as if a fire had recently broken out there. Famous people lurk inside their trailers until handlers can get them out and away from hoi polloi. We’re all actors here. This isn’t an authentic existence. As I walk through today’s Christmas set, I step past the homeless with their grocery carts full of their worldly possessions. They’re the only ones on this street who aren’t actors.

I’ve been working in Manhattan for six years now. The dizzying extremes of wealth and poverty juxtaposed hard up against one another is disorienting. We would rather live in a fantasy world than help those who are suffering in real time. Yes, there are people who dwell in hells of their own making. I’m not naive. I also know that we create hells for those we don’t like. Those who “underperform” or who don’t value mammon as much as a red-blooded American should. We cast out those who have mental problems and politely ignore them as they rage on the street corner. We do, after all, have to get to work. New York is an experiment in which the virtues and vices of humanity are concentrated and magnified. We then project it onto the silver screen for all to see and covet. But just off the set there are hurting people. They won’t appear on the camera, but they’ll be there after the crew is gone. If we wanted to, amid all these trees and wreaths, we could find a way to help them. We could make this world a better, more authentic place. It’s my Christmas wish that we will.

Of Fancy

Later today—at this time of morning the use of the word “day” feels ironic—I’ll be on a plane heading out of civilization. Well, to be more precise I’ll be flying to a place from which I can drive out of civilization. Airports only serve cities, after all. Until we get individual drone service to remote locations I guess we’re stuck with jets and their inconveniences. I have to admit I’m more nervous than usual about this. I’ve been reading the stories about airline thugs who, like terrorists, beat and drag passengers off the plane. I try to take extra care to choose an undesirable location on the jet—next to the restroom, for example, or really near an engine—so that an airline employee would rather wait for the next flight than to sit here. I remember when flying used to be fun.

One year I’d lingered a little too long with my girlfriend and I had to rush to Logan Airport to catch my flight to Pittsburgh for the holidays. Arriving maybe half an hour before my scheduled flight, like a pre-murderous O. J. Simpson I ran through the concourse with nary a TSA agent in sight. To the what I am now sure was annoyance of the other passengers, I arrived at the gate just as the door was closing. With a sigh they let me board. I tried to ignore the angry stares of those already seated and belted. We all made it to Pittsburgh, however, in time to celebrate with our families. Now flying means adding at least two hours to your travel time so that you can get through security that makes you feel no more secure. I’m frisked and prodded and made to feel guilty for doing nothing more than wanting to get away from civilization for a while. We call it civilization anyway.

The wait in the airport is the hard thing. They’ll offer wifi, but you’ll have to pay for it. I’ve trained myself to read on the bus, but when you’re awaiting the announcement of your flight when you’ll have to line up just like at the Port Authority, it’s difficult to concentrate on your book. You don’t want to be lost in another world when they call your zone. There are, after all, airline employees hovering, seeking empty seats. I remind myself at the end of this ordeal a lack of civilization awaits. This is why we do it, and there’s a reason we call it getting away. Time to end this flight of fancy and head toward an actual flight that will be anything but fancy.