Money Days

Those of us who live in caves (figuratively) have trouble filling all this in.  Not a great fan of capitalism, I find “Black Friday” a troubling add-on to the holiday schedule.  Now I’ve lost track of all the expanding special days: Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday.  Must we celebrate capitalism so much?  I have no problem with non-Christian holidays, but when money becomes the sole basis for special days I have to wonder.  Mammon is a deity of which we’d been warned a couple of millennia ago.  The real irony is that it’s the very religion that posted that warning that now seems most closely related to the capitalistic system that perpetuates its worship.  It wouldn’t be such an issue except that the religion that has bought into the system so readily is the one that is putatively based on its condemnation.

Irony is something for which historians are always on the lookout.  Perhaps this is especially so among historians of religion.  Religion has come to denote a codification of our highest ideals and aspirations.  When did money attained such spiritual status?  It seems that Christianity was the vehicle.  Although it’s most obvious in American politics, the relationship goes back to the whole colonial enterprise.  Once Christianity became an imperial religion under Constantine, its focus began to shift.  Even those splinter groups that started off with higher ideals soon came under the overarching umbrella of the capitalistic system sprung from the teachings of a poor carpenter from Nazareth.  And so we find ourselves amid a creeping array of money-based holidays that provide the secular answer to Advent.

Of course, Advent itself became a season of anticipating the commercialized holiday of Christmas.  And here as the calendar year winds down the financial year hopes for a shot in the arm because economy is the doctrine of this new religious thinking.  And the irony is that the system is set up so those who already have too much get more while those who don’t have enough end up with even less.  Sounds biblical, no?  Ever since my ouster from academia, I’ve had to cash in vacation days to make myself a little semester break.  A body gets used to a certain schedule, and those rhythms are difficult to shake.  As we work our way through pandemic-laced spending holidays I’ve got my eyes on a bit of time off from my small part in supporting this all-consuming machine.  


Post Thanksgiving

Yesterday morning, like many others mesmerized by the commercialization of holidays, I had the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the television.  I can only speak from my own experience, of course, but I know that growing up poor we used to watch this, and that my wife’s family, from different circumstances, also watched it.  The friends with whom we ate our main meal watched it, and given the advertising revenues, I imagine many other people tune in every year as part of the holiday tradition.  What struck me were the testimonials just before or after the commercial breaks.  Celebrities shared what they liked about the holiday and many of them, unsurprisingly, focused on food.  Many indicated that overeating was pleasurable.  I began to think of what it means to be a nation of foodies.

Not everyone is of a cenobitic sensibility, but focusing on the food seems to be paying more attention to the finger pointing at the moon than to the moon itself.  Commercials for television shows of sweaty, nervous chefs wanting to be recognized as the best cooks in the world struck me as somewhat decadent.  Like many professionals I’ve had occasion to eat in “fine restaurants” from time to time.  Do I remember the food for long afterward?  No.  More often I recall the people I was with.  What we talked about.  The food, chefs may be pained to hear, was incidental.  There were deeper issues afoot.  If the internet’s any indication, I’m in the minority here.  Foodies rule.

Special foods on holidays are, naturally enough, a holiday tradition.  Many have their origins in the changing foodstuffs available as the seasons wend their way through their invariable cycle.  Thanksgiving is like the ancient festivals of ingathering—the celebration of plenty ahead of the lean months of living on what we’ve managed to store for the season when winter reigns.  Some animals cope by hibernating until food becomes available again.  Others scavenge their way through chilly, snow-covered days.  Gluttony, however, isn’t primarily a sin against one’s body; it’s the sin of taking more than one’s fair share.  Unequal distribution of wealth is a national sin that grows worse each year.  On Thanksgiving there are many people who don’t have enough to eat.  Jobs can be lost through no fault of one’s own, and want can haunt late November just as readily as jouissance.  Driving home we passed a shopping mall brimming with cars after darkness had fallen.  The larger holiday of Black Friday had begun.


Seeing Red

Not being commercially minded, it took many years for me to understand why it is called Black Friday. To many people “black” indicates negativity, sort of the opposite of Good Friday which, when you think about it, doesn’t seem so good. After I was forced into jobs in the money-making business, I came to realize that budgets were written in black and deficits were written in red. Since my lifetime, with a few exceptions, has been a series of economic disasters following one another (the implications should be obvious) and businesses operate in the red while projecting budgets ever higher the next year. This model is, in a world of limited resources, the very definition of unsustainable, and yet we keep raising our sights and getting disappointed. Nobody knows for sure where the term Black Friday originated, but it is a modern term. A holiday for those who measure celebration in terms of dollars and cents. (Mostly dollars.)

As I was pondering this phenomenon, my thoughts turned to red letter days. Red here is a positive thing—special days on the calendar that let us step outside the usual routine of pushing ourselves to make this year’s budget and allow us to relax with family and friends. The black and the red have switched places here. In fact, red letters, apart from the dismal science, have historically been considered good. Think of the red letter editions of the Bible. These Bibles had the putative words of Jesus printed in red so that they would stand out. The concept dates back to the change of the twentieth century. Red letter Bibles caught on among Evangelical readers. Red letters, however, go back even further in history.

Who said what now?

The book that Catholic priests used to set on the altar was a missal. Missals contained the instructions for saying mass, and during certain parts of the ceremony priests were supposed to make specific gestures. The places at which these actions were to be made were printed in red to draw the priests’ attention. They were called “rubrics” since they were written in red. Missals date back to the Medieval Period and they give us perhaps the first positive use of red writing that we know. Even further back in history when inks were organic, red writing was found. Epigraphers of antiquity know of red inscriptions but the meaning at that time remains speculative. We call this Black Friday because the one percent hope to get a bit richer. Those of us further down are supposed to enjoy the trickle. For me, in principle I don’t go shopping on Black Friday. I see it as a red letter day.


To Whom? For What?

Thanksgiving remains one of the few relatively uncommercialized holidays. Not tied to a specific religion, but with a general sense that gratitude is important, there’s nothing really to sell. Grocery stores may see a bump in profits, but we need to eat every day, so this is only a matter of degree. The icons of Halloween quickly transform to those of Christmas and even Thanksgiving begins to pale next to Black Friday as companies give employees the only four-day weekend of the entire year. Without money changing hands what can there possibly be to celebrate?

The strident question of to whom one is thankful is graciously subsumed under that of for what. History has demonstrated that the relative abundance that we enjoy in matters of gustatory gifts is indeed not to be taken for granted. Droughts are realities. Dustbowls and depressions occur. In many parts of the world starvation is stark reality. Having enough—even too much—to eat is less a sign of blessing for good behavior than it is an obligation to help others. Want is a specter that no one can debunk. The homeless here in a land of plenty remind us that holidays are truly opportunities to be thankful. Thankful simply for being able to get by. Not for what we buy.

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Holidays have their origins in religion. They may wander far from their foundations, but we have religions to thank for every day there’s a break in the routine of trooping into the office for yet another stint of work. Days when staying home is acceptable and spending is purely optional. The stretch from Labor Day to Thanksgiving is long. This goal can only be reached by a frame of mind rather than a state of one’s bank account. Having a day when money falls from focus is cause for thankfulness indeed.


Bucking Star

Entitlement comes in many forms. Culturally we’ve been sensitized to substituting “holidays” for “Christmas,” although the reason we spend money at this time of year is well known. Although technically not a Christian nation, the United States has a large number of Christian believers and always has. Charles Dickens certainly participated in the invention of Christmas, but the commercial aspect is very much an American thing. So much so that we can’t wait to get Thanksgiving out of the way to dip our fingers into Black Friday, a holiday in its own right. Starbucks has, for many years, shifted to a banal, neutral winter-themed cup design, to get customers into the spirit of spending. Who really needs to pay five dollars for a cup of joe? Wrap it like a present and the cash flows more freely. So the tempest in a coffee pot over the “war on Christmas” by choosing a simple red (and by default green) cup design became front-page headline news recently. Had we dissed the Almighty or the babe in a manger by going red?

Religious groups feel increasingly threatened. Not everyone thinks globalism is a good thing. We try to educate our children, but many religious groups insist on home schooling to avoid the contamination of an open mind. Any act, no matter how trite or banal, may be perceived as an attack. Nobody seems to think that stopping in to pay so much for a cup of coffee may be a sin in its own right. The economy has tanked and bumped along the bottom ever since I’ve entered the professional sector. And yet, Starbucks has flourished. No matter how down you are, a little arabica stimulus can’t hurt. It has, apparently, become the bellwether of how Christmas-friendly we really are.

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Ironically, the Christmas decorations begin appearing in stores before the spectre of Halloween. Stop in to pick up some last-minute scares and you’ll find them on the bargain rack as the red and green tide take over the valuable shelf-space. We gleefully move from one spending holiday to another. And in the midst of it all, we stop to complain about the design of our coffee cup? I try to avoid disposable items whenever I can. I don’t collect holiday cups from coffee vendors. I wonder what all the fuss is about when the world is full of so many serious problems. If I sound cranky to you, there’s a good reason. I haven’t had my morning coffee yet.


Bleak Friday

Among the high holy days of capitalism, Black Friday stands as a beacon for those in the service of Mammon. It seems that we’ve taken the basic process of fair trade and constructed from it an über-religion based on getting more for less. Certainly in my little world of academic publishing I’ve encountered those who believe marketing a book is far more important than what it actually says. Ironically, my last two publishing jobs were located through LinkedIn. LinkedIn allows you to put your professional life online and those who shop for souls are free to “find” you, read about your accomplishments, and even occasionally contact you with employment options. It may not work for everyone, but it has for me. LinkedIn will also email you with opportunities, and this Black Friday as I opened my email I discovered that the top article they’d selected for me was entitled, “How Neuroscience Is Key to Successful Marketing Strategies.” Welcome to the temple of Mammon.

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Neuroscience has been as fascinating to me as it can be to a layperson. Since we all encounter the world through the gateway of our brains, we stand to learn a lot through its study. Of course, my mind always goes to the deeper questions: what can we learn about religious belief through neuroscience? What can the study of the brain reveal to us about reality? Will this science eventually reveal to us that more than brains are involved in the pure, raw experience of the ultimate? Of course, you can also use this study to figure out how to make a buck. We are so eager to make money that we’ll open stores on the prototypical family holiday itself, before the turkey is even digested. Try to corral the stampedes in a day early, and the great god Mammon smiles. We consume, therefore we are.

If you want to shop, someone has to be on duty. The worker might be enticed from her or his family by the prospect of “time and a half” pay. It might sound tempting, but I ask what the baseline cost really is. We’ve known since at least the days of the Charlie Brown Christmas and the original Grinch that happiness does not accompany owning more stuff. As a society we’ve promoted materialism so heavily that we are left feeling empty without the urge to buy making us feel like we’re accomplishing something important. I still find learning new things more satisfying than buying new things. Ironically, just below the neuroscience article, LinkedIn suggests I read “The End of the Public University?” It seems to me that Black Friday might have more than a single connotation. Of course, I’ll have to check in with Mammon on that; the smart money’s on the most demanding god.


Ruby Tuesday

If you’re reading this, you survived Cyber Monday. Not that I personally remember the Middle Ages—I have no desire to return to them—but there was a time when nearly every day of the year was known by a saint’s name. Even as an Episcopalian, nominally Protestant, I was surprised just how many red letter days there were. Black letter days seemed special by comparison. Now, however, our days are named by the shopping expectations. Not only do we have Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we have the moveable feasts of “shopping days before Christmas.” And many other holidays participate in this bonanza dedicated to Mammon. Halloween is a major cash-generating holiday and Valentines can be counted on for buying love. St. Patrick’s for buying green with gold. Ironically, all of these were once, at some remote time, holidays decreed by the church. Many of them are even older than that, going back to pagan times, but religious nonetheless.

In a sluggish economy such times are indeed anticipated. Still, I don’t hear of the one percenters suffering during these difficult times. “Let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette once was supposed to have said. Cakes are celebratory desserts, of course. We make them everyday occurrences with birthdays that should, in theory, keep the river of cash flowing all year long. The great corporate cathedrals require the offerings of the average citizen, and they insist on far more than a tithe. Then the investment firms complain that people don’t think ahead and save their money for retirement. We see many who live long enough to experience want in their declining years. There should be an app for that.

I wonder if there is something much deeper going on. Those who run so fast usually have something from which they wish to hide. There is the story of King Herod who, according to popular reconstruction, tried to buy the favor of his subjects by monumental building. Herod was not a popular king, and he had a reputation for being bloodthirsty when enraged. It is difficult to verify, but the basics of the story still ring true; when his way of running society was threatened he decided to kill the innocents. Such stories, one might hear a pontiff declare, fall within the genre of the folktale, the story told to make a point. What might that point be? Might it not be that each day is itself a gift and that spending money is not the only way to make time sacred? Of course, as long as you’re online, why not just PayPal your way to true happiness?

A techno-log on Cyber Monday.


Au Fait in the Manger?

On Friday CNN ran a story about the Pope’s new book “debunking” myths surrounding Christmas. The headline certainly looked intriguing, but it turns out that the “myths” debunked are those of a very dim magnitude. Is anyone surprised—gasp!—that Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25? And, guess what—those cows you’ve always seen in the manger? The Bible doesn’t actually mention them! Angels aren’t at the manger either! What kind of Christmas will this be? A biblical one, it sounds like. I haven’t read Jesus of Nazareth—The Infancy Narratives, but it really doesn’t sound like I need to. The Bible is very spare on stories about Jesus’ birth; nobody knew he would be a Lloyd Webberian superstar at that point, so we have a few loose traditions that tell of humble origins in an obscure setting. Not very good for commercial interests, however, and besides, the average person doesn’t read the Gospels to find out about Christmas. There are far too many television specials to be bothered with “Lo, there were in the same country…”

Christmas was not a big deal until relatively recent times. Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m not a grinch who believes the holiday shouldn’t be celebrated. I see nothing wrong with people giving things away, even if it is to pretend that they are celebrating an ancient Roman-occupied Judean birthday. This is the essence of what being religious should be all about; holidays should be occasions for thinking about others before one’s self. In my lowly opinion anyway. We’ve built an entire economic cycle on it, however, otherwise Black Friday might just be a free day to spend with family and friends instead of being trampled to death at Wal-Mart. Perhaps if society could find a way to distribute wealth more equitably every Friday would be in the black.

The Pope’s new book is an attempt to make the Catholic tradition appear up-to-date with scholarship. Plans are for the book to be published in an entire Septuagint of languages with a print-run the envy of nearly every academic editor in New York. The problem is there is no real news here. News should be, by definition, new. A book by the Pope declaring the true equality of all people, throwing open full sacerdotal participation to women as well as men, and the distributing of papal wealth to the poor—that would be a Christmas present worth the waiting! Instead, when you pull the shiny paper off this book on December 25, you’ll only discover that you’ve received it on the wrong date and there will be no angels singing. The cattle will be lowing, however, if you can use your imagination.

What’s wrong with this picture?


Holy Gobblers

I wonder if this is how religions get started. Yesterday President Obama continued the lighthearted tradition of pardoning two turkeys prior to Thanksgiving. There has been a gifting of turkeys to the United States president at least as far back as the Harry S. Truman years, but the pardoning began, as did many myths, in the Reagan years. Ronald Reagan took considerable heat for pardoning Oliver North after his crimes in the Iran-Contra Affair. Handling criticism with a joke (again, of which there was no shortage in those days), he offhandedly mentioned pardoning the turkey. Reagan had already decided not to eat the bird and had it sent to a petting zoo. The first recorded official pardoning came in 1989 with George H. W. Bush. This seems so close to the origins of the concept of salvation that I have to pause and baste in the implications. Pardon is only effective when there is guilt involved, so presumably turkeys sin. The only sin that suggests itself is gluttony, but I’ve seen more than my share of wild turkeys and they seem to have any natural weight problems under control.

Ironically, the guilt in this case seems to rest with those who do the pardoning. Turkeys grow fat because they are raised to do so. They are, like most eating animals, sacrificial victims—sinless and slaughtered. Again, there is another beautiful religious trope here, but we seldom sing the praises of the noble turkey that takes away the hunger of the (first) world. So, as crimes are committed in real time, we can shift the focus to the turkey. The analogy with sheep in the first century is apt. Like the turkey, the sheep was known as a creature of rather simple mental capacity. The lamb was sacrificed for sins it did not commit. Yet we don’t sing hymns to the noble turkey. In fact, Thanksgiving, being a non-commercial holiday, has largely been eclipsed by Black Friday.

I see a future religion in which the turkey plays a supporting role. All we, like turkeys, have gone a-peckin’. Turkeys have no shepherds, but they are kept in tiny cages, and the pardoned pair are the great Moses and Aaron of the turkey world. They are released to live out the rest of their short, obese lives in relative comfort, having been messianically chosen from before hatching to be spared the fate of being consumed by the ultimate consumer. This is the very stuff (stuffing?) around which Bibles are written. The theology here is as thick as gravy. As a vegetarian, however, my sympathies are with the birds. Heaven help us all when the pardoned pair come back and declare, “Let my turkeys go!”


Dreaming of a Black Xmas

By my best reckoning, Thanksgiving has not yet taken place this year. Since Halloween, such as it was, is now over, we must still be in November. As I was exiting my office building last Wednesday, I noticed that the holiday tree was already going up in the lobby. A few blocks away and I heard the first Salvation Army bells of the season and shouts of holiday cheer. The great tree in Rockefeller Center was being erected. (I picture burly guys with a super-sized tree stand swearing in the cold air—”Left, nudge it to the left!”) Maybe it’s just a storm-weary city glad to be rid of Sandy, but it does seem to be a bit early to me. Holidays, in any modern sense of the word are about opening wallets and injecting cash into the system. The very corpuscles of capitalism. I enjoy holiday cheer as much as the next guy or gal, but I don’t mind waiting for it to arrive. Antici-

Holiday seasons are as old as holy days themselves. In our work-obsessed culture, however, convincing bosses of the regenerative utility of granting more than a single day off at a time is an uphill battle. Productivity is what we’re all about. And so we lengthen our public show of holidays instead. Thanksgiving’s not much of a banker except for grocers, and although turkeys may make great primary school decorations, they don’t really match the productivity and professionalism that corporate offices like to promote. The December holidays, however, give us Black Friday. Listening to the news over the last few days, it is clear that many people are biding their time, already ready to get those distant family members out the door, and let’s get those bargains! pation.

Holidays reflect what we hold sacred. I’m not one of those purists grinches who see gift-giving as some inherent evil—in fact, giving things away is one of the under-utilized tenets of most major religions—but I do wonder how much of it is an appeal to the ego. I feel good when I make someone else happy. Yet at some level, I’ve indebted them to me. I’ve made a business deal. The holy days have been infected with capitalism. Warm memories of not having to go to school for nearly two whole weeks, being with my family—the place I was unquestioningly accepted—and getting presents as well? What could be more sacred than that? But I’m getting ahead of myself. It is still mid-November. After all, Black Friday (and what’s that day before that called?) hasn’t even started yet.

A waif in a manger?


Nightmare Behind Holidays

Among the first mythical creatures to go extinct when the early rays of the Enlightenment began to filter through the blinds of superstitious antiquity, were demons. It was recognized that the activities attributed to demonic possession closely resembled epilepsy and psychological illness and that Occam’s Razor would remove any unseen entities with its no-nonsense straight-edge in one deft pass. And yet they remain. Among the ghost hunting crowd, demons have been recategorized from fallen angels to entities that have never been human. Their reality is assumed, and results of investigations, not surprisingly, support that assumption. It was, however, a Dirt Devil advertisement that created a desire to watch The Exorcist now when darkness comes early and the leaves have fallen from the naked branches and a chill has permeated the air.

As I watched the still disturbing film, I realized that I had also watched the Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Last Exorcism within the past few months as well. I am no fan of demon movies; even with no demonic forces out there, inevitably young women are tormented by what ultimately turns out to be a male establishment. My threshold for watching the suffering of others, even if only acted, is minimal. Movie makers—and often horror writers—know and exploit this, bringing us to face the real demons, the shadowy regions of our own minds. The Exorcist is particularly effective in this since it is Fr. Karras’s demon that ultimately wins out. Having never read the novel, I’m not sure whose idea it was to make the demon Pazuzu, but once again the origins of demons does not fit modern media’s expectations.

Pazuzu was a Mesopotamian “demon.” Akkadian doesn’t have a proper word for what the Judeo-Christian tradition would introduce as a fallen angel. Demons were simply a way of explaining profound misfortunes such as droughts, pestilence, or the Bush administration. Eventually such misfortunes became personified and took on the ability to possess a human being. Here is where psychology and neurology have come to banish demons. Part of the terror of The Exorcist is that such scientific explanations are laid flat in the face of real supernatural power. The lessons of over-consumerism, as evidenced in Black Friday eclipsing Thanksgiving for many (the lines were formed in many locations well before midnight, cutting into family time in order to get first crack at the bargains) show the demon more clearly. Holidays are measured in importance by the amount of money spent. Perhaps it is no wonder that Halloween’s demons have lingered through November and even to the end of the year.