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.
I admit that I’m as guilty as the next guy of thinking of holidays primarily as a day off work. A boon from the gods of capitalism so that we can come back to the job rejuvenated and more productive than ever. It doesn’t matter the occasion—I don’t have time for things like haircuts and dentist appointments with the usual round of early to rise, early to work. Holidays become islands of blessed respite in an endless ocean of labor for the man. So I wanted to take a moment to reflect on Memorial Day. Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have died—grandfather, grandmother, America. We take a moment to consider what we have lost. Then it’s back to business as usual.
My father was a veteran. He died many years ago now and I don’t write much about him because I really didn’t know him at all. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to please him. Any boy wants to make dad proud. I tried the hard work route, and even gave Boy Scouts a try. The things of my youth have been slowly dying. Democracy is merely the latest victim. I shouldn’t be surprised—when it no longer becomes profitable, even the least offensive system of government can be bought and revamped to fit the needs of the greedy. Never mind the will of the masses. They’re the ones who lie under the gravestones for which today stands. No one can be rich without great numbers of poor against which to measure himself. Remember that; it’s Memorial Day.
Since Memorial Day doesn’t lend itself to commodification—let’s face it, outside Halloween death’s a downer—we can make it a day of sales. While you’re earning money without working, why not spend some of it? We seem to have lost the gist of holidays. Those who’ve died in vain believed in a democracy that their heirs have thrown away in scorn. If that for which we say we believe has become moribund, it appropriately becomes the focus of Memorial Day. My grandparents lie buried far from here. They were Evangelicals who wouldn’t recognize their faith reflected in those who still cling to the brand. I remember grandma sending money to Oral Roberts. She didn’t live to see him claim God would take him unless he had even more money. Now we hear the same thing from Pennsylvania Avenue. And tomorrow we all go back to work.
Although a year can seem like a long sentence, holidays are the punctuation marks that help us make sense of and organize it. Ordinary time, such as time at work, or commuting, can be endlessly tedious. Holidays, some personal, some local, others national or international, help us break up the time. Give us something to look forward to. My pity goes out to those religions that recognize no holidays and face time with a grim, Presbyterian determination to get to judgment day. The rest of us like to celebrate once in a while. So what’s today? It’s Independent Bookstore Day! Anyone who reads more than a post or two on this blog knows that I’m a lover of books. I first started taking solace in reading when things were difficult in my younger years, and reading has never let me down. In fact, I’ve often told myself that I could put up with just about any job as long as I could write.
It’s because of being in publishing that I learned about Independent Bookstore Day. Yes, it’s a promotional holiday, but it’s also a genuine celebration. As the outside world daily reminds us, those of us who read are a minority. The realistic author knows that the reading public is a small fraction of the whole. The number of people, percentage-wise, who spend their money on books is minuscule compared to those who fling their lucre elsewhere. But those of us who read appreciate the depth and reflection of each other. We may read different things, but we read. And that’s why I don’t mind going to an indie bookstore today and buying something.
One of the simple pleasures in life—call it a punctuation mark, a comma maybe—is being surrounded by unfamiliar books. Oh, I often worry what happens when we decide to move; we have lots of books at home. The last time the movers actually complained in our hearing that we had too many boxes of books. Talk about me at the bar afterwards, but don’t castigate my simple pleasures to my face, please. Books are the rare opportunity to commune with others on a deep level. How often have you put down a book and felt that you knew the author? Their soul was revealed in their writing and you had touched it. Just being in a bookstore is cause for celebration. If you have no plans for today, why not make your way to your local indie? Stand up and be counted as the literate resistance. It’s our silent Bastille Day, after all.
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.
In times of distress, as well as of joy, I turn to books. Since about November there have been more of the former than the latter, so I’m cheered that today is World Book Day. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has designates World Book Day to promote literacy internationally. If only the White House would pay a little more attention to the UN maybe the world situation would improve. In any case, books are always worth celebrating. At any given time I’ve got three or four book-reading projects going on simultaneously. Well, not literally simultaneously; I have books I read in the morning, different books for the bus ride, and books I read before bed. Often there are others scattered in there as well, such as books that I take with me in case I get unexpectedly delayed somewhere and want something to read. It’s a life full of books. It’s a wonderful life.
I can’t imagine enduring the mental vacuity that must come from not reading. It sounds like torture to me. Yes, I’ve occasionally been caught up in the action-packed episode of travel and adventure (or what passes for adventure for a guy like me). Hours spent with other people in locations not at home when there’s something to do every minute of the day. But then, when the fun’s over, I open a book. I read before bed even when I’m traveling, and since I’m an early riser I read before anyone else is awake. It’s a form of communion. Having access to the intelligent minds of others is a rare privilege that shouldn’t be scorned. World Book Day should be an international holiday.
Books, strictly speaking, didn’t necessarily originate as sacred texts. Very early in the process of writing, however, such holy documents began to appear. Civilization itself grew through the cultivation of writing. Bibles, Qur’ans, Books of Mormon—for all the troubles sacred texts may cause, they’re reminders of the importance of reading. And once reading starts, it’s impossible to stop. Reading is resistance to the Zeitgeist that’s haunting the politics of the day. Had voters been informed, it is absolutely certain, neither Brexit nor Trump would have happened. We need to read, and be seen reading. Ignorance is the final enemy to be defeated. Celebrate World Book Day. Wish people happy World Book Day. And for the sake of civilization itself, get caught reading.
Quite apart from seeing a live performance of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens has been on my mind a bit this Christmas season. I suppose that’s not surprising since it has been suggested that Dickens “invented” the modern Christmas, but it is really, I think, because of how the wider world seems to be spinning backwards. The poor have always been a personal concern of mine. I grew up poor and I know how much suffering it entails. My case was a rather mild poverty—we were never out on the street, and we didn’t actually go hungry. We had nothing in the way of luxuries, though, and I could see the possibilities even as I could see the sky where the boards on the roof were pulling apart. It wouldn’t have taken much for us to have been cast out in a cold Pennsylvania winter. Others have it much worse.
On my daily walks to work, I see the homeless. Some sleep in cardboard boxes, some in tents. Others are out under the stars. One morning I walked by a particularly creepy and sad sight of a person sitting, shrouded in a blanket over his or her head, on a subway vent to catch some of the ambient heat. I know that I don’t have the means to buy each one a meal. Their number has been going up, not down. And I think of Bob Cratchit, threatened and bullied by Ebenezer Scrooge. He will lose his job if he’s not in early today, the day after Christmas. Because of his change of heart, Scrooge buys his clerk a pot of “smoking bishop.” And herein lies the only possible cheer.
My wife got me started on Dickens. She also sent me a story from NPR on smoking bishop. It seems, according to the story by Anne Bramley, that British Protestants delighted in making fun of church offices by naming their tipples after titles. Churchmen (and they were men) were largely exempt from being poor and, according to historians, often supported the Poor Laws that made the fate of the poverty-stricken even worse. In a kind of perverse revenge against privilege, drinks were named after various ecclesiastical offices. There’s little that the poor can do, except to try to find the scant humor in a situation where no one has the reach of a Charles Dickens anymore. Ebenezer, unlike Bob, is a biblical name. It means “stone of help.” In these chilly days dare we hope that help may come, even from a stone?
There were probably about half-a-dozen animated Christmas specials I recall watching as a child. The two that became fixtures, and remain part of my present holiday ritual, are It’s Christmas Charlie Brown and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I remember watching them from early days—of course you had to wait until their respective channels announced their advent in TV Guide (just writing that makes me feel older than the Grinch). Commuting wasn’t an issue then, so watching television was as common as candy canes and hopeful stockings. As an adult, though, you see things you overlooked, or simply accepted, as a child. I guess that’s what “believing in Christmas” is all about. The willful suspension of disbelief.
I’ve commented on these Christmas specials before. Charlie Brown has so many inconsistencies that an old biblical scholar can’t help but think of J, E, D, and P. What does the signage on Lucy’s Psychiatric Help booth really say? How many branches are on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree? How does Sally get to the school before her big brother? The animation is clearly a little off—Lucy appears to emerge from the center of her booth’s wooden top as she gives advice to the woeful Charlie Brown with his Trump’s-been-elected-type depression. Still, Linus’ rendition of Luke’s Christmas story brings it home every time. Compare that with the Grinch.
Those who see a war on Christmas (there’s not) seldom cite the Grinch. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is entirely secular. No mention of a special birth. No angels or shepherds. Just a mean old man and his dog. The Grinch shares with Charlie Brown its message of looking beyond the commercialization of Christmas. In the case of the much better animated Grinch (although I still can’t figure out why that one Who’s hat repeatedly flashes from white to blue and back) it would seem that religion matters less than spirit. The Who’s Christmas song with its strange, non-English words, is a celebration of difference. Diversity. Even that angry old man who would steal Christmas itself is welcome in the end. The only war on Christmas is one that has been spawned in the imagination of those who fit the Grinch’s description in Thurl Ravenscroft’s rendering of Dr. Seuss’s lyric. Those my age will understand, and unless you were born yesterday, I suspect that you’ll get my meaning.