Tag Archives: Christmas

Of Scrooge and holiday redemption

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I posted a few days ago about holiday memories being the best gift you can give yourself.  One of mine that I didn’t get into in great detail was my annual required viewing of the 1951 film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  This seminal tale, which has probably done more to shape how Christmas is celebrated worldwide than any other work of literature, has been adapted for stage, television and film hundreds of times, the earliest surviving movie being a 6-minute silent British version in 1901.  The version aired most often every 24th of December, and most beloved by both critics and families, is the 1951 remake, titled either Scrooge or A Christmas Carol depending on which print you happen to catch (avoid the colorized version at all costs), starring Alastair Sim as the pitiless miser who learns to change his ways following a 1:00 a.m. visit from three pesky spirits.  My father introduced me to it when I was very young; he and my uncle were fond of quoting it at length, badly imitated British accents and all, during family holiday gatherings.  Now, as a father myself, watching it is the last thing I do before turning out the light on Christmas Eve.  And while my son is not likely to understand why Dad’s making him watch this boring black and white thing that doesn’t feature Iron Man in any capacity, it’s important to me to carry this tradition forth for as many years as I’m able.

Consequently it’s difficult for me, as it is with most of the movies that I look upon fondly, to sequester my emotions and memories and evaluate the movie from a strictly critical standpoint.  Since it was the version I grew up with, I was surprised to find scenes and characters missing and/or altered in later remakes (like the 2009 Jim Carrey CGI version) that turned out to be upon further investigation inventions of screenwriter Noel Langley and not part of the original story.  It might be sacrilege to suggest that anyone could improve on Charles Dickens (or would even dare to try), but for once, we have an example where exploring deeper into the background of an ostensible villain enhances the stakes of his journey.  Langley’s script switches the birth order of Scrooge and his sister, making Ebenezer the younger brother who is estranged from his father after his mother dies giving birth to him, paralleling Scrooge’s later disenchantment with his nephew Fred who has cost him the life of his beloved elder sister Fan in the same way.  We also see Scrooge, after apprenticing with the jolly old Mr. Fezziwig, come under the influence of the corrupt Mr. Jorkin (a Langley creation) who seduces him to the dark side of capitalism and ultimately introduces him to Jacob Marley, the man who will become his equally covetous business partner.  (Gosh, could this sound any more like Star Wars?)  But it all works.  Ebenezer Scrooge was not born a bad man; like so many of us he made bad choices and reacted adversely to what a cruel world threw at him.  He hardened his heart to avoid feeling sad and eventually to avoid feeling anything at all.  Langley’s insightful adaptation shows us more of what Scrooge has lost, deepening our desire to see him reconnect with the meaning and importance of Christmas.

None of it would matter, however, if the performances weren’t there, and Alastair Sim’s is probably one of the best ever put to film.  His is without flaw, equally credible in full miser mode and giddily standing on his head upon achieving his catharsis, by turns terrifying and repulsive, then endearing and delightful.  And as I noted earlier, his inflections around choice lines are the stuff of impersonation fodder for both professionals and fathers and uncles decades onward.  He is matched perfectly by Kathleen Harrison, Cockney charm through and through, as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s charwoman (i.e. housekeeper), another role greatly expanded from the Dickens original.  In fact, there isn’t a poor performance in the lot.  It’s a treat as well to see Peter Bull, perhaps best known as the Soviet ambassador in Dr. Strangelove, as the film’s narrator and the business acquaintance of Scrooge’s who insists he won’t go to the funeral unless lunch is provided, and Patrick Macnee, the original John Steed of British TV’s The Avengers, as the young Jacob Marley.  If you’re a detail-oriented James Bond fan as I am, you’ll also enjoy spotting Francis de Wolff, the leader of the gypsy camp in From Russia with Love, as the jovial Spirit of Christmas Present.  The acting by the ensemble is so good that it remains fresh and surprising even after dozens of viewings – you really feel the sorrow of the Cratchit family on the loss of Tiny Tim and revel in the triumph of watching him run towards the reformed Scrooge at the finale.  You hate Scrooge’s guts for treating everyone so poorly and laugh with him as he tries to contain his glee in finally figuring out the truth that has lain dormant beneath the Christmas snow.

The possibility of redemption remains a powerful driver of human existence.  Most major religions, and the criminal justice system, are predicated on the concept that atonement and forgiveness are always within reach.  Even for the secular, Christmas can be a time where we can tally the events of the previous year, come to terms with them and resolve to make the necessary changes going forward, with a sense of renewal, optimism and hope.  No matter what kind of year I’ve had, whether it’s been a time of robust progress or of perceived stagnation, putting on A Christmas Carol and watching Alastair Sim’s Scrooge plead with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come that he’s not the man he was, is an important reminder of possibility, that it is never too late.  The challenge, however, is in making enough of those changes so that you begin to live your life as robustly as the post-ghost Scrooge.  So that you become, as Peter Bull intones, “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”  Perhaps that’s the lesson my father wanted me to learn by making me watch the movie every year.  It’s certainly one I want to pass on, and I’ll make my son watch it until he gets it too.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone.

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What to get yourself for Christmas

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A cynic has no easier target than Christmas.  As November wanes and December waxes, garlands rise incrementally around the malls, Fox renews its annual War on Christmas™ coverage and the radio stations shuffle over to endless repeats of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” the holiday season reboots with all the originality and fervor of the latest superhero remake.  As the ornamented train shambles into the station, it brings with it the usual trappings of tinsel, spiked eggnog, impossible toy wish lists tailored by marketers and advertisers, hour-long quests for parking spots and harried photographers trying to capture the split second between tantrums as the toddler squirms on the lap of the weird bearded guy in the fuzzy red suit.  Movie studios roll out their usual December double act of just-in-time-for-awards-consideration artsy pieces and cheaply-cobbled- usually-starring-someone-from-a-failed-sitcom holiday fare for our consumption along with the millions of slain turkeys, pigs and tofu sloths we will burn for five hours and set amidst the plastic paraphernalia of our impeccably adorned dining room tables.  We will then gather the clan of people we’d ignore on the street if they weren’t related to us and consume our approximate body weight in shortbread and stuffing while hoping we don’t have to be subjected to yet another lecture about kids these days from the annoying uncle who dips too deeply into the punch bowl.

I nearly succumbed to this attitude the other night, while propelling our otherwise efficient and modestly economic vehicle at a funereal pace over gray sludge-strewn streets behind a throng of other roving metal boxes bent on the same destination.  Patience burned away to embers, and if not for the presence of my son in the back seat I have no doubt a few choice profanities would have splattered across the inside of my windshield.  Other than the exhaustion brought on by the end of the work day fused with sub-zero temperature and the (excuse the hyperbole) sheer inhumanity of total darkness at 5 p.m., there was no reason for it.  But for that brief moment, my Christmas spirit was absent, as though I’d left it in my other pants.  It is, I realized, a challenge to keep it.  No wonder Scrooge needed three scary-ass poltergeists to get him back into shape.

Christmas, as we’ve come to know it now, practically dares you to hate it.  It dares you to throw your hands up in resignation at the consumerism, the kitsch, the frequently awful music, the endless toys demanded from Santa that will be forgotten by February and the obsessive desire of some to recreate a neo-Dickensian display of forced family unity.  The pursuit of the “perfect Christmas” can be more of an exercise in stagecraft, as in designing the ideal movie set to permit the spontaneous eruption of merriment.  The “spirit” of Christmas is codified in a series of boxes to be ticked off:  tree, lights, cards, food, brown paper packages tied up with string.  I’m an atheist as you well know, but I sympathize sometimes with the Christians who put the “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs up out on their lawns alongside the backlit nativity scenes.  What are we celebrating, really?  The desperation of retailers to make up for months-long dry spells with one orgiastic year-end blow-out?  The ritual removal of millions of trees from the ecosystem to spend a few weeks inside living rooms before they are ground up for mulch?  Nerves frayed to the point of splitting in ensuring that everything goes exactly as planned and the turkey doesn’t catch fire?

To me, Christmas is best enjoyed broken down into small moments that form a series of triggers of positive emotions, both in connections to Christmases past and the forging of new memories to be cherished in the future.  The indelible scent of pine caught in the faintest whiff as you stroll into the kitchen for breakfast.  The adorable hand-crafted googly-eyed gingerbread man ornament smiling with a red felt mouth from within the branches.  The glow of candles and garland lights saturating the house with warmth as banks of frozen white pile up outside the windows.  The glint of those lights reflecting off the shiny wrap of the piles of gifts crowding the base of the tree.  Snowmen standing valiant guard outside.  The taste of cranberry, of red wine, of orange and of chocolate, popped into one’s mouth when no one is looking.  The scratches and pops on an old vinyl recording of a favorite holiday tune performed by a long-deceased crooner.  The telltale rattle of Lego in an unopened gift.  Fighting drowsy eyes to watch the 1951 A Christmas Carol for the thirtieth time while clad snug in brand new pj’s.  The silence of a house asleep, waiting for the arrival of Mr. Claus.  The face of the exuberant child beholding the bounty for the first time as cracks of sunlight spill through the windows and yawns escape lips.  The hug exchanged following the reveal of that most treasured item on the list that justifies in a heartbeat the hours spent combing the stores to find it.  And at the end of everything, sitting back on the couch, hot cocoa in hand, spouse curled up alongside, reflecting on a year of significant ups and dreary downs and thinking about the promise of new days to come.  Your mileage may vary, of course, but like the song says, these are a few of my favorite things.

You have to look for these little slices of wonder, be aware when they manifest and relish them before they disappear.  It’s the only way to avoid getting caught up in the pressure cooker that can often be the holiday experience and the overall dread of the inevitable January credit card bill.  But even the most notorious of failed Christmases will have its sublime moments hidden amidst the veil of falling snowflakes.  So grab a few this year and put them in your stocking.  They’re the best gift you can give yourself.

What are yours going to be?

The lesson of the Pumpkin Snowman

Happy Back to Standard Time Day!  It’s been a productive, decorative day on this side of the pond – installing curtain rods, acquiring Christmas accouterments and saying goodbye to the Halloween tchatchkes.  On the subject of the latter, I regret to announce that the otherwise brilliant and crisp morning delivered an unhappy surprise.  A few weeks ago my better half came up with the delightful idea of making a pumpkin snowman – three gourds stacked atop one another, clad with a scarf, belt and gloves.  We used thin bamboo sticks to anchor the pumpkins together and branches for arms with tiny leaf-stuffed mittens on the end, so he could wave hello to the trick-or-treating kids.  It turned out great and lots of compliments were to be had from visitors.  This morning, however, we discovered that a misanthropic type or types had decapitated him and smashed his head across the street.  We haven’t had the greatest of luck with our outside decorations; last Christmas a light-up doe was stolen from our front yard and never recovered.  But even though Halloween was over, even though we didn’t have to go out and purchase a replacement, this particular act of vandalism really set me off.  Unfortunately, smashing pumpkins isn’t just the name of a crummy 90’s emo band, it’s a deplorable Halloween “tradition.”  Certain folk seem to acquire an endorphin rush by destroying every pumpkin they can find, and our innocent, happy little guy was just the latest victim.

Warning:  Gruesome images follow.

Our pumpkin snowman in happier times, and this morning's crime scene.
Our pumpkin snowman in happier times, and this morning’s crime scene.

The sheer futility of the exercise is staggering.  Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter – their job done, the pumpkins would have all gone in the garbage on the next collection day.  But to take the time to trespass onto someone else’s property to destroy something cute for what – because it was there?  All smug in its cute pumpkin-ness?  Joy in destruction is a concept that continues to elude me.  It certainly speaks to the character, or lack thereof, of the pedestrian minds that spotted our pumpkin snowman and decided to strike.  Not that I’m bitter or anything.  Little @#$!ers.

In everything there are those who build and those who tear down.  A while back a Chinese tourist in Egypt decided that what a 5000-year-old hieroglyphic really needed was his name scratched onto it.  You may remember as well the story about the ancient Buddhas carved into hillsides in Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban with rocket launchers.  I’m not in any way suggesting that a little headless pumpkin snowman compares even remotely to such significant acts of cultural vandalism, but it’s a minuscule part of this larger trend that sees a portion of humanity dedicated to destroying what the rest of it is creating.  You could even extrapolate this argument further and point to corporate entities that ravage landscapes in pursuit of profit, and strangle any attempt to legally prohibit them from doing it.  It doesn’t even have to be corporations – look at the photos of what’s left of the Amazon rainforest, a bleak, yellowed, poisoned wasteland, now that enterprising gold prospectors have decided to set up shop.  Far too many of us have chosen to be irredeemable Wreck-It Ralphs.

How do you swim against the tide?  We can all probably remember a time in our childhood when we spent what seemed like hours carefully crafting a fortress of sand only to have a sibling stomp through it out of sheer petulance.  There was little choice then but to begin the painstaking effort of rebuilding, grain by grain.  So too must it be in later life.  You can’t let yourself be intimidated out of creation by the fear that someone may come along and smash it to bits.  Someone very well may.  But the fact that we’re all still here, alive and continuing to thrive, leads me to believe that there are far more builders than wreckers in the world.  There is a philosophical choice to be made, whether to believe that people are basically good or basically evil.  I’ve always fallen into the former camp, despite my faith in such having been tested on numerous occasions.  Fundamentally, the kids who thought it would be hilarious to smash our pumpkin snowman – as much as (a very small) part of me would enjoy seeing them flogged – aren’t psychopathic miscreants or agents of chaos.  They weren’t out to cause me or my family any grievous harm.  They’re just kids driven by hormones making a bad call.  And I’m sure at some point in their lives someone has destroyed something they created, and they know how rotten it can feel.  So I’m choosing to forgive, and vowing to make our Christmas exterior display even better.  Gotta keep building that sandcastle, no matter how many times somebody kicks it down.

Unless our deer gets stolen again.  Then I’m out for blood.

Fear and loathing: Christmas 2012

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It’s emblematic of our age that when a major event occurs, we are guaranteed to know what every person with a computer thinks about it, in various degrees of legibility and/or sanity.  The thoughts expressed following the Sandy Hook massacre have been a virtual deluge of sympathy, anger, regret, confusion, disbelief, shattered faith and predictable political posturing, from both prominent public figures and unpronounceable cyber aliases.  There is a compulsion to find sense in the senseless, meaning in the unimaginable.  To ask how something like this could happen and ensure it never happens again.  For many it’s too late for that; a resignation that these mass shootings are an inevitable consequence of the path the United States is on, where the power of the NRA has made firearms regulation a political third rail and attempts at increasing access to proper medical care lead absurdly to mass protests and election losses.

The little bodies were barely cold before the trotting out of the usual canards began – Republican congressman/professional moron Louie Gohmert (the slightly more evolved protozoan who was screaming a while back that “anchor babies” were the latest terrorist threat) wished that the teachers had been packing heat so they could have pulled the Charles Bronson routine against the killer.  He and others of his ilk think the answer to every mass shooting is to increase the supply of guns amidst the populace – the idea, if you can dignify it with that word, being that potential mass murderers will be deterred from carrying out their insanity if they think it’s possible that one of their targets might shoot back.  Setting aside the fact that not a single gun massacre has ever been stopped in this way, what message are Gohmert and his cretinous colleagues trying to send?  That in the Greatest Country in the World™, people, little children even, should be walking around every day scared to their britches that someone’s going to pull a gun on them?  Please define for me how that constitutes greatness – a land where everyone you pass on the street is a potential murderer to be horrified of.  The other day a boy in Utah was arrested for bringing a firearm to school because he thought someone might shoot him.  I have no doubt that Gohmert et al will hold this boy up as a patriotic defender of liberty instead of the terrified little child that he is, who should be playing with teddy bears and Lego instead of Glocks and Smith & Wessons.

The text of the Second Amendment reads:  “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  I’m no Constitutional scholar (nor, I suspect, are 99.9999998% of the people who howl about the sanctity of these words) but it’s my understanding based on my read of American history that this was written in light of the fear that the British might return and civilians needed to be able to fight back if the regular American army wasn’t able to get there in time.  Perfectly logical, one supposes, for the late 1790’s, when the fastest public alert system was a guy on horseback yelling that the British were coming.  But scanning through comment sections on news websites, one finds a different argument, that the citizenry must be able to own and wield guns in case the government needs to be violently overthrown (memories of Tea Party Senate candidate Sharron Angle and her infamous “Second Amendment remedies.”)  The same folks who wail “Support the Troops!” every time they are sent into battle (whether or not the cause is just) think that on a whim these same heroes of unimpeachable virtue will transform into mindless pawns of the Antichrist dictator and begin sweeping through the streets mowing down patriotic citizens.  In the highly unlikely (if not utterly impossible) event that ever happens, quite frankly, the government has the 82nd Airborne and stealth bombers and you’ve got three guys with shotguns in a Dodge Durango – I don’t like the odds.  And of course, the government only has those stealth bombers and an entire range of invincible high-tech weaponry because the same people who cite the above logic of the Second Amendment continue to vote for the party who thinks cutting defense spending for any reason is an act of sedition.  If one feels the onset of a migraine at these unfathomable leaps in logic, one must remember that these arguments are not even in the same stadium as logical reasoning – they come entirely from a place of fear.

Fear is the one emotion common to every creature that walks the earth.  It has been ingrained in our being ever since we were swinging through trees to avoid being eaten by something bigger and stronger.  As our minds have developed across the eons, gaining the ability to reason, we have still never shed this most basic instinct.  Fear can, if properly tempered and managed, drive us to achieve greatness.  In The Dark Knight Rises (ironically, a movie tainted by its association with a mass shooting), Bruce Wayne finds it impossible to escape a prison without the motivation of the fear of dying in the attempt.  But fear run rampant is endlessly destructive, and there will always be those who understand this and prey on fear to make money.  The political lobbying of the NRA and its offshoots, despite repeated publicly stated intentions of preserving freedom and promoting responsible gun ownership, is about the freedom of weapons manufacturers to continue to sell their product, regardless of whether those who purchase those weapons are the slightest bit responsible.  And if you are not afraid of a big scary bad guy breaking into your house or the faceless drones of the evil government coming to drag you off to the gulag, what do you need a gun for?  So it is in the interest of companies who sell guns and by extension advocacy groups like the NRA to keep the masses as scared as possible.  They no doubt revel in the free assistance provided to them by the media who splash every act of violence across newspapers, television screens, websites and smartphones and then conduct weeks-long investigative reporting into every single facet of the event and how YOUR FAMILY might be threatened.  Gun sales explode following gun massacres, ostensibly from the fear of being targeted next but really because somehow the government might actually get off its ass and do something about the absurd ready availability of deadly weapons, and nobody wants to be last to the buffet table.  The government, in turn, rarely does anything because it’s too afraid of the ability of the NRA to swing elections, nor does it want to be labelled anti-business by regulating, sanctioning or otherwise restricting gun manufacturers.  And so the cycle of fear creaks on, until it reaches its bloated tentacles into the one place in the world that should be utterly free of fear – a public school.

The children of Sandy Hook Elementary were not feeling any fear that morning.  They were probably excited about Christmas, writing letters to Santa and helping to decorate the classroom with styrofoam snowmen, popcorn garlands and candy canes and reindeer cut from colored construction paper.  They could never have fathomed in their innocent young minds that someone was coming to take everything away in a hailstorm of bullets.  Why would they?  They hadn’t yet had the chance to be properly programmed by the great slouching mass of fear that oozes from society’s pores unchecked by reason and common sense.  Our collective inability to recognize the difference between vigilance and paranoia and to silence those who would exploit our fear for financial gain.  I have to laugh, sadly, when I hear politicians talking about the necessity of beefing up arms and equipment stockpiles to protect our shores from unseen external threats.  Yet what indeed is all this meant to protect?  In a world where everyone has guns, how can anyone ever feel safe?  Indeed, our very failure to check the expansion of the world’s supply of firepower, while enriching those who make the tools of murder, has only aggravated the foreboding hanging perpetually over every human head; like the famous doomsday clock inching ever closer to midnight, we seem to be willing accomplices in our own destruction, ensuring that we remain drugged with constant fear of our neighbour and ever readier to set off the fuse at the slightest provocation.

The suggestion purported by some that every school should post armed guards would be laughable were it not so tragic.  They forget the subliminal lesson the presence of a scary uniformed guy packing an obvious .45 engraves upon the impressionable child’s mind – that the world is a frightening place to be regarded with suspicion and mistrust.  The millions of kids who came home from school safely that terrible day would be full of questions, with parents and guardians struggling desperately for reassuring answers.  It is simply not enough to reach for the usual prayers, platitudes and bromides and change the channel until the next incident occurs.  We often speak about the kind of world we are leaving our children, whether it will be a better, more prosperous life, or something out of the most nightmarish dystopian fiction.  What is needed to achieve the former – beyond the immediate fixes of an increased focus on mental health care and sensible, effective gun restrictions – is a fundamental re-examination of the wisdom of the agenda of fear:  the invisible conspiracy convincing the world that we need to jump at our own shadows, not because shadows are scary, but so we’ll be the first in line to purchase deluxe-grade shadow repellent.  We are hooked on fear like the proverbial junkie chasing his next fix.  And in one area, I find myself in agreement with some of the Second Amendment advocates, in that I don’t think gun control is the panacea, although it will certainly help start the journey.  When we learn to shun the fearmongers, when we evolve away from this notion that we need an arsenal to protect ourselves from the boogeyman lurking in the alleyway, when we celebrate the good instead of constantly giving airtime to the bad, when we reject the concept that safety only comes through deterrence, and when we recognize that the right of children to attend school free of fear should always trump somebody else’s freedom to blow a deer’s brains out, and resolve to do whatever it takes to make that happen, then we will be able to finally crawl out from the iron grip of fear, and into a better future.  We owe it to those dear lost children who won’t be celebrating Christmas this year.  The alternative – the slow, doomed march of the status quo – is simply too frightening to contemplate.

In any event, now you know what this anonymous idiot with a keyboard thinks.  And my hope is that you and your family have a joyful, celebratory holiday season utterly free of fear and loathing.  See you in the next one, and let’s get on with things, shall we?

UPDATE:  The NRA has officially responded and predictably, they’ve blamed everything but guns and suggested the answer is more guns in schools.  Armed guards in every school, which won’t necessarily have to be police but volunteers (because armed guards are wonderful but amateur armed guards would be even better!)  And the taxpayer would of course be the one to pick up the tab for the huge bill the weapons manufacturers would then get to send to the government.  NRA Vice President/Gun Pimp Wayne LaPierre says that “the only thing that can stop bad guys with guns is good guys with guns.”  And while he was speaking, someone shot and killed four people in Pennsylvania, wounding two state troopers in the process, who, presumably, were armed.

Your move, America.

Whither Christmas?

Gretchen Wilson’s country hit “Redneck Woman” has a line boasting about how she proudly keeps her Christmas lights on her front porch all year round.  You’d think that folks were taking her advice literally.  One cannot argue that it hasn’t been warm enough to find an opportunity to remove them; temperatures haven’t dropped below zero in weeks and just hit record highs a few days ago.  St. Patrick’s Day is tomorrow and yet a stroll through my neighbourhood reveals plenty of garlands, ribbons, wreaths and even electric deer standing proudly as if waiting for a winter that never really came.  I know it can be tough, un-decorating always is.  But at some point you have to let go.  At this rate the poor Easter Bunny is going to have to muscle out Frosty and Rudolph for veranda space – his nimble cousins have already made an appearance in my backyard.  Given the heat I think old Cottontail can take Frosty, but Rudolph has those strong back legs that could give him a real challenge coming down the stretch.

Admittedly, this Christmas was kind of anticlimactic, especially since, misleading Weather Network reports to the contrary, December 25th came and went with nary a hint of snow.  And there was a palpable lack of Christmas spirit among my family, friends and colleagues; everybody sort of went through the seasonal motions, but nobody sounded like they were really looking forward to any festivities.  The non-stop carols that kick in on the radio on December 1st sounded tedious by December 4th, and Justin Bieber’s tribute to mistletoe played unendingly didn’t help either.  (I did not hear “Fairytale of New York” or “Christmas Wrapping” once on any FM station, which is criminal.)  Our own decorations were a Griswoldian source of frustration, with two exterior pre-lit trees blowing over and smashing their bulbs at the slightest gust of wind despite my efforts to anchor them in place, a malfunctioning timer, strings of the infernal mini-lights on the big tree inside going dark in random patterns and a mysterious short blowing out the entire outside array.  And we won’t get in to the malfunction of our brand new oven in the middle of cooking Christmas dinner.

Despite the setbacks we put on the best show of holiday cheer we were able.  But there was something not quite right about the whole thing.  About December 28th it felt like we were still waiting for the real holidays to get going, although in truth, I was so fed up that I would have been happy at that point just to go back to work.  I suspect I’m not alone in that, and I wonder if perhaps that’s the reason there are so many decorations still adorning the nearby houses.  It’s like Linus waiting in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin to appear, not realizing he missed Halloween in the process.

My better half has observed that people seem generally unhappy lately.  There is a dourness about the world that is lingering like the worst hangover you’ve ever had.  Poverty is deepening, inequality is worsening and governments aren’t listening to their people, preferring to re-fight old and long-settled battles in lieu of facing the true challenges.  One half of the country hates the other half with a deep-seeded bile it is unwilling to tame.  It is not enough for us to win anymore, we have to see our foe sprawling in the dirt with his limbs broken and face smashed in, and the ground around him scorched and salted.  When did we become so vindictive?  Why this epidemic of hate-thy-neighbour?  Is it those solar flares?  Or is there an insidious cancer eating away at the human soul?

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic.  But as any alcoholic will tell you, admitting you have a problem is the first step to addressing it.  So many Christmas decorations still out baking away under 20-degree Celsius March heat suggests that there might be a longing out there that everyone doesn’t even realize they share – a hope for the spirit of positivity and unity that lights the world in its coldest months, and was suspiciously absent this past twenty-fifth of December.  There’s no reason why we can’t spend the remainder of 2012 working to bring it back.

The evolution of Christmas

It seems every year, about this time, a select few on the right-leaning side of the punditocracy get their collective knickers in a knot over a supposed “War on Christmas” being perpetrated by their ideological opponents.  As wars go, this imagined assault has to be one of the least successful campaigns in history, ranking somewhere between Custer at Little Big Horn, and anytime anyone has ever tried to invade Russia in the winter.  We’re not seeing the burned corpses of shopping mall Santa Clauses rotting in the streets.  Bright lights and fake reindeer still color our streetscapes.  Many mainstream FM radio stations still switch their playlists to all Christmas on December 1st – including songs celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.  And December 25th itself is still a statutory holiday.  This is hardly the time for so-called defenders of Christmas to circle the toy wagons and rend the linings of their Santa suits in desperation.  Just knock back an egg nog and chill.  Please.

Honestly, I’m not even sure what it is they’re protesting.  It’s not a return to tradition, as it’s plain that Christmas as we celebrate it and have celebrated it for well over a century has little to do with Jesus.  Customs like the tree, Santa Claus, eating turkey, none of those come from the Bible.  Indeed, what we think of as a proper Christmas owes more to the writings of Charles Dickens and his Cratchit family than it does to Church doctrine.  The date itself was picked by Pope Julius I in the 4th Century, borrowed (or stolen) from the pagan Saturnalia festival.  Even the Bible doesn’t claim that Christ was born in December – Bethlehem around this time of year hits sub-zero temperatures during the night, and shepherds would not be out watching their flocks in the fields, as it says in Luke 2.  And amazingly, Jeremiah 10:2-4 prohibits Christmas trees entirely:

2Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

3For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

4They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

As oppressed as those who lash out against this supposed shock and awe being perpetrated against the twenty-fifth of December by the evil liberal literati may feel nowadays, it used to be a lot worse.  In colonial America, celebrating Christmas would cost you a five-shilling fine – you could thank the humourless Puritans for that one.  The Founding Fathers didn’t think much of Christmas either, holding their first session of Congress on Christmas Day, 1789.  It wasn’t until 1870 that the U.S. government finally declared it a national holiday.

What probably sticks in their craw the most is that Christmas, like life itself, evolves.  Long gone, at least among the majority of those who observe the Yuletide holiday, is the absolute requirement to fast and attend a morose mass, replaced by the sound of little footsteps running down the stairs as soon as dawn breaks to see what Santa and the reindeer have brought.  From year to year, from generation to generation, Christmas is in motion as old traditions are modified, expounded upon, abandoned, as new carols are added to the canon, tastes in decoration (and food) change, new Christmas movies find their way into theaters.  But more importantly, Christmas changes as families themselves combine, separate, expand or contract.  Like a cosmic cornucopia of paint colors ebbing and flowing, blending together to produce new ways of celebrating the one day a year it remains a virtue to be nice to someone else just for the sake of being nice – in a world increasingly given to assigning a perplexing nobility to selfishness.

Santa Claus as we know him – the jolly fat guy in the red suit – was essentially a creation of the Coca-Cola company’s advertising department back at the turn of the 20th Century.  But we have applied that image to the legendary figure of St. Nicholas and crafted something entirely new, a character who now fires the imaginations of millions of children as they await his yearly arrival.  It evolved in our collective consciousness.  Much as Christmas itself will continue to evolve with the coming years and decades.  That isn’t a war on Christmas – it’s a perfectly natural next step.  Like the strongest in nature, Christmas will survive.  And to those trying to hold back the progress of nature, there’s truly only one reply:  Bah humbug.

Zen and the art of snowman construction

After an unseasonably warm and extended fall, the first snow of the season tumbled to earth yesterday.  It didn’t last long, but for half an hour at least November looked like it’s supposed to.  With the mercury plunging below freezing last night I’ll go out on a limb and say we even stand a better than average chance of a white Christmas – call me old-fashioned, but it doesn’t seem right exchanging gifts and eating turkey when outside is a sea of dead leaves and asphalt.  If global warming reaches its zenith that’s one Bing Crosby song future generations will find inexplicable.  “What are you talking about, there’s never been snow on Christmas.”  (The duet with David Bowie on “Little Drummer Boy” is the other – still don’t know what was up with that pairing.)

Something else we’ll miss too is building snowmen.  Even when it does snow nowadays it’s difficult to find that perfect, temperature-teetering balance that proves ideal for snowman construction.  Too warm and your raw materials are slippery slush; too cold and the snow won’t pack together.  Ironic too, that the temperature best suited to build a snowman is also least suited to keep it around for long.  In a few short hours your masterpiece becomes a lump on the lawn with only the corncob pipe and button nose to remind anyone of the gentleman who once stood there greeting the passersby.  As illustrated in the lyrics to Frosty, the snowman by his nature is a transitory creature.  He is emblematic of the need to seize the moment, and to appreciate that moment to the fullest while it lasts.

The best snowman I have ever built, bar none, was an ambitious creation assembled on a snowy December day in 2007.  A healthy blanket had fallen during the night and the temperature was hovering around zero – prime conditions to start rolling.  It started out with the usual approach – roll a big ball for the body and a smaller one for the head.  Luckily there was plenty of snow in the driveway to use without having to spoil too much of the area around where the snowman was to stand.  We had the basic structure in place and were pondering how to finish it off when my better half suggested a twist – why not make a snow bunny?

That set the imagination afire.  We remolded his head, adding a snout and carefully shaping it to ensure it didn’t look too much like a pig.  Ears were next, followed by shoes, some stubby arms and a puffball of a tail.  A bow from an old Christmas decoration was repurposed as a necktie.  Unfolded paper clips became whiskers.  The master stroke, however, was cutting up pieces of a charcoal air pre-filter to use as buttons, nose, mouth and the all-important eyes, taking a little design inspiration from Looney Tunes along the way.  Now all he needed was a name.  The proximity of the holidays provided le mot juste, and Hoppy the Snow Rabbit was born.

Not the kind of snow bunny you'd see on the slopes...

Much like his famous brethren, Hoppy was not long for this world.  The air got progressively warmer and snow became rain.  The first to go was an ear, and by the time the sun fell, after providing smiles to pedestrians and the drivers of many passing cars, Hoppy was no more, living on only in scores of photographs taken of our accomplishment.  Perhaps we knew we wouldn’t top ourselves, because we haven’t tried to build a single snowman since.  Life – or, more to the point, the desire to stay warm on snowy days – has gotten in the way.  But that December day we brought Hoppy to life is one we remember with clarion detail, unlike so many others that have ebbed away into the stream of lost thoughts.  Was it the sheer joy of working together to build something special, or the surprise at the wonderful creation that resulted?  I suppose it’s a bit like the day I wrote about a few posts ago; the one thing they share is the act of creation itself.  Making something, even if it isn’t lasting.  Building becomes building memories.  Good ones.

If you have the chance, if the temperature is just right, get off your computer, bundle up, step outside and build a snowman.  It doesn’t have to be a work of art.  It just has to be.  Then step back and let yourself smile.  I think you’ll be glad you did.