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Merry Indie Xmas; some guys in New York performing various Christmas carols in the style of well-known “indie” bands (Interpol, Beach House, The XX) as well as, for some reason, Mumford & Sons. (I suppose they're there by way of the same American hipster Anglophilia that resulted in Coldplay being regarded as a credible indie band for a while.) Anyway:
A few seasonal links for today and tomorrow:
In 1973, Helen was 16 and having a relationship with a girl at school, but they hadn't come out for a whole load of reasons, most of them to do with it being 1973. "In those days, we were like outcasts, so nobody knew, it was a great secret. A few of my friends were really homophobic. We went to this New Year's Eve party, where people were all goading each other to kiss. So we did. It was brilliant, everybody was cheering, we were pretending it was a joke. It was probably one of the best kisses I've ever had."
It didn't make it any easier to come out, though. "We never came out, we split up two years later, the pressure became too great. Most of it on her, because her family had mapped out her life for her, she had to get married. And I did what was expected of me, when I was 18. I got married as well. I had three kids."
I once tried to write an article, perhaps rather straining for effect, describing the experience as too much like living for four weeks in the atmosphere of a one-party state. "Come on," I hear you say. But by how much would I be exaggerating? The same songs and music played everywhere, all the time. The same uniform slogans and exhortations, endlessly displayed and repeated. The same sentimental stress on the sheer joy of having a Dear Leader to adore. As I pressed on I began almost to persuade myself. The serried ranks of beaming schoolchildren, chanting the same uplifting mush. The cowed parents, in terror of being unmasked by their offspring for insufficient participation in the glorious events…. "Come on," yourself. How wrong am I?
One of my many reasons for not being a Christian is my objection to compulsory love. How much less appealing is the notion of obligatory generosity. To feel pressed to give a present is also to feel oneself passively exerting the equivalent unwelcome pressure upon other people... Don't pretend not to know what I am talking about. It's like the gradual degradation of another annual ritual, whereby all schoolchildren are required to give valentines to everybody in the class. Nobody's feelings are hurt, they tell me, but the entire point of sending a valentine in the first place has been deliberately destroyed. If I feel like giving you a gift I'll try and make sure that (a) it's worth remembering and (b) that it comes as a nice surprise. (I like to think that some of my valentines in the past packed a bit of a punch as well.)
“Just because we don’t have Boney M or Christmas advertising in September doesn’t mean we are oblivious to it,” said Gundane who went on to suggest that Africans were a lot like the Irish. “They made it through disasters like the potato blight and the invention of the Protestant church without forgetting Christmas – why did they think we would forget it?”
Gundane said he hoped that his involvement with the song would turn him into an expert on British politics and economics in the same way ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’ had turned Geldof and Bono into the world’s leading experts on Africa.
Cleaning up the last of the Christmas links: Hyperbole And A Half's Allie writes/draws about how, when she was six years old, her attempt to stage a Christmas pageant was ruined by Kenny Loggins:
Me: "Jesus doesn't want those things."
Grandma: "Sure he does. Jesus loves Kenny Loggins."
Me: "No. He hates him."
My dire seriousness only served to fuel their desire to toy with me.
Aunt: "No, no, no. Jesus was a huge Kenny Loggins fan."
Grandma: "It's true. I saw it in the Bible once."
Me: "Grandma, Kenny Loggins wasn't even alive back then."
Grandma: "Oh yes he was. Kenny Loggins is immortal."
They both burst into raucous laughter. They thought they were being awfully clever. Apparently my mom and dad thought so too, because they joined in.
Most educated people know that Christmas started out as a pagan festival, and was appropriated by the Christian church to better reach the masses. Chances are that the pagans the Christians stole it from had, in turn, stolen it from an earlier bunch of pagans, and so on, all the way back to a group of early humans huddling around a fire somewhere, seeing in the midwinter. Perhaps they exchanged some kinds of tokens, perhaps they imbibed fermented fluids our modern palates would find disgusting, perhaps they made propitiatory sacrifices to the gods of winter to encourage them to go away, though it's not unlikely that a burning log was involved.
So we had people marking midwinter and anthropomorphising the cosmic forces responsible for the season. Then more complicated religious systems came along and said, no, that's not the winter god, that's Zarathustra or Mithras or Sol Invictus. Then, around the fourth century, Christianity came along and decided that Jesus was born on the 25th of December. (Aside: according to some claims, the most likely date for the birth of Jesus would have been in August or September, assuming the thing about the shepherds being out in the fields was accurate.) Then along came secularism and the Enlightenment and Christianity receded somewhat to the background, though not quite disappearing; instead, becoming the default traditional-religious-meaning-of-Christmas which people complain nobody pays much attention to as they go gift-shopping.
So what we have today is a salmagundi of several different stories which don't quite fit together. We have, in particular, the Biblical story of the son of God being born in a manger in the Middle East, visited by wise men bearing gifts and so on. And beneath that we have a completely incongruous Arctic mythology of a fat man in a red suit who lives at the North Pole, rides flying reindeer and delivers presents. In some mythologies, he has armies of elves (an element of northern European mythology) helping him make and deliver the toys (presumably Apple and Nintendo have kindly signed some kinds of intellectual-property licensing agreements with them, allowing them to make iPhones and Wiis in their Polar chip fabs). In the Netherlands, he is accompanied by six to eight black men, whose job it is to thrash naughty children; in Switzerland and Austria, that task is performed by a demonic creature named Krampus. The man is known in English as Santa Claus or Father Christmas, though is generally identified as Saint Nicholas, a bishop from fourth-century Greece who is unlikely to have ever seen a reindeer. Similarities between Santa Claus and St. Nicholas of Myra are largely coincidental; some say that the bearded Arctic-dwelling man is derived from the Norse god Odin. Meanwhile, in Russia, he is known as Grandfather Frost, and in Finland, his place is taken by Joulupukki, the Yule Goat (which is actually a goatlike creature; the Finns are nothing if not metal)..
It would be complicated enough with just these two very different mythologies, awkwardly joined at the hip. But in the 20th century, as Christmas became an ever-greater secular and commercial milestone, even more elements were added. The general rule seems to be that anything goes, as long as it's vaguely wintery or snow-related. We got supernaturally animated snowmen (Frosty the Snowman, of the popular Christmas song, and Raymond Briggs' snowman), which have nothing to do with either Christianity or the old Nordic pagan mythologies. And more recently, other remotely polar elements have been appearing on Christmas cards, such as penguins. These, of course, live in the Southern Hemisphere, but if a fourth-century Greek bishop can travel the globe by flying reindeer, surely he can have a few penguins in his entourage. And I wouldn't be too surprised if, one of these years, someone threw in a polar bear or two for the more ecologically minded.
BBC Newsnight's Ethical Man, Justin Rowlatt, claims that the Christmas tradition of gift-giving, in its present consumeristic incarnation, is exacting a ruinous ecological cost in carbon emissions:
The real problem is that giving presents is an inherently inefficient activity. It means guessing what someone else may want or need. Every now and then you'll buy the perfect shirt but more often than not the ornament or tie or garden thermometer will end up in the attic or more likely in a landfill site and all the carbon that went into making it is completely wasted.
A few decades ago you probably needed the socks that your mum gave you or the saucepan she was given by her Aunt. These days it is different. Consumer goods are so cheap and plentiful that even people on very low incomes have no shortage of stuff.
Indeed, if you need proof of how corrupt our present giving culture has become look no further than the "gift" shops that have colonised every high street. You know the ones; they sell things no-one wants like scented candles, little vases and foot massage kits.Perhaps it's time for a carbon-correct rewriting of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, which starts off with Scrooge as a profligate consumerist, loading his SUV up with loads of chintzy, useless plastic tat, with the intention of wrapping it up and giving it copiously to everyone he knows, as if in the throes of some seasonal lunacy. He then would be visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who would show him the ecological and ethical consequences of his entry into the "Christmas spirit" (child slaves making toys in some hellish sweatshop in Asia, last year's presents all discarded and crushed under landfill, leaching toxins into the water table, and the ecological consequences for the world in a few decades if people keep doing this). Chastened, Scrooge mends his ways, and from now on, each of his nearest and dearest gets a £5 note and an Oxfam goat for a village in Africa.
Rowlatt points out that giving cash would be much more efficient and less likely to result in carbon emissions being generated for no good use, though cash is considered somewhat crass; in fact, anything efficient or utilitarian is considered improper (take, for example, how socks (something people all wear) have become a byword for lousy Christmas presents):
I've never understood why giving money is considered bad form. Wasn't that five pound note folded into Granny's card the very best present of all? You could use it to buy something you actually wanted. Not only that, cash is completely carbon free (until you buy something, of course).Perhaps, if we want to make the giving of efficient gifts (i.e., cash) acceptable, we need a special ceremonial form of cash which is not used in day-to-day transactions. This would be legal tender, much like normal cash, though would look different, and people would be socially discouraged from using it for mundane uses such as buying groceries. (A parallel, ceremonial form of legal tender isn't as far-fetched as it sounds; Britain already has one, though one that's used in giving alms to the poor.)
In North Pole, Alaska, it is Christmas every day. The decorations never come down, the streetlights are painted like candy canes, and even the McDonalds is Christmas-themed. Meanwhile, the town's new mayor wants to extend the Christmas theme, having shop workers wear elf costumes. Good cheer is a civic duty, and for some reason, not everybody's happy with that.
Recently, a group of high-school children was arrested after planning a Columbine-style high-school massacre:
Earl says the goths were non-Christmassy outcast loners, bullied by the jocks, their intended victims. Iwas a bullied goth at school and so I understand the impulse to want to kill bullies. But there's a big difference between them and me. There were 15 of them. Six ringleaders and nine others who knew about it and were to play subsidiary roles. A gang of 15 can hardly call themselves bullied loners.Fifteen is a huge number in a town of 1,600. It's 25% of the school's 13-year-olds. And they were going to kill dozens of their classmates. This sounds to me like civil war, the non-Christmassy kids against the Christmassy ones.The kids were all (a) identified as "goths" (apparently the goths in American Red States are a lot more violent and nihilistic than the ones elsewhere; the Mordorian Orcs of the goth world?), and (b) 13, which means that they would have recently done their first stint of letter-writing-elf duty, replying to some of the letters sent by children around the world to "Santa, North Pole". Some speculate that the shock of discovering that there is no Santa Claus, combined with the avalanche of human misery in the letters, may have pushed some of them to breaking point:
She explains: the town keeps the practice a secret from the younger children. They have no idea that they'll one day - at the age of 11 or 12 - be obliged to become letter-writing elves. She says it can be quite a shock. Jessie says it isn't as bad as it could be. They do have rules: "If someone writes something like, 'Dear Santa, my mom has cancer. Can you make it go away?' we don't deal with those. We give them back to the teacher." But still, she says, it's a disappointment.
"you'll probably see it in their faces. They prepare you for a few weeks before, but there's always that one person who's like, 'Wait. What are we doing?' And that's the person you should be looking out for. The person who wasn't paying attention in class until the letters are right in front of them. And then they're shattered. It's a weird experience."
A chain of shops in Germany has had to destroy thousands of miniature Santa Claus figurines after customers complained that they appeared to be giving a Nazi salute:
"We were astonished by the reaction," Lange said. "It looks like he's just pointing up to the sky and we were surprised that anyone saw the so-called 'Hitler salute' in that. But we responded and had the entire inventory removed and destroyed."
For those looking for the ideal present for the hacker in their lives, Make has an open-source gift guide. This includes all sorts of nifty (in a rather geeky way) things, from a DIY TB-303 clone kit to a software radio transceiver that can handle all kinds of signals to persistence of vision displays for bicycle wheels, and a DIY game console (on which you can play and write 1982-style video games), a Linux-based pocket game console, and not one but two open-source mobile phone platforms, not to mention numerous controller and interface boards to build stuff out of.
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