Saturday, March 31, 2018

Happy Passover

I think it’s a little odd to say “Happy Passover.” I’m not sure that’s what you say when you’re commemorating being thrown out of one country to spend forty years wandering in the desert, but since the Jews who gained their freedom from the Egyptians and got out of bondage didn’t know what lay ahead of them, it is a good enough reason to celebrate.

At any rate, I have fond memories of participating in many a Seder back in my college days. Passover didn’t always fall during Spring Break so I was alone during Holy Week, and I was counted on by my friend Rich’s mom to come spend the evening with them. I learned the songs, the Four Questions, and even won a round or two of Hide the Matzo. (Maybe they said to themselves, “Oy; let the Quaker win for once.”)

Although I belong to a faith that doesn’t celebrate holidays — for Quakers, every day is a holiday — I enjoyed being part of the the family, learning the traditions and especially discovering the food. One of my Jewish friends who got this close to becoming a rabbi has a saying about being Jewish and having a big meal; it’s part of their heritage and their constant struggle against their enemies: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

Save me a helping of haroset, please.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

St. Patrick’s Day

If you’re Irish and it means something to you, then best wishes on St. Patrick’s Day. Here in America it’s another excuse to party, drink way too much, and contribute more to the stereotypes that the Irish all sound like Barry Fitzgerald (“Faith ‘n’ begorah, Father O’Malley!”).

According to my sources, St. Patrick’s Day is a much bigger deal here than it is in Ireland, and they treat it the same way we do when the French go nuts over Jerry Lewis; it’s an inexplicable cultural phenomenon more than the celebration of a saint. But if it’s all fun and games and no one gets hurt, hey, have fun.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Ddyhea buchedda Cymru!

March 1 is St. David’s (Dewi Sant) Day, the patron saint of Wales (“Cymru”). Notable people of Welsh descent include Richard Burton, poet Dylan Thomas, and me on one side of the family.

The title is a literal translation of “Long live Wales!” courtesy of an on-line English to Welsh translation service.

Here’s the national anthem, and a phonetic version of the lyrics so you can sing along:

My hen laid a haddock on top of a tree
Glad farts and centurions throw dogs in the sea
I could stew a hare here, and brandish Don’s flan.
Don’s ruddy bog’s blocked up with sand.
Dad! Dad! Why don’t you oil Aunty Glad?
When whores appear on beer bottle pies,
Oh butter the hens as they fly.
Dad! Dad! Why don’t you oil Aunty Glad?
When whores appear on beer bottle pies,
Oh butter the hens as they fly.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Presidents Day

Today is Presidents Day, the federal holiday mashed together to honor Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday which used to be holidays on their own. This one generically honors all presidents and remembering the times when we had one, and it’s a mid-winter break for schools and a day off for those of us who work in them.

Things will be a little quiet around here.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Friday, February 2, 2018

Monday, January 1, 2018

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Happy Boxing Day

In many parts of the world, including Canada, today is Boxing Day and it’s a holiday, too.

The name derives from the tradition of giving seasonal gifts, on the day after Christmas, to less wealthy people and social inferiors, which was later extended to various workpeople such as labourers and servants.

The traditional recorded celebration of Boxing Day has long included giving money and other gifts to charitable institutions, the needy and people in service positions. The European tradition has been dated to the Middle Ages, but the exact origin is unknown and there are some claims that it goes back to the late Roman/early Christian era.

In the United Kingdom it certainly became a custom of the nineteenth century Victorians for tradesmen to collect their ‘Christmas boxes’ or gifts in return for good and reliable service throughout the year on the day after Christmas.[1]

The establishment of Boxing Day as a defined public Holiday under the legislation that created the UK’s Bank Holidays started the separation of ‘Boxing Day’ from the ‘Feast of St Stephen’ and today it is almost entirely a secular holiday with a tradition of shopping and post Christmas sales starting.

As mentioned, it’s also St. Stephen’s day, which, unless you’re up on your Catholic mythology, you only know about because of the Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslaus.

At any rate, today is the day to clean up after the holiday if you celebrated or head out to the mall if you want to exchange the mystery gift or use the gift card you got from a friend at work. Or you could stay at home and nosh on the leftovers from Christmas dinner, start writing your thank-you notes.

As for me, I’m going to see the new Star Wars movie and see what all the fuss is about.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Sense of Christmas

I’m continuing a tradition I began back when this blog was new, which is another way of saying that I’ve posted this on Christmases past; this makes the eleventh Christmas that I’ve shared this story.

Christmas WreathWhen I was a kid, our family lived in a house with tall ceilings so we always got a Christmas tree that was at least ten feet tall – maybe taller. (It could have been less, but when you’re six or seven, it looks a lot taller.) We had tons of decorations from our family history; gingerbread decorations held together with fine wire, bubble lights that never seemed to work right, and hundreds of ornaments. We always had a debate about tinsel – I hated it, my sister wanted it. Guess who won that one. Every year we put the tree in a different room – one year in the living room, the next in the front parlor, and then in the bay window in the dining room.

That was not the extent of the decorating by any means. While my family was not particularly religious, we went all out for the season in the decor mode that would have made Martha Stewart get out of the business. This was a tradition carried on from both of my parent’s families; my father tells how his father was a meticulous hanger of the old-fashioned lead tinsel, and my mother’s family did it up to the heights of giddiness that included the tree and presents magically appearing overnight on Christmas Eve. So we had a legacy to live up to. Lights on the front porch were interwoven in the cedar roping that looped down from the eaves. There was more roping on the bannister going up the front stairs, tied on with red ribbons, and roping again around the big mirror in the front hall. Candles in Christmas candelabra filled the house with the scent of candle smoke, merging with the evergreens, and on Christmas Eve, when the big roast was in the oven for the dinner with Aunt Margaret, the house was awash with homey aromas.

We had an old-fashioned hi-fi system with speakers throughout the first floor of the house, and as we put up the tree and the roping – usually the weekend before Christmas – we would dig out the Christmas LP’s. The perennial was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Joy To the World that began with “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” That would be followed by the Bing Crosby Merry Christmas album and anything else we had in the rack.

We had two fireplaces in the house, including one in the kitchen, so that’s where we hung our stockings with care. Christmas morning would arrive and the four kids would line up, youngest first, on the back stairs, squirming with anticipation until we were let into the kitchen and a breakfast of Christmas baked treats, including a Scandinavian stollen baked by a family friend. (Never one who liked things like that, I often wished the stollen would be stolen….) Then we’d line up at the appropriate closed door behind which lay the treasure. Nearly fainting with the anticipation, the door would be flung open – a four-voiced gasp of breath, followed by pounding feet and squeals of delight. We took turns, shredding the wrapping, opening the boxes, reading the tags – “From Mom and Dad,” “From Santa,” “From Grammie.” My mother kept a list of who got what from whom so that the thank-you notes could be written. There was always one Big Present for each kid – a bicycle, skis, a train set, a kitten – and lots of books and clothes, too. And each child was sure to give his sibling something, usually something oddly appropriate; like lavender bath beads from me to my sister.

When it was all over, the trash can was filled with the wrappings, the loot taken upstairs, and new clothes tried on. I would pore through the new books until I was nagged to get dressed to go to Christmas dinner somewhere else – with cross-town relatives or the Carranor Club – and the streets would be empty as we piled into the station wagon. We’d come home in the cold and dark, tired from all the excitement, ready to come down from the sugar-spiked high. The next day we’d pack up for our annual skiing trip to Boyne Mountain in Michigan, complete with its own set of sense memories.

These traditions were carried on as we each grew up and started our own families, adding our own touches; Allen and I merged some of each to come up with our own for fifteen years, including the tree (artificial, though – he’s allergic to pine) and music. (I’ve got the Bing Crosby CD on as I write this.) My sister has passed it on to her children, and my younger brother, with his three kids, carries on much as we did when we were young.

So while there may not be a whole lot of religion in any of it, there’s the strength of the ties of family and love that surpasses any denominational definition. It is a common thread that binds us all together whether we say “Happy Holidays,” “Merry Christmas,” “Felice Navidad” (which I immediately corrupted to “Fleas On Your Dad”), “Happy Hanukkah,” or “Good Kwanzaa.” It’s the sense of togetherness and hope that can be spread regardless of whether or not you celebrate the birth of the son of God, and the thankfulness that you feel that you have made it through yet another year and look forward to making the next one better.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sunday Reading

I Stand With Scrooge’s Nephew — Charles P. Pierce on the spirit of giving.

As it happens, at midweek next, that song will become more than simply speculative, at least to me. An odd thought struck me recently that, given the state of things and the distance we’ve come since the Year of Our Lord 1953, the developments we chronicle here every day will have ramifications that I may not be around to see. This is the first time this ever occurred to me, at least so vividly. Maybe I won’t be around to see the entire sweep of the damage being done at the moment, or the entire effort it is going to take to repair it, somewhere down the line. It was not an unsettling thought, just an odd bit of mental flotsam caught up in the jetstream of daily events. It passed almost as soon as it arrived.

I always loved the older carols, the ones that straddle the line between the sacred and the secular, the ones that summon up visions of light snow swirling in the yellow light of gas lamps as the night falls, and people in scarves and mufflers running to and fro while sidewalks choirs and street musicians play. It was an older time, crueler in many ways than the romances of the period would indicate. (A toast to Dickens, who saw through so much of it.) Christmas has survived so many things. It has endured bloody folly and the vicious ignorance of men and nations. It has defeated, in a hundred small ways, the faceless onslaught of commercialism and the steady pounding it takes every year from the relentless forces of greed and stupidity.

This is only one of the ways the whole War on Christmas trope is meaningless. That war ended in 1681, when the Puritans here in the Commonwealth (God save it!) got knuckled into rescinding the law banning the celebration of what those grim, walking ice sculptures called “Foolstide.” (An offense against this statute cost any jolly old miscreant five shillings, the price of five chickens.) Nevertheless, the humorless old gombeens hung on; in 1711, Cotton Mather deplored,

“I hear of a Number of young People of both Sexes, belonging, many of them, to my Flock, who have had on the Christmasnight, this last Week, a Frolick, a revelling Feast, and Ball, which discovers their Corruption, and has a Tendency to corrupt them yett more.”

Oh, shut yer gob, why don’t you?

But the victory became a rout only in 1856, when Massachusetts finally declared it a public holiday. By then, of course, the Irish had arrived in Boston by the boatload, the way the French finally showed up at Yorktown. Christmas won.

There isn’t a lot more to say. The country has voted itself into a very strange place. It has shanghaied itself, taken itself hostage, turned itself into Sheriff Bart upon arrival in Rock Ridge, holding a gun to its own head while making a getaway from an angry mob. Either we will find a way out of this situation or sink deeper into it. The former requires us to cut loose from many of our most cherished delusions. The latter requires that we invest even more faith in them. I think the answer to this dilemma lies in how you react to this touching holiday commercial. For myself, I think it’s very moving that the people who made this ad showed so much respect for the Yuletide traditions of North Korea.

But there is hope. I saw it in Washington the day after the Inauguration, and in Nebraska, out in the fields out of which nobody’s been able to carve a pipeline yet, and, most recently, in Alabama, where I spent an evening at what was undoubtedly the happiest election-night party I’ve ever attended. All that happiness, and surrounded at Christmastime, too.

There is nothing wrong with unbridled joy. That’s the bug that got up all those tight Puritan asses in the years before immigration made Boston the great place that it is—and, not coincidentally, made America the great place that it is, too. Foolstide? You damn betcha, Winthrop. Gonna sing. Gonna dance. (Gotta dance!) Gonna wassail ourselves silly.

Also, by god and the boar’s head, we’re going to remember that charity, and good fellowship, and a decent concern for the less fortunate, for the ones that find it hardest to sing and to dance, and who can’t afford the cost of a good wassail, are not the simply the reason for the season, but that they’re the reason this country was founded in the first place. In 1856, when the push to make Christmas a public holiday in the Commonwealth (God save it!) was nearing the finish line, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that the ice-encrusted personality of the old colony had melted away for good.

“We are in a transition state about Christmas here in New England. The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so.”

And that process goes merrily along, despite the modern heirs to Cotton Mather, and despite the best efforts of public events and public people to snuff out the light of the candle in the window, not only here at the shebeen, but in a thousand other places. In the homes of the Dreamers, who wonder what the next knock on the door will bring. In the places where the opioid crisis has clear-cut a generation, and in the cold places of the north, where the ice is no more, and in all the places where parents look on the happy faces of their children and pray that the year will not bring catastrophic illness or crippling debt.

As the Ghost of Christmas Present tells the slowly thawing miser in his charge:

“What place is this?” asked Scrooge.

“A place where Miners live, who labour in the bowels of the earth,” returned the Spirit. “But they know me. See!”

A light shone from the window of a hut, and swiftly they advanced towards it. Passing through the wall of mud and stone, they found a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire. An old, old man and woman, with their children and their children’s children, and another generation beyond that, all decked out gaily in their holiday attire. The old man, in a voice that seldom rose above the howling of the wind upon the barren waste, was singing them a Christmas song—it had been a very old song when he was a boy—and from time to time they all joined in the chorus. So surely as they raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe and loud; and so surely as they stopped, his vigour sank again.

However, as always, I stand with Scrooge’s nephew.

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

Merry Christmas, happy solstice, jolly midwinter festival, Nollaig shona duit, to you all. Be well and play nice. Stay above the snake-line, and God bless us all, every one.

Doonesbury — The war is over.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving

I wrote the post below in 2007 to remember a very special family Thanksgiving in 1967.

When I was a kid growing up outside of Toledo, we had some relatives in the area, and we also belonged to a local tennis and social club that served as a gathering place for a group of families like ours and we often went there for holiday dinners. It relieved my mom from cooking one of the two big meals at the holidays; if we had Thanksgiving at home, then we went to the club or another relative’s place for Christmas, or vice versa. We also would have the Thanksgiving meal later in the day — usually around the normal dinner time — because we had season tickets to the Detroit Lions football team, and we would go up to Detroit to sit in the freezing cold bleachers to watch the Lions play their traditional Thanksgiving Day game, then come home to the dinner.

It’s been a while since my family has gotten together for Thanksgiving. We’ve all moved on to different places and have our own families. It’s been many years since my entire immediate family — Mom, Dad, and my three siblings and their families — were together for the occasion.

However, there was one Thanksgiving that I’ll never forget: 1967. I was a freshman at St. George’s, the boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island (and also alma mater of Howard Dean and Tucker Carlson). It was my first extended time away from home and I was miserable. My older brother and sister were also away at school; one in New Jersey, the other in Virginia. My parents made arrangements for us all to get together in New York City that weekend, and they booked rooms at the Plaza Hotel. We saw two Broadway musicals — Mame with Angela Lansbury and Henry, Sweet Henry with Don Ameche — and a little musical in Greenwich Village called Now Is The Time For All Good Men…. We went shopping in Greenwich Village, took hansom cab rides in Central Park, had lunch at Toots Shor’s (and got Cab Calloway’s autograph), dinner at Trader Vic’s and Luchow’s, and saw all the sights that a kid from Ohio on his second trip to NYC (the first being the World’s Fair in 1964) could pack into one four-day weekend. Oh, and we had the big Thanksgiving dinner in the Oak Room at the Plaza with all the trimmings. That night we went down to the nightclub below the Plaza and listened to smoky jazz played by a trio and a lovely woman on piano…could it have been Blossom Dearie?

It was a magical weekend. To this day I still remember the sights and sounds and sensations, and the deep sadness that settled back over me as I boarded the chartered bus that took me back to the dank purgatory of that endless winter at school overlooking the grey Atlantic Ocean.

I’ve had a lot of wonderful and memorable Thanksgivings since then at home and with friends, everywhere from Ohio, Michigan, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, and even one in Jamaica, but that weekend at the Plaza will always be special.

*
How to celebrate Thanksgiving at the Bartlet White House.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Monday, October 9, 2017

Happy October Holiday

To some, today is Columbus Day. In some places, school is out and it’s a holiday. Not in Miami-Dade County, though, which means I’m at work, and to some people, celebrating the arrival of Christopher Columbus is seen as not necessarily a good thing.

In Canada, it’s Thanksgiving Day. That means they get a six-week jump on Christmas shopping. I am sure they are thrilled to be inundated with jingling bells and heralding angels before the leaves are off the maples.

Anyway, enjoy the holiday if you celebrate it.

Canadian Thanksgiving

Friday, September 29, 2017

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Monday, September 4, 2017

Labor Day

Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times

Having grown up in a union town that was near a large city that relied on union labor, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the people who most hate unions are folks who think that it is unconscionable that workers should have the same rights as the managers and the owners of the company. How dare they demand a living wage and safe working conditions. Who do they think they are?

Yeah, yeah; in every large group there are bad apples and examples of bad faith and extremism. Welcome to the human race. The Republicans hold the unions up as the boogeyman of the Western world and label them as thugs… and give tax breaks to the corporations because they know that if they don’t, the corporations will kneecap them. Not literally; they’ll just stop giving them money, which, in corporate circles, is thuggery. The people who whine about “class warfare” always turn out to be the ones who are winning the war.

Perhaps one of the reasons that union membership is down is that unions have accomplished a lot of what they set out to do 100 years ago. Factories are safer, working hours are reasonable, wages are better than the minimum, and pensions provide some security. The unions have learned, however awkwardly, to accept that they have been successful, but they also know that if some people had their way in the world, they would turn back to clock to 1911, put children to work, take away the healthcare, and demand more production. After all, it works for the Chinese, and look how they’re doing.

By the way, not all union workers are Democrats; they certainly weren’t were I grew up. A lot of them are hardcore Republicans or conservatives — including police officers — who don’t care about the politics; they just want to be treated fairly. And a lot of people who are not union members are working under union contracts; in most places there is no requirement to join a union to benefit from their efforts. So while actual union membership may be down to 15%, the number of people who are part of the union is far greater. That includes public sector jobs as well as private. So the next time someone feels the urge to union-bash, be sure you’re not peeing in your own campfire.

Full disclosure: I am a dues-paying member of a union of sorts; I belong to the Dramatists Guild. It provides services for writers and lyricists and makes sure that when our works are produced, we have a fair contract and get paid our royalties. The joke among us is that we don’t go on strike; we just get writers’ block.

[Originally posted September 2, 2013]

Thursday, August 31, 2017