A tous mes amis français, bonne fete!
And here is my favorite rendering of La Marseillaise.
A tous mes amis français, bonne fete!
And here is my favorite rendering of La Marseillaise.
When I was a kid I was very outgoing in putting up displays for the holidays — Memorial Day, Christmas, the Fourth of July. I liked the flags, the lights, the stuff. It was cool to make a big splash. But as I grew up I grew out of it, and today I don’t go much for things like that. I don’t have a flag to fly on national holidays, and the most I’ll do for Christmas is a wreath on the door because it has good memories and the scent of pine is rare in subtropical Florida.
I suppose it has something to do with my Quaker notions of shunning iconography — outward symbols can’t show how you truly feel about something on the inside — and more often than not they are used to make up for the lack of a true belief. This is also true of patriotism: waving the flag — or wrapping yourself in it — is a poor and false measure of how you truly feel about your country.
There’s an old saying that there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. As Benjamin Franklin noted, no country had ever been formed because of an idea. But when the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1776 and passed the resolution embodied in the Declaration of Independence, that was what was being done: create a nation not based on geographical boundaries, property, tribalism, or religion, but on the idea of forming a new government to replace the present form because the rulers were incompetent, uncaring, and cruel. The American Revolution wasn’t so much a rebellion as it was a cry for attention. Most of the Declaration is a punch-list, if you will, of grievances both petty and grand against the Crown, and once the revolution was over and the new government was formed, the Constitution contained many remedies to prevent the slights and injuries inflicted under colonialism: the Bill of Rights is a direct response to many of the complaints listed in the Declaration.
But the Declaration of Independence goes beyond complaints. Its preamble is a mission statement. It proclaims our goals and what we hope to achieve. No nation had ever done that before, and to this day we are still struggling to achieve life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness goes on with no sign of let-up.
That is the true glory of America. Not that we complain — and we do — but that we work to fix those complaints. To put them right. To make things better than they were. To give hope to people who feel that they have no voice, and to assure that regardless of who they are, where they come from, what they look like, who they love, or what they believe, there will be room for them to grow, do, and become whatever it is that they have the capacity to be. It’s a simple idea, but the simplest ideas often have the most powerful impact.
This nation has achieved many great things. We’ve inspired other nations and drawn millions to our shores not to just escape their own country but to participate in what we’re doing. And we’ve made mistakes. We’ve blundered and fumbled and bullied and injured. We’ve treated some of our own citizens with contempt, and shown the same kind of disregard for the rights of others that we enumerated in our own Declaration of Independence. We have been guilty of arrogance and hypocrisy. But these are all human traits, and we are, after all, human. The goal of government is to rise above humanity, and the goal of humanity is to strive for perfection. So if we stumble on the road to that goal, it is only because we are moving forward.
I love this country not for what it is but for what it could be. In my own way I show my patriotism not by waving a flag from my front porch but by working to make things work in our system and by adding to the discussion that will bring forth ideas to improve our lives and call into question the ideas of others. It is all a part of what makes the simple idea of life, liberty, and that elusive happiness so compelling and so inspiring, and what makes me very proud to be a part of this grand experiment.
Photo: The Avenue in the Rain by Frederick Childe Hassam 1917.
[This post originally appeared on July 4, 2005.]
To all dads out there, and to my dad, of course.
I grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio. It’s a small town, a suburb of Toledo, and when I was a kid in the 1950’s and ’60’s, it fit all of the images that small towns in the Midwest have: tree-shaded streets, neat homes, lots of churches, and a main street — Louisiana Avenue — with little shops like the drug store with the fountain, the dime store, the barber shop, the hardware store, the bakery with the smell of bread baking and the sweet scent of icing, and the bank with the solid stone exterior. They’re all still there, just under different names now, and my parents, who still live there, still call the drug store by its old name, even though it’s changed owners and become a jewelry shop. In the winter the Christmas decorations line the street, and each Memorial Day there is a parade that starts at the Schaller Memorial, the veterans hall, and proceeds up Louisiana Avenue, taking a turn when it reaches the Oliver Hazard Perry Memorial (“We have met the enemy and they are ours…”) and marches down West Front Street past the old Victorian homes that overlook the Maumee River.
When I was a kid the parade was made up of the veterans groups like the American Legion and the VFW, and platoons of soldiers and veterans, including, through the 1970’s, the last remaining veterans of World War I. They wore their uniforms and their medals, and those that couldn’t march sat in the back seat of convertibles, waving slowly to the crowds that lined the sidewalks. They were followed by the marching band from the high school, the color guard, the Cub Scouts, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the drum and bugle corps, floats from church groups, all of the city fire equipment, antique cars, and the service groups like the Shriners, the Elks, and the Kiwanis Club. After the last float came all the kids on their bicycles decorated with streamers, bunting, flags, and all the patriotic paperwork we could muster. My friends and I would try to outdo each other, and it had less to do with patriotism than it did with seeing how many rolls of red, white, and blue crepe paper we could thread in between the spokes of our wheels.
I was about ten or so on one Memorial Day when I spent a lot of time getting my Schwinn Racer ready for the big parade. It was a perfect day; the sky was a sparkling spring blue and all the floats, cars, and fire trucks were gleaming in the sun as the parade organized on Indiana Avenue in front of the Memorial Hall. The high school band in their yellow and black uniforms marched in precision as the major led off with a Sousa tune, and as the parade slowly made its way down the avenue we could see the crowds along the sidewalks waiting and waving. As we waited our turn we wheeled our bikes in circles, just like the Shriners in their little go-karts, and finally we got the signal that it was time for the kids to roll. There was an organized rush to lead off, and then we were slowly pedaling down the street, waving to everybody outside the library, the Chevy dealership, even the people lined up on the roof of the pizza parlor. I looked for my dad shooting movies with the 8mm camera, but didn’t see him. Oh, well, it didn’t matter; we were supposed to meet at the home of friends who were hosting a post-parade picnic in their backyard. Their house was at the end of the parade route, so that was the perfect place to pull out of the parade and have the first of many Faygo Redpops that summer.
But for some reason I stayed with the parade, on down West Front, and then up West Boundary and past the gates of Fort Meigs Cemetery. The floats and the fire trucks were gone, but what was left of the parade — the color guard and the veterans — went through the gates and along the path. There was no music now, just a solemn drumbeat keeping a steady muffled tapping. The color guard turned at a small stone memorial, and then past it to a gravesite where a family was gathered; a mother in a black dress, a father in a grey suit, and a teenage son and daughter, looking somber and out of place. The grave was still fresh, the dirt mounded over, the headstone a simple marker with a flag. A minister spoke some words, and then the color guard snapped to attention. A volley of rifle fire, then Taps, and then a tall young soldier in dress blues handed a folded flag to the mother, who murmured her thanks and tried to smile.
I suddenly realized that I felt out of place there with my gaudily-patriotic bike and my red-white-and-blue striped shirt. No one noticed me, though, and when the people started to slowly move away from the gravesite and back to the entrance, I followed along until I was able to ride slowly back to our friends’ house, park my bike with all the others, and find my parents, who probably hadn’t even noticed that I was not there with all the other kids running around and playing on the lawn.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.
This post originally appeared on May 25, 2009.
Cinco de Mayo commemorates the the victory of the Mexican Army over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862. It’s a big deal in Mexico and in parts of this country with a large Mexican population, like California, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico (where I had some of the best chile rellenos with enough green chile to take the top of your head off), although it meant more to some than others. I had a guy I worked with who was of Mexican descent who actually asked me, “Hey, when is Cinco de Mayo?” (We always suspected that he was a burrito shy of a full combo platter anyway.)
Here in South Florida, outside of Homestead with its large Mexican population (and some of the best food in the state), it’s not a big deal other than party time and a double margarita, the same way this multiethnic community deals with other national holidays like St. Patrick’s Day; we don’t really know why we celebrate it (as if defeating the French in a battle was like a huge military victory in the first place), but any excuse to eat and drink is good enough, so why fight it?
Pass the salsa.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When 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.
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.
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.
I’m on break for the rest of the week, so blogging will be light and variable, but I’ll be around, so stop by every so often for some morsels and side dishes.
If you’re going over the river and through the woods, have a safe trip and maintain patience with the crowds and the weather.