The truth about Christmas

Well, some of it anyway.

I’m looking out on Christmas here in the UK. Most people celebrate it in some way or other, most people don’t work on the 25th, though some folk do – hospital staff, the emergency services, people serving Happy Meals at McDonalds in motorway service areas. A good friend of mine, when he was young enough, used to refuse to celebrate it on principle, but instead he walked an hour and a half to the far side of the neighbouring town (there being no buses running on Christmas Day), to the drop-in centre for the homeless, where he would wait table and wash dishes before walking home. Despite his not wishing to make a day special for himself that was not special for others, he always found that his father had patiently kept a plate of turkey-with-the-trimmings and a bowl of pudding warm for him, which he ate ungrudgingly, aware of the simple generosity of a charity that began at home.

Increasingly, and every year during advent, social media is bombarded with memes pagansplaining* how Christmas was stolen from paganism in a shocking attempt at cultural cleansing and appropriation. This, I’m afraid, is one of those factoids which is repeated and repeated in the expectation that people will eventually accept it as fact. But as I see it, it’s a view that does not survive close examination. Allow me to advance some reasons why I don’t buy this particular memeaganda**.

For many generations the Christian Church didn’t celebrate Jesus’s birthday. Why should they? What was really important to them was the final acts of his mortal ministry and the beginning of his spiritual ministry – his death on the cross, his resurrection, and the sealing of the New Covenant by the visitation of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. To early Christians, and to those in the 21c who have Christianity as a living experience rather than a doctrine, that was something that didn’t and doesn’t need a day set aside to celebrate, but is celebrated every day. Gradually, however, an ecclesiastical calendar was devised within institutional Christianity, including a principle celebration of the crucifixion and resurrection. Its main aim was as a teaching aid, so that there was a systematic way of delivering the story, bite-sized, to a largely illiterate congregation. That’s not all there was to it, of course; to be sure, as Christianity developed, its cultural fabric became more complex and less easy to apply simple analysis to. Into that ecclesiastical calendar the nativity story had to be fitted, had to be given a day or a season to itself. When should that be?

This is the point at which the pagansplanation*** would have you believe that the wicked Christians got together and, rubbing their hands gleefully in their evil synod, said, “Ah, let’s steal the winter solstice from the pagans! That’ll settle their hash!” That, it has to be said, is highly unlikely. More likely is that, in considering the narrative of Christ – which was of course their focus and concern – with some sort of chronology in mind, it was decided that the logical date to celebrate the birth of Jesus would be nine months after the Annunciation, the visitation of the Holy Spirit to Mary and the conception of Jesus, a date which had been fixed in the ecclesiastical calendar at the 25th of March. In fact this is a theory that has some acceptance amongst historians of Christianity; to me it has a touch of Occam’s razor about it, and I’m prepared to give it a place, or at the very least to advance it as being as likely a scenario as the ‘straight theft’ theory.

So, ‘Christmas’ – a day for a special mass in celebration of Christ’s birth – was fixed at some eighteen days after the winter solstice.

“Whoa, hold on!” I hear you cry. “Eighteen days after? Eighteen days after? Eighteen days after? What’s that all about?”

Well, the Julian Calendar was in use, and that is some fifteen days off-set from the Gregorian Calendar, which had a staggered adoption in the world from the late 16c onwards. December 25th in the Julian Calendar was the equivalent of January 7th in the Gregorian. In fact the more traditional Eastern Orthodox observation still celebrates Christmas in early January. The Western Church (Roman Catholic and post-Reformation bodies) celebrate it three days after the winter solstice. Add to that the Christian bodies who do not celebrate Christmas at all, and the accusation of wholesale cultural theft of the solstice by ‘Christianity’ begins to leak.

5
Bringing in the Yule Log.

It is far more plausible to credit the strength of pagan customs, whether from the classical world or elsewhere, with having survived, with having attached themselves to the Christian calendar, with still being there in the culture of folk today, most of whom follow them – kissing under the mistletoe, decorating a tree, making wreaths of the undefeated holly, getting happily blootered – without even bothering with the Christian celebration. One can only wonder what is the agenda of all this paganplaining**** when they should be dancing in the streets!

You may wonder why I preach up Christianity. These days there have been so many harmful accretions to Christian culture. Yet, to my mind, at its heart there is something that can only contribute greatly to the psychic health of humankind. The evangelist John says this (and here I use the ringing poetry of the King James Bible, one of the cornerstones of English literacy):

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John [‘The Baptist’]. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
(John 1:1-9)

This is the kernel of faith as expressed by an early Christian. It is that in all of us there is something inextinguishable. Though in us it is not of us, but is of the founding force and principle of existence – and you don’t have to call that force ‘God’ if you don’t want to, or equate it with the earthly Jesus as John does and as Christians do, you might easily pass it off as ‘reason’, or give it no name at all and consider it something inexplicable and random – and if it is heeded, looked towards, and nurtured, then it can’t fail to enlighten us. It may be buried deep and difficult to see in a misogynistic and racist politician or a religious terrorist, but it is there anyway, and it gives us hope.

Many of you will ask why we ‘need’ this transcendent principle, why we can’t be content simply to rely on our human self. Maybe we don’t need it. Maybe what John is talking about is just so much hooey. I can’t help feeling, however, that this is something of value, and that it can’t but come to the aid of our appalling ignorance, our folly, and our imperfection. A very simple phrase from another early Christian stays with me:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; (1 Corinthians 13:12)

The apostle Paul says that we see things as though they were a puzzle viewed in a mirror. I wonder if that makes Paul the world’s first phenomenologist. What we see is not reality, it is phenomena. It may have some relation to reality, but it is nonetheless only a fleeting image, filtered through human perception. Even the rules of science are not rules because that’s how things are, but because we are who we are and that’s how we happen to see things. Reality is something out there. And yet there is something undeniably real in us. In the world of 2016, so full of foul strokes and fuckups and fool-yous, it is hard to believe in meliorism of any kind. Yet the principle that John knew and celebrated in his gospel drives what is pure and true in Christianity, in the very teeth of what is fucked-up. It drives my revolutionary anarcho-communist zeal, in the very teeth of the world’s slide into numb-brained right-wingery. It drives someone to give up Christmas dinner to go and wash the feet of someone less fortunate. And it seems to defy common sense, to go on, to smile in the face of all this who-stole-what-from-whom bickering, which, when you stop and think about it, ain’t worth a hill of beans.

From our teepee in the Sidlaws, Consuela (my Tejana maid) and I wish you all – and I mean all – the best and truest of celebrations. Find something to celebrate. You know you want to!

__________

*This is yet another word I thought I had invented, but apparently it was coined by someone called Rose Corcoran. Nice one, Rose!

**Damn – there’s another one somebody got to before me!

***I’ll have that one, thank you very much!

****And that one!

 

Advertisements

Keats and Chapman, inter alia.

1121Keats and Chapman were in New York – ‘on vacation’, as they style it on that side of the Herring Pond. Chapman had always been a great lover of Italian food, and had heard that, outside Italy, the best Italian cuisine was to be found amongst the diaspora in the Big Apple. Consequently he dragged his companion around almost every trattoria and ristorante in the city, or so it seemed.

He declared himself more than satisfied with the standard of the food, except in one respect. Everywhere the companions dined, when Chapman asked for Parmesan cheese, it was served to him in thin shavings. He explained to Keats that he much preferred to be left a bowl of powdery fragments, which he could sprinkle onto his food with the aid of a little spoon.

Keats observed (and this took some time to sink in) that Chapman ought therefore to run for office, on the platform of “making America grate again.”

__________

3
Detail from ‘The Hands’.

When I was young and pretty, lo these many years, I acted in a handful of erotic movies. We’re talking about the days of rather grainy, 8mm, reel-to-reel film. I told this to Consuela (my Tejana maid), and she asked whether my movies were hardcore or softcore. Well, back then most erotica was heteronormcore* anyway, but not my oeuvres. I remember little about them, except for two things. Firstly depilatory shaving was unheard of, we all looked like we had modelled for Paul Delvaux, and on 8mm I can tell you that meant that the secret grotto was well hidden in the forest. Secondly, I believe that the title of my most successful movie was I Love You, Alice B Topless.

Consuela said she couldn’t claim a similar personal history, but she did have an uncle who was a veterinarian. He specialised in the conditions that affect canine feet, and had written a learned book entitled Hard Paw Cornography.

__________

*Yet another word I thought I had invented, but apparently not.

Did the Holocaust really happen?

1I’m starting today’s piece, in which there will be no shade of irony or satire but only a serious point to make, with a deliberately provocative question as the heading. Many knees will jerk simply because I dare to make a heading out of it at all, many assumptions will be jumped to before some people even start to read any further. I ask for patience – all will be made clear.

It is right to question history. New research brings new facts to light, which enlarge our view of what happened in the past. It is right to challenge the way that history is narrated, or propagandised, or subsumed into our National Myths. I challenge national myths all the time – American, British, Scottish, and so on – because ultimately they are harmful. It is right, and healthy, and constructive, and sane, and necessary to subject our assumptions about history to critical review, and to challenge accepted detail. It is lazy and deceitful to shirk this intellectual rigour. History has been lied about, time and time again.

However, that rigour, that necessity, that healthiness runs out when a questioner starts his or her enquiry from the position that a major, observable, and well-documented historical event never took place. That constructiveness, that rightness, that sanity runs out when they try to persuade others, by propagandising the opposite.

It has recently been pointed out that if you Google the question “Did the Holocaust really happen?’ – in fact if you put in “Did the Hol” and leave it at that – what will come up in your results is site after site after site that claims “No it didn’t”, and go on to claim that the whole account of the Holocaust is the result of a conspiracy. These days, probably partly as a reaction to the way that the Holocaust has been narrated and propagandised, many people are all too ready to swallow that.

Let me be plain: the Holocaust happened. I will now present two basic principles which make denying it pointless.

1] The most successful conspiracies are the ones that involve the fewest people. If you increase the number of people involved in a conspiracy, you increase the risk of the inclusion of a weak link. A conspiracy large enough to construct the Holocaust out of nothing would have to have involved millions more people than actually died, in order to sustain it, and that very fact would make it unwieldy and impossible from the word go. People who insist on Holocaust denial would have simply pushed over the whole edifice by now. The fact that they haven’t is proof enough that their denial is fruitless.

2] The Holocaust is woven so tightly into the history of the 20th Century, that if it were not factual, the whole of that history would unravel. Nothing would make sense any more. The deniers would find themselves having to deny just about everything else that has happened.

When I look at Central Europe in the early 21st Century, and in particular at the rise of the new Right, I wonder if anyone does actually bother to study history. But then I realise something important. It is that the combination of the Holocaust and the general devastation of war actually did bring about what Hitler was trying to achieve. Whole layers of cultural and societal diversity were obliterated. Anyone brought up since the War would have been brought up in a much more mono-ethnic, mono-cultural environment than existed before the War. Combine that with the suppression of information and dissent, 2particularly in the Eastern half of Europe, and the result is a dangerous level of ignorance. I can understand why, from within a modern, millennial generation, squads of youngsters with fourteen-eyelet boots and black or drab MA-1 jackets tramp around the streets with old, imperial flags held aloft. They know no better.

But it’s time they did. It’s time they went home and learned some history. I’ve studied history, and I known how uncomfortable it can be. Myths of nation and race tend to become less sure, heroes have flaws and sometimes feet of clay, basic trends and facts may be fairly stable but peripheral details become questionable and the overall picture may change hue. Large facts, however, are unavoidable. In the early mid-20th Century, millions of people were sent to specific places to be slaughtered. That is a large fact.

Castro’s Cuba…

… according to William Blum.

I take occasional notice of American dissident William Blum, thanks to a friend who regularly alerts me if he has anything interesting to say. Blum and I disagree on many things. He’s authoritarian-left, I’m libertarian-left; he supported Trump, for various reasons, some of which may even prove right, strange though that may seem, and I remain skeptical about the guy; he calls the BBC “state-owned”… oops, no, sorry, he shouts “STATE-OWNED”… when it actually is not owned-by-the-state nor funded by tax money nor, constitutionally, directed by the state. Still, he often cuts American self-myth to the quick.

On the death of Fidel Castro he wrote the following:

1The most frequent comment I’ve read in the mainstream media concerning Fidel Castro’s death is that he was a “dictator”; almost every heading bore that word. Since the 1959 revolution, the American mainstream media has routinely referred to Cuba as a dictatorship. But just what does Cuba do or lack that makes it a dictatorship?

No “free press”? Apart from the question of how free Western media is […] if that’s to be the standard, what would happen if Cuba announced that from now on anyone in the country could own any kind of media? How long would it be before CIA money – secret and unlimited CIA money financing all kinds of fronts in Cuba – would own or control almost all the media worth owning or controlling?

Is it “free elections” that Cuba lacks? They regularly have elections at municipal, regional and national levels. They do not have direct election of the president, but neither do Germany or the United Kingdom and many other countries. The Cuban president is chosen by the parliament, The National Assembly of People’s Power. Money plays virtually no role in these elections; neither does party politics, including the Communist Party, since all candidates run as individuals. Again, what is the standard by which Cuban elections are to be judged? Is it that they don’t have private corporations to pour in a billion dollars? Most Americans, if they gave it any thought, might find it difficult to even imagine what a free and democratic election, without great concentrations of corporate money, would look like, or how it would operate. Would Ralph Nader finally be able to get on all 50 state ballots, take part in national television debates, and be able to match the two monopoly parties in media advertising? If that were the case, I think he’d probably win; which is why it’s not the case.

Or perhaps what Cuba lacks is our marvelous “electoral college” system, where the presidential candidate with the most votes is not necessarily the winner. Did we need the latest example of this travesty of democracy to convince us to finally get rid of it? If we really think this system is a good example of democracy why don’t we use it for local and state elections as well?

Is Cuba a dictatorship because it arrests dissidents? Many thousands of anti-war and other protesters have been arrested in the United States in recent years, as in every period in American history. During the Occupy Movement of five years ago more than 7,000 people were arrested, many beaten by police and mistreated while in custody. And remember: The United States is to the Cuban government like al Qaeda is to Washington, only much more powerful and much closer; virtually without exception, Cuban dissidents have been financed by and aided in other ways by the United States.

Would Washington ignore a group of Americans receiving funds from al Qaeda and engaging in repeated meetings with known members of that organization? In recent years the United States has arrested a great many people in the US and abroad solely on the basis of alleged ties to al Qaeda, with a lot less evidence to go by than Cuba has had with its dissidents’ ties to the United States. Virtually all of Cuba’s “political prisoners” are such dissidents. While others may call Cuba’s security policies dictatorship, I call it self-defense.

An interesting analysis, that I have reproduced without further comment or endorsement, except to note that even though he supports Trump he still considers the recent election “a travesty”. [reproduced by permission, williamblum.org]

You don’t have to be a fascist to work here… but it helps!

4
The wonderful Henry Gibson in ‘The Blues Brothers’, John Landis, Universal, 1980.

Throughout most of my life the word I have heard the word ‘fascist’ used pretty damn widely. Consuela (my Tejana maid here in the teepee on the Sidlaws) has the gall to use it of me frequently, much to my irritation. It really does sour my Earl Grey tea! Where I get to hear the word most widely nowadays, however, is surprisingly in the mouths of the new right, the alt-right, and so on, usually in the form of a scornful denial. “Those liberal leftie elite types call us ‘fascists’,” they scoff, declaring themselves to be ‘nationalists’ or some such. “We’re just regular Joes who have had enough!”

Do they have a point? I mean, do they? (Consuela, who was reading over my shoulder as I type, just harrumphed and stalked off. I can hear her in the kitchen, rattling those pots and pans.) In matters of dispute my first stop is always the Oxford English Dictionary, because it records meanings as neutrally as possible. The first definition it offers is one of historical precision:

fascism, n.
a. Usu. with capital initial. A nationalist political movement that controlled the government of Italy from 1922 to 1943 under the leadership of Benito Mussolini (1883–1945); the principles or ideology of the fascisti.

So far so good. Modern America, Britain, wherever, isn’t Italy 1922-1943. The OED offers, with that definition, the following note of historical commentary:

The movement grew out of the nationalist fasci which became prominent at the end of the First World War (1914–18), esp. with the formation of the militantly anti-communist and anti-socialist Fasci di Combattimento by Mussolini in 1919. After the formation of a coherently organized Fascist party in 1921, Mussolini became prime minister in 1922, leading to the eventual establishment of a totalitarian Fascist state.

The OED goes on with a slightly broader definition:

gen. An authoritarian and nationalistic system of government and social organization which emerged after the end of the First World War in 1918, and became a prominent force in European politics during the 1920s and 1930s, most notably in Italy and Germany; (later also) an extreme right-wing political ideology based on the principles underlying this system. Freq. with capital initial.

Again there is a footnote to that definition:

Fascism originated in Italy as an anti-communist and nationalist movement (see sense 1a). In the 1920s and, particularly, the 1930s, political parties and groups were founded on the Italian model in numerous countries, including Britain, Brazil, France, Hungary, Romania, Spain, and above all Germany (see, e.g., Falange n., Iron Guard n. at iron adj. Special uses 2, Nazism n.). These parties typically opposed socialism and liberalism (as well as communism) and advocated ultranationalistic policies, usually espousing ethnocentric ideas of racial superiority, esp. anti-Semitism. Where such parties came to power, as in Italy and Germany, they characteristically formed totalitarian dictatorships, giving special status to a charismatic leader (cf. Duce n., Führer n.) and often pursuing an aggressively militaristic foreign policy. After the defeat of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the Second World War (1939–45), Fascism ceased to be a significant political force, although subsequently (chiefly from the 1970s) a number of extreme right-wing nationalist parties have been founded in Europe and elsewhere on similar principles (cf. neo-fascism n., neo-Nazism n.).

The OED offers an extended definition, based largely on usage:

In extended use (depreciative).
a. Any form of behaviour perceived as autocratic, intolerant, or oppressive; esp. the advocacy of a particular viewpoint or practice in a manner that seeks to enforce conformity.

That’s the way Consuela uses it of me, I gather. Wholly inappropriate! I must speak to her about it and make her stop. The OED definitions direct to another page which defines ‘neo-fascism’:

neo-fascism, n.
A new or revived form of fascism.

Now, the purpose of this little post is not to be pedantic. Pedantry is the point of view which insists, not without accuracy, that General Franco wasn’t a fascist, but was instead an ultra-conservative in a specifically Spanish context. Nor is its purpose to complain about the term’s over-use – it has been applied to attitudes to food, fashion, the political left, the ecology, and probably even the sport of netball for all I know. But I do want to make a few observations which you can refer back to the next time you hear someone of the neo/alt-right object to being called a ‘fascist’.

  • You don’t need all the Hugo Boss uniforms when existent, acceptable uniforms of 3your country are already impressive enough.* You don’t need uniforms at all, in a world where people are already impressed by a suit and tie.
  • You don’t need to adopt a swastika banner or Roman fasces when your national flag is already revered almost as an icon of worship.
  • You don’t need to instil false patriotism when your basic population is already taught from an early age to be patriotic.
  • You don’t need to build up military power when your country is already one of the most militarily powerful in the world. In fact you can even promise to back off on your foreign policy, to become more isolationist, if it happens to be politically expedient at the time.
  • You don’t need to instigate a totalitarian dictatorship when you can subvert and use a system.** In fact you can use that system very effectively at the same time as you curse your opponents for being part of it.
  • You don’t need to be particularly anti-socialist or anti-communist, when that oppositional position has already been indoctrinated into your population for decades beforehand.
  • You don’t need to be particularly anti-Semitic or any kind of racial supremacist, if it comes to that, as long as you use the right language to the right people at the right time. Play your cards right, and you can even have Semitic allies.
  • It’s all about power, whether the aim is the establishment of a thousand-year Reich or treating the USA as a computer game.
  • You don’t need to woo big business to your side when big business is already on your side. In fact you can get away with castigating lobbyists and Wall Street, so long as you don’t actually tinker too much with their influence.
  • You don’t need to re-invent the Gestapo when your country already has a fully-functioning investigation bureau.
  • You don’t need a charismatic leader, but it sure helps!
  • In short, you don’t need to step like a goose and honk like a goose to have goose DNA.

I would like to add a little about Christianity in a neo-fascist context. Just this:

Christianity is supposed to be prophetic. When it loses its prophetic power it should not seek pharisaic power. It should not resort to flooding the temple of temporal power with its lawgivers – it should be on its knees praying. About that much I will be dogmatic.

(How did Consuela know I just typed the words “I will be dogmatic”? She has just yelled “Fascist!” at me from the kitchen!)

__________

*No slur is intended on the dress uniform of the US Marine Corps; it is simply shown here to illustrate a point. It is rather impressive, though, you must admit!

**In the early 1980s there was a neo-liberal coup worldwide, facilitated by national governments; the political leaders who started the ball rolling may have gone, but the power-base they facilitated remains intact.

“Down with Experts!” – a fable

Marie Marshall

There was once a village where they had their own way of doing things. Every week the villagers would get together and hold a meeting where everyone had the right to speak and every voice was equal. Here they decide how best to do things. By and large this worked pretty well.

One day in November, the villagers realised their boots were becoming worn out. Winter was on the way, so they raised the issue of new boots at the next weekly meeting. Now, their normal way of doing things, when such a need came up, was to ask the advice of someone who knew something about the subject, and then make a decision. So this time naturally they asked the village bootmaker.

“Well,” said the bootmaker, “for boots you can’t go far wrong with good, strong leather.”

That sounded reasonable to the villagers, and after having discussed it for…

View original post 456 more words