Wednesday, December 30, 2009

#32 The CaryTown "X"-mas Tree II

No, not that particular use of the letter "X"--continuing from last post--because we'd be right back to the sectarian exclusivity of the Jesus-god. In fact, one of the shibboleths indicating that somebody is making so-called "War on Christmas" is the supposedly disrespectful use of "X" in the place of "Christ-" in the compound word. Amazing. Even most of the half-educated would know that this "X" has something to do with the Greek letter Chi, the first phoneme in (transliterated) Kristos, and has been a legitimate abbreviation for centuries. No, I'll plump for the mathematical "X"--and explain in a minute.

The original Tree in festive question was meant to be inclusive. "Cary is a diverse community," understated Mayor Harold Weinbrecht on the local TV news channel this week. Nonetheless, Councilman Don Frantz wants to un-diversify the "Community Tree" or "Holiday Tree"--this is what made it all the way to Faux News--at the next council meeting:

Don added that his "request seeks to call Cary's trees what they really are--'Christmas trees.' Calling a Chistmas tree a Holiday tree is like calling the Jewish Menorah a candelabra. A Christmas tree is a Christmas tree [except when it was called a Hanukkah bush by my Jewish friends of old]. In our efforts to not offend anyone we have succeeded at offending nearly everyone." (Cary Citizen 12/22)
By "nearly," Councilman Frantz must mean every single non-Christian in Cary whose tax-moneys nevertheless go to the city hall and that Tree in the lobby. But I'm sure he didn't ask them. Okay, I forgot, he's just lying. We'll, "what they really are," are NOT exclusively Christmas trees, historically or pre-historically--if you've been following my last several bloggings and floggings in that area. Not to rehash, but the evergreen-tree symbolism is inclusively for EVERYONE UNDER THE SUN, so to speak. It's for anyone on the planet who can point with renewed joy to the mid-winter sky at Solstice. At least one (obviously tax-paying) citizen of Cary understands this instinctively:

... others argue the switch would leave some people out. "It's a community Christmas tree," Cary resident Melanie Williams said. Williams, owner of Chocolate Smiles Candy Factory, said the holidays should be about involving everyone, not just those who celebrate Christmas. "We don't want to lose the essence of all the different holidays celebrated," Williams said. (WRAL News 12/24)
And that "essence" at this time of year is the Winter Solstice, the free and democratic largesse of Mother Nature, not to be held hostage by one sect or another, though the Christianists never seem to give up. So let's for fun keep the "X" in Xmas tree, but thinking of it in the mathematical sense of "variable" or "indeterminate," encompassing the "parameters" of celebration possible within the context of the triumph of the Unconquerable Sun. How about Light, Love, Joy, and, yes, "Community"?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

#31 Case in Point: the CaryTown "X"-mas Tree

Along with embellishments of holly and magical mistletoe--the only plant that blooms in winter--the stand-up evergreen tree of fir or spruce is THE icon of the Winter Solstice in temperate climes. Here's what the sun can do, and will do again, once it frees itself from these last three months of captivity in the bonds of night. "Look ... gather 'round and see for yourself the power of the invincible sun residing in this tree that never dies in winter," you might hear the ancient Iberian priest preaching to his celebrants on the chilly Salisbury Plain. "Light the bonfires!"

The conifer of whatever variety pictured above lit some unwanted fires of controversy when it came to light, ignited by some critical-mass or other, that its official name was to be changed to "Community Tree" from its original "Christmas Tree," or from the Grand Compromise, "Holiday Tree." Made national news. By that I mean Faux News, as part of its perennial efforts to inflame the rabble about the self-dubbed "War On Christmas." Sitting only a couple of miles down the road from my digs in SW Raleigh, Cary NC is a big-small town that makes national news in one way only: it's annually in the top five of the most livable small cities in the U.S., according to Forbes, Business Week, and such like.

The town fathers went too far this time, though, claim the protectors of Christendom. Well, the tree has been up annually since 2006 and always referred to as the Community Tree. The network reporters got that wrong. But its true that there ain't no Christmas about it, nor anything holiday-specific holy. If you could get close to those "decorations" hanging from its branches you would see that they be not angels or elves, menorim or nativities; they are dangley notices of up-coming city events, baubley messages from civic and charitable organizations, and tinsley corporate logos. When the Council voted to put up that tree in the middle of the tax-payer-funded, city-hall lobby, they made sure its purpose was to be completely secular. No sectarian ornaments allowed.

The reason is obvious--though never admitted by those interviewed about the "controversy"--and makes good business sense. An inordinate proportion of Cary citizenry is non-Christian. And they pay taxes like everybody else. Because of its proximity to the esteemed Research Triangle Park--chock-a-block full of high-tech industry, bio-medical corporations, etc.--Cary, besides having its own home-town version of same, attracts bunches of smart-ass Yankees and other foreign types. Who want the suburban life style and short commute that this "most livable" of small cities provides. And some of them are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and worse: not religious at all. In fact, for example. the Hindu community of Cary just this year completed one of the largest and most opulent temples to their faith in the whole of the United States.

So, in spite of the fact that the Town Council has agreed to consider re-"Christening" the tree, literally, at their meeting on Jan. 14, they really had it right the first time around. They succeeded in putting the "X" back in Christmas. (more)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

#30 Dark Days and SAD III--Xmas

Here's the third "celestial calendar" I visited some four decades ago, when, as I mentioned earlier (MM #5), a bumptious American tourist could still wander the sacred precincts freely, and give the stones a hug or a kick, as the spirit moved. (Much as one could in those days lean over the velvet ropes at the Louvre, and stare unhindered at Mona Lisa's lovely eyeballs (MM #26). Located also on the Salisbury Plain, this one, called Woodhenge, was a stone circle without stones, nor even a henge--i.e. a "hanging" lentil affair upon two standards, as at Stonehenge, at least from what survives. Ironically, those stubby stone pillars in the picture are just sad markers of the post-holes where the original wooden ones, long decayed away, would have been. Otherwise, its a pretty-close, poor-man's rendition of the doubtless royal and aristocratic Stonehenge, just as is the perhaps more "middle-class" stone version at Avebury, in last post. I'm sure, however, that the Winter Solstice festivities were enjoyed in equal measure regardless of location, or status of the revelers.

Dating from the Iron Age, these and other prehistoric stone and wooden circles in the British Isles and across northern Europe attest to the extreme sun-dependency of these planter and pastoral cultures. And the festivals associated with them show clearly just how important it was to boost everybody's spirits--especially the not-insignificant proportion of the Seasonal Affective Disordered (not to mention the "sub-syndromal") amongst them--when the terrestrial/celestial clock-circles marked the happy circumstance of the Winter Solstice. Light the bonfires! The long, dark days were over: the sun had proved itself capable of once again lighting the earth for the important agricultural seasons to come. At least for one more year. Sol Invictus! The Unconquered Sun.

After all, midwinter festivals are historically THE most widespread and persistent annual publicly-oriented event--in whatever guise--celebrated around the planet, in those latitudes where the change of seasons and the disposition of the SUN is of such (literally) vital importance. At base, it's a secular (strictly:"of-the-times") exultation of NATURE, of its solar equilibrium in this case, much like paying homage to the important equinoctial turning-point of Easter--still retaining its pagan-Germanic namesake, Eostre, goddess of the Spring, by the way--no matter the RELIGIOUS overlay. No matter who is doing the appropriating.

So, just as Christians are stuck with the the fertility icons of egg and bunny at the annual celebration of Jesus' death, they've got to put up with yule logs and evergreens, gift-giving and wassailing, at the anniversary of his "birth." And it's their own fault. Or at least that of the early Roman Catholic church. The irritating mantric complaint about "putting Christ back in Christmas" is an historical oxymoron. He wasn't there in the first place, and his non-existent Biblical birthday was NOT celebrated (Easter was more important, and had an historically confirmable date), UNTIL it was clear to the the Church Fathers that the Roman variations expanding on the late-December event--Sol Invictus day, the 12 days of Saturnalia with Juvenalia thrown in, etc. (the latter is how KIDS got into the whole thing)-- were all celebrated throughout the Empire by then, and simply not going away. Even though the Empire had been recently and officially Christianized.

The last straw was Mithras entering the picture. Popular especially among the Roman legions (I saw a bas relief of the god on a visit to the Housesteads outpost at Hadrian's Wall, in the north of England), this hot Persian deity was rooted in ancient Zoroastrianism, and his cult was growing. A warrior god-son who was miraculously and motherlessly born of Ahura Mazda, Divinity of LIGHT, and whose rituals included blood sacrifice--this guy had a lot going for him, Christ-wise, and more. He was also a SUN-GOD. And one easily associated with the established Roman god, Apollo. The annual holiday of his birth? Dec. 21, the Winter Solstice!

Too much competition, to ignore for very long. Taking over ALL of the Roman Empire's midwinter festivities in the name of Christ--principally targeting Dec 25, Saturnalia, that orgy of potlatch and potation--was, no question, a stroke of genius on the part of the Church Fathers, now acting for the official State Religion. Changed the Western World. But they couldn't change the quintessence of this "solar-powered" holiday exulting in the wonders of the Natural World. The New England puritans, for example, weren't fooled. For them, this un-Biblical Christmas-thing had to be pagan. Everybody was having entirely TOO MUCH OF A GOOD TIME. Consequently, it was a CRIME in them parts to celebrate it, for a couple of centuries. That's because they knew the "true meaning of Xmas"... didn't they.

So, to all the SAD and not so sad, Happy Winter Holidays!--the way they were forever meant to be celebrated. Above all, Lux Esto!--"let there be light"--and plenty of it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

#29 Dark Days and SAD II--Solstice

So the statistical consensus (from various Psych-Assoc. sources) is that we've got about one in five people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder--a critical mass--anywhere and everywhere across the temperate zones of the planet, who would come down with more than the ordinary blues. Plus a lot of other "normal" folk not feeling too happy about the cold, diminishing days and endless nights, either. And it's all been around a long time, too, probably since around the beginning of agriculture, some 10-15,000 years ago.

To speculate--we don't seem to be genetically protected from diurnal fluctuations, and the concomitant winter light-deprivation that plays havoc with the moods of some of us--sapping energy, dulling concentration, disrupting sleep--more often than others. Not surprising, since our genetic origins are equatorial. But it didn't seem to hurt our adaptation to the higher latitudes as we spread out of Africa, at least when we were hunter-gatherers. As we settled in as planters and harvesters, however, the movements of the heavens--especially the sun--became much more a life and-death matter ... and depressing to think about at certain times of the year. "But let's DO keep watch scientifically, with big rocks," you might imagine a proto-tribal-elder saying, "and when the sun STARTS to regain its dominion over the night ... we'll have a big party."

Humanum genus ludi. We're party animals. Now isn't that the real reason why there are so many prehistoric stone circles (and the vestiges of wooden ones , too) scattered about the European countryside? I like to think so. For, like them, the Big-Daddy of them all, Stonehenge, was above all a place for the identification and celebration of the great Solstices (lit. "sun-stand" from L. sol + sistere/stitium), especially the one around Dec. 21st. The "heel-stone" outside the main circle of the Stonehenge triliths is specifically and perfectly aligned, from the proper vantage point, to showcase the midsummer sunrise (MM #5) and the midwinter sunset to their best advantage, so that that there could be no mistake about when the festivities should begin. Now, the astonishingly (sorry) sophisticated arrangement of concentric stones of various sizes and at various distances allowed the "Iberian" builders of 5000 years ago to make other astronomical calculations, too, "observatory"-wise, like the ones to be made vis a vis the nocturnal sky. But the daytime "star" of the show twice a year would be "Sol Invictus," as he would be known by the Romans in his midwinter incarnation.

And the mid-winter party at Stonehenge and other megaliths (like Avebury above) in obvious solar alignment, on and about the sacred Salisbury Plain and beyond ... was the big one--truly a salutary bit of luck for the chronically SAD among the attendees. Some clever archaeological detective work confirms this. Excavations of ancient encampments nearby these sites show that the holiday occupants "pigged-out" in DECEMBER. Literally. That's when the growth-pattern of the teeth and bones of these slaughtered animals puts their time of death. Love it.

Along with the porcine victualizing and liquid wassailing (no doubt), we know there was the ancient equivalent of light-box therapy--BONFIRES--alight everywhere around the hilltops and countryside. Still done today by the "new-agers" who gather Druid-fashion at Stonehenge for the Winter Solstice. The symbolism is obvious, besides a good way to keep warm. The weakened Light-of-the-Sky is about to regain its health and vigor--the days will be getting longer now--and a little homeopathy in the form of the Sun's earth-bound avatar of fire couldn't hurt.

No doubt, too, these primordial Europeans--surviving almost surely and solely as the uncategorizable Basque people of today--were practicing some sort of religion in association with their midwinter festival. They were annihilated by the invading Celts, and their Priests imposed Druidic rites upon the sacred days and places of their predecessors. Stonehenge was very handy, and became the ecclesiastical center of British Druidism. (For centuries it was thought that they built it.) And then came the pagan Romans. Same thing. Though not much into primitive megaliths, they had their own Winter Solstice festivals of Saturnalia and Juvenalia that easily merged with and superseded the Druidical. But by the time the Romans left occupied Britain in 410 A.D., there had already been another morphing of the astronomical holiday. The Romanized Celts had become Christian. (more)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

#28 Dark Days and Cosmic SAD-ness

As in Seasonal Affective Disorder ... ness, that is. It's a condition inherent upon certain sun-dependent, sentient beings living on any rotationally-tilted terrestrial planet, located in the "Goldilocks" zone between its star and the cold, deep-space darkness. In any solar-system you might name. Certainly true for Earth. Peoples around its temperate latitudes have resorted to various home-grown nostrums for the winter doldrums over the millennia--Christmas, for one-- to dose the annual ailment ... with varying degrees of success.

Guess what?--for the most part THEY WORK, at least for the suicide rate. Let's get the you-know-what, somehow-ineradicable "urban legend" out of the way first. In the face of hard statistical evidence, on the books for decades, most everybody believes that more people kill themselves during the Christmas holidays than at any other time. The exact opposite is true. For one thing, studies show that suicide ratios take a dip over any and all of our public holidays. For another, they decline most in the month of December. But so pervasive is the myth that a number of years ago, as I remember it, NYC radio stations agreed collectively (for real) to ban Tom Waits' neat-but-down-beat "A Hobo's Christmas" from the airways, for fear of increased self-murder among the homeless. Moreover, completely counter-intuitive is this depressing fact: highest suicide rates are in the spring months. (For a hilarious Onion take on the whole bogus notion, click here.)

So why don't depressed people--especially those with congenital SAD--kill themselves more often during those dark and ever-shorter days between the often angst-ridden Thanksgiving and Christmas. Nobody knows for sure, but here's my theory. Whether happily or reluctantly, families and friends tend to gather together for these holidays, and thus provide a kind of ready-made support for the chronically/clinically depressed among them. But more than that: Who, no matter how down, would want to be mortally to blame for spoiling the festivities? "Mom, Uncle Harry just shot himself under the Christmas tree. Got blood all over the presents." Just doesn't happen. And I guess the statistics show it.

All of this does NOT mean, however, that there aren't about 20% of us Americans--millions of folk--walking the streets during that post-Daylight-Savings-Time period with the worst down-in-the-dumps feelings of the year. And medically/scientifically it has to do with the light-deprivation attendant upon the shorter and shorter days leading up to the Winter Solstice, coming around again, happily, this Monday. (There it is, above, incarnate in the sunset over Stonehenge. Compare the Summer Solstice sunrise scene in MM #5. They seem to be about the same. I wonder why, he mused.)

Now if you've really got SAD bad--about 6% of the U.S. population--you'll need anti-depressants at the very least, and bright-light therapy, in the very worst event. There was a TV news segment some years ago where a severely seasonally-disordered fellow had to sit in front of a light-box one or two hours every day during the winter months to ameliorate his condition. It did. (And I couldn't help be reminded of the Prologue to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, which I often taught in rotation with others of the Freshman English novel du jour. There, the basement-bound narrator-protagonist floods himself regularly with thousands of 100-watt bulbs, with power stolen from Con-Ed, in a attempt to cure himself of his own kind of dark depression--a metaphor for a black man attempting to become visible in a white-dominated society.)

Then there are the other 14%-- the ones, like me, who have the milder Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder (no kidding)--or, to acronymize: SSSAD ... like air escaping from a tire going flat. (more)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

#27 Obama and THE Shaggy Dog Story

This is Bo, First Dog, Obama-family-wise. Not as shaggy as his master's AfPac speech last week, but 'twill do for illustration. I'll get back to more substantive analysis back over at the war-torn Daily Mosteller shortly, but gimme a break. His speech reminded me so much of a Shaggy Dog Story that I thought I'd "muse" myself over here and give you the classic original--which happened to show up serendipitously last week in the 22nd annual installment (haven't missed one) of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader! Here's his version:

A wealthy man lost his beloved, valuable pet dog, an incredibly shaggy dog, maybe the shaggiest dog in the world. The man took out a newspaper advertisement that read, "Lost: World's Shaggiest Dog. Large Cash Reward." A young boy saw the ad and wanted the reward, so he decided he'd find the world's shaggiest dog and return it. The boy combed his town, and the next town over, and the one after that, looking for shaggy dogs. He found some in pet stores and dog pounds, and they were shaggy ... but not shaggy enough. [At this point, BlogManFans, you can take the boy around the world, piling on the detail and repetition.]
Finally, after the 30th dog pound he visited, the boy found an incredibly shaggy dog. The dog was so shaggy that he tripped over his own fur, because it covered both his paws and his eyes. when he barked, you couldn't even hear the sound because it got lost in the dog's layers of fur. [A good storyteller could add example after example on this theme.] It was the shaggiest dog the boy had ever seen in his life, and there was no way a dog could be any shaggier.
So, the boy bought the dog and carried him all the way to the home of the wealthy man who had placed the ad for the lost shaggy dog. He had to carry him because the dog was so shaggy he couldn't see to walk properly. Finally, the boy got to the rich man's home and rang the doorbell. the man answered the door, glanced at the dog, and then said to the boy, "Not that shaggy."
Embellishment is all. Always pushing, Andy-Kaufman-like, the patience of your audience, begging them to stick it out for the grand finale, and then pulling the rug with an anti-punchline. (Hollywood recently made a whole movie, "The Aristocrats," with guest comics doing their versions of the same dirty joke, following the shaggy-dog template. Some of my favorite funny-men, but unwatchable.) The important thing it that it all end in complete bathos--low-down, disappointing anti-climax. Not humor for all tastes. My favorite is the first ever told to me: what I'll call the High-Lama of Ultimate Wisdom story. Severely elided version:

Unhappy man seeks meaning of life ... travels world ... many wise-men ... loses wife, family, job ... travels more world ... many more wise-men ... loses youth, money, health ... finally last chance ... shreds and tatters ... climbs to Tibetan Monastery high in Himalayas... wisest man in the world ... hundreds of years old ... "Father, what is the meaning of Life?" ... "My son, Life is a fountain." ... "What?! Why you *&#%$#@&! I've come all this way etc. etc. etc. and that's all you've got to tell me? ... shaken, the High-Lama replies, "It's not?"
Obama's shaggy-dog speech? Lots of narrative detail, embellishment--but bathetic in the end. No punchline. What starts out as an argument for "the strategy that MY administration will pursue ... " turns out to be not his strategy after all. It's no more than a Bush/Cheney "surge"--pure and simple. And it's not funny.