The Reason for the Season

Every year I hear the same thing; Holiday this and Holiday that and the counter mantra they’re taking god out of Christmas. There seems to be some confusion about the origin of Christmas amongst the general population; and this year is worse than most, with Kurt Cameron’s latest christian film (labeled a comedy for face saving reasons I’m sure) Saving Christmas currently out in theaters.

On top of everything else, FOX’s mindless genning up of  the War on Christmas, the incessant whining of the christian majority of the US that they are in fact an oppressed minority, and their demands that they be allowed to persecute actual minorities or they really will be oppressed; this year Texas is allowing a nativity scene to be displayed in the Capitol rotunda. (this is probably in violation of  the US Constitution, which clearly states that no preference for any religion can be shown in public spaces, and in decision after decision handed down by the courts) Apparently they look forward to being forced to allow atheist, pastafarian, festivus and even satanist displays in the rotunda as well, since that is the only way that religious displays of any kind are allowed.

It’s almost hopeless, the idea that facts when presented without bias can change minds, especially when polls like those conducted by the Pew Research Center show;

…that most Americans believe that the biblical Christmas story reflects historical events that actually occurred. About three-quarters of Americans believe that Jesus Christ was born to a virgin, that an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, and that wise men, guided by a star, brought Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. And eight-in-ten U.S. adults believe the newborn baby Jesus was laid in a manger.

In total, 65% of U.S. adults believe that all of these aspects of the Christmas story – the virgin birth, the journey of the magi, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and the manger story – reflect events that actually happened. Among U.S. Christians, fully eight-in-ten (81%) believe in all four elements of the Christmas story. Even among people who are not affiliated with any religion, 21% believe all these events took place, and 37% believe at least one (but not all) of them occurred.

But still I soldier on, year after year, attempting to point out the silliness that surrounds us.

The word christmas is a bastardization of Christ’s Mass, which is specifically a Catholic celebration. The Catholics, being the earliest example of admen on the planet, realized that they could more easily sell their religion if they simply adopted the holidays in the areas that they wished to convert. When they moved into Northern Europe, they took on the holiday known as Yule and incorporated it into their religion as the day of Christ’s birth (even though it’s considered most likely that the date would have been in spring) it is even more likely that the celebrations of Saturnalia spread around the Roman Empire, influencing the the celebrations held informally long after Rome had ceased to be a power in the region. Whereby Roman celebrations influenced Yule which in turn influenced celebrations in the later christian eras.

Christ’s Mass (Mass being what a protestant refers to as a ‘sermon’) was thereby invented, placing a holiday that directly coincided with celebrations already being held on the shortest day of the year, accurate calculations of which could be made (and were and still are essential for agriculture) with the crude technologies of the time. What I’m getting at is, if you are calling the holiday Christmas and you aren’t a Catholic, you are referring to the secularized holiday formerly known as Yule. There is no need to further secularize it by calling it a Holiday.

My son attended a charter school that was hosted at a Catholic Church for a few years while he was in grade school (long past now) and they used the phrase Holiday Party to describe thier Christmas Party. If there is one group that should be using the word Christmas it’s the Catholics.  They certainly didn’t hesitate to tell him all about god in that school (which was the main reason his attendance there was brief) I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t just say Christmas.

Christmas being Yule modernized isn’t nearly the earth shattering revelation that FOX and their devotees might think.  A good number of the names for things that we use daily, even the names of the days themselves, are related to Germanic/Northern European traditions, whose gods were not the gods the Romans worshipped (Remember to think of Odin on Wednesday next time it rolls around) nor the later god of the christians that Rome would officially adopt. Our traditions in the US are a literal smorgasbord of celebrations cobbled together from every major culture on the face of the planet.

So, if you hear me wish you a Merry Christmas, it is because May your feast of the Winter Solstice be enjoyable is too cumbersome to say repeatedly. Christmas has as much to do with Odin as it does with Jesus, and has even more in common with Coca-Cola ads from the early 20th century than it does with any god; Coca-Cola having created the figure of Santa Claus that most of us recognize today.

the Coca-Cola Company – The Legend of Coca-Cola and Santa Claus – Nov 21, 2013

I can hear it already, in stentorian tones even “Jesus is the reason for the season”

Axis tilt (22.5 degrees) is the reason for the season. Lack of sunlight causing depression is the reason for the celebration.

It also bears mentioning that the pilgrims that the average US citizen credits as founding the American colonies specifically targeted Christmas as being a pagan influence introduced by the Catholic church, and they exorcised it’s celebration from their religious practices, even punishing celebrants caught loafing during the early years of the colony.

But that view is a oversimplification anyway. No one group can be said to be the founders of the United States, unless you are talking specifically about the authors of the Constitution, a group that consciously kept all mention of religion out of the document (aside from the proscription against religious tests) If you go beyond their ranks, you are faced with the fact that there were French colonies as well as Spanish colonies, and if you want a contrast with the straight-laced Puritans it’s hard to find one more glaring than the types of celebrations held in New Orleans down through the years.

The US is not a christian nation. Establishing a new christian nation would have placed the Constitutional authors at odds with the cause of a good many early colonists moving to the Americas, to escape religious persecution in European state-run christian orthodoxy. Jesus was not a capitalist.  Jesus does not want you to buy gifts to give away on the winter solstice, not only because he wasn’t born then, but because you should give gifts every day of your life. If you really want to know, that is What Jesus Would Do, as well as washing the feet of the poor and feeding hosts with loaves and fishes. The United States exists as a celebration of reason not religion. Reason is the basis for Humanism and the Enlightenment, this country’s real foundations.

Yes, I know, I’ve ruined Christmas for you. I’m sorry. The world isn’t as simple as you want it to be, it won’t change just because you or I think it should, and like those toys you bought for the kids, it won’t go back in the !@#$%^&*! box so that you can return it to the pimply-faced clerk that sold it to you, so that you can just get the preassembled one that has all the pieces in the right place! The kid will be happy for the gift anyway, he probably won’t notice the missing parts, and the world will continue to spin on it’s (tilted) axis whether we will it or not.

Just relax, sit back, and have some more eggnog (or whatever your beverage of choice is) it’s just a few more weeks and then we’ll have a whole new year of problems to deal with. Now isn’t that a refreshing outlook?

…Oh, and Merry Christmas!

(abridged and enhanced from this post)

Robin Williams (1951-2014)

“Keep a little bit of madness in you. Just a little touch of it. Just enough, so you don’t become stupid. A little madness will keep you alive, because no one in the world knows how to tax that.”

Robin Williams – Reality… What a Concept

I owned that work on cassette. It was one of my first purchases, if not the first comedy album I ever owned. I listened to it so often I memorized it, before the tape fell apart and I had to stop playing it.

Robin Williams Live at the Roxy – 1978HBO Special it and Reality-What a Concept are currently out of print according to the Robin Williams Fan website.  MP3’s from the album are available on Amazon.com

I loved Mork & Mindy. Watched his appearances on Carson. Went to see every film he was in, just because he was in it, and for no other reason.

I was outraged at Dead Poets Society, though. (spoilers!)  I’ve watched it since, and I know now that I was wrong, that I shouldn’t have been so angry at the suicide portrayed in that film.  But at the time I felt it was a betrayal, that it was an acknowledgement of the darkness in the world, that the film let the darkness win, by killing what I saw as the main character, the character I identified with at the time. Worse, I associated Robin with the film, because I had gone to see it specifically because he was in it.

All of us fight our own inner demons. I’ve fought with depression for many years, longer than I can count. Menieres has only made it harder to cope with, but the darkness has been there for as long as I can remember.  It’s been with me so long that I don’t even remember when I made the pact with myself that I wouldn’t contemplate suicide.

It’s a sad observation of human existence that suicides increase when someone else commits suicide; this is especially true of prominent figures.  Watching MSNBC’s coverage, I was struck by this when they flashed the numbers for suicide prevention on the screen.  I feel it is a shame that Robin let depression win; and as someone who fights depression, and who knows there are others out there engaged in a daily battle with it, I have to see it as letting depression win.  This is not a judgement on Robin, or an observation of failure on his part.

Depression is not cancer; or maybe it is. Cancer of the mental processes, perhaps. In any case, when the physical body fails (and it will, for all of us) then it really is over.  But when the mind gets trapped in that inward spiral, no one can break you out of it unless you want them to, unless you want to keep living. That is a choice you make.

I will not leave a body for relatives to find, to ask themselves “what did I do wrong” when it isn’t about them. It’s about me.  There will be no notes.  No questions.  Because (fate willing) I will not have to make that choice. I just hope I have time to write down all the things I think need to be related before that Mind That Bus moment happens.

Like Dead Poets Society. It’s not actually about the suicidal character; or rather, it not just about him. It’s about the mousy little guy who follows along for the whole film (my first conscious introduction to Ethan Hawke, another actor whose films I try not to miss) never hazarding more than is required of him because he is too afraid to take that chance.  It’s about all the other characters, sucking all the marrow because they had a teacher who encouraged them to live life to its fullest. Because we’re only here for a brief moment, and then we’re gone.

Afterword

On the revelation that Robin suffered from early stages of Parkinson’s, and that he had that road ahead of him clearly mapped out by others (including his friend Micheal J. Fox whose charity he donated to) I can easily imagine that he chose his time to leave rather than wait for the disease to rob him of his independence. Preferred to be remembered this way, rather than risk being the subject of pity; no longer able to ask people to laugh at him, with him.

That he had to kill himself the way he did is more an indictment of  current societal norms than it is of Robin Williams himself.  When you are stricken with a disease for which there is no cure, one that will slowly destroy what you were if not actually kill you outright, you are faced with some pretty hard choices.  One of them is the ability to say “Ok, I’ve had enough now. I’d like to just check out.” A choice which is denied to the sufferer in nearly every case; requiring those determined enough to seek solutions to the problem, to resort to cruder tactics than they would have preferred had they actually had a choice.

I am convinced that Robin Williams is one of those people.  Being denied the right to end his life legally at some point later, he chose that time and that place to act, right or wrong.  

For me, it was the wrong choice.  But then I’m not Robin Williams.  Never wanted to be him.  I just enjoyed his pointed wit, his ability to flit apparently effortlessly through characters; his willingness to laugh, and to encourage us to laugh, at his all too human foibles.  In the end, it was those foibles, those failings, that killed him.

We sat down and rewatched Dead Poets Society as a family last week.  Just wanted to see if his chosen ending for his life alters the way the film feels. In reflection, I think this film actually captures the real Robin; both the flashy in-your-face moments of characterization, and the quiet man who contemplates the meaning of life, tries to communicate the drive to find meaning to younger minds. In any case it holds up well, and I think I’ll have to dig up some of his other early works, dust off the Laser Disk player if I have to.  Re-experience his work again, while the pain is fresh.  Just to see if I can still laugh with him.  I think I need a good laugh.

Dead Poets Society scene, What will your verse be?

“O Me! O life!…
of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless
of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself,
(for who more foolish than I,
and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light
of the objects mean
of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all
of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest
with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring
What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer.

That you are here
that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
q on cbc, Ethan Hawke on Robin Williams, Published on Sep 11, 2014

I ran across this article submitted by Susan Schneider Williams (Robin Williams’s widow) to the journal Neurology. He apparently suffered from Lewy Body disease, undiagnosed until after his death. She discusses her experience with him in the final days of his life in the article and in this audio clip from the journal.

Although not alone, his case was extreme. Not until the coroner’s report, 3 months after his death, would I learn that it was diffuse LBD that took him. All 4 of the doctors I met with afterwards and who had reviewed his records indicated his was one of the worst pathologies they had seen. He had about 40% loss of dopamine neurons and almost no neurons were free of Lewy bodies throughout the entire brain and brainstem.

Robin is and will always be a larger-than-life spirit who was inside the body of a normal man with a human brain. He just happened to be that 1 in 6 who is affected by brain disease.

Not only did I lose my husband to LBD, I lost my best friend. Robin and I had in each other a safe harbor of unconditional love that we had both always longed for. For 7 years together, we got to tell each other our greatest hopes and fears without any judgment, just safety. As we said often to one another, we were each other’s anchor and mojo: that magical elixir of feeling grounded and inspired at the same time by each other’s presence.

One of my favorite bedrock things we would do together was review how our days went. Often, this was more than just at the end of the day. It did not matter if we were both working at home, traveling together, or if he was on the road. We would discuss our joys and triumphs, our fears and insecurities, and our concerns. Any obstacles life threw at us individually or as a couple were somehow surmountable because we had each other.

The causes of his suicide are far more complex than anyone could understand until long after he was gone. I’m just now (Oct. 2017) able to look back on him and his work with a calm dispassion. Finally over the emotional hurdle of his leaving us in this way.


Terry Gross interviewed Dave Itzkoff on Fresh Air this week (May, 2018) about his latest book titled Robin,

Fresh Air – Dave Itzkoff – May, 2018

Here is a link to the book on Audible (or Amazon) I fell asleep to this audiobook for about two weeks or so. Because of this I’ve been having a lot of flashbacks to the times I laughed and cried with him over the decades. It wasn’t the greatest biography I’ve ever read, but then I read a lot of biographies written by a lot of talented people. It is definitely not the worst one I’ve read, either. I could have done with less dramatization of Robin’s work by the performer. No one can do Robin except Robin. The publisher probably should have spliced in actual cuts from Robin’s audio recordings for those segments. It would have cost them licensing fees, so I know why they didn’t do that. Still, it would have made the book far more enjoyable to listen to. Reading it may change the experience since you’ll be hearing Robin’s voice in your head if you have an active imagination like mine.

I learned things that I didn’t know about the subject of Robin Williams, the man, which is really all I require of the biographies I read. There were plenty of personal insights from family and friends and from interviews with Robin himself. I recommend the book even if you are only half the fan of Robin Williams that I am. Another great intellect has left us. He would not believe this of himself, but he made the world bearable and a little more understandable for me while he was here. I will miss him.

Howard Storm – Robin Williams

In the early 1980’s I was working at a production company. We were editing a segment for director Howard Storm. I was amazed then and after seeing it again amazed at Robin’s natural ability to make people laugh. I never had the privilege of meeting him but like us all, will miss him terribly. The world has lost a little happiness.

Pastel Productions

Christmas lists…

“Dear Buddha, I would like a pony and a plastic rocket…”

Malcolm Reynolds

I have a different kind of list in mind. A list of standard rants that I just want to get off my chest. The opportunity for them occurs nearly every “Holiday Season”. So let’s just get to it, shall we?

First.

Every year, I hear the same thing. “Holiday this” and “Holiday that” and the counter mantra “they’re taking god out of Christmas”. There seems to be some confusion about the origin of ‘Christmas’. Let’s see if we can clear this up, eh?
Christmas is a ‘bastardization’ of “Christ’s Mass”, which is a Catholic celebration. The Catholics, being the earliest example of ‘admen‘ on the planet, realized that they could more easily sell their religion if they simply adopted the holidays in the areas that they wished to convert. When they moved into Northern Europe, they took on the holiday known as Yule and incorporated it into their religion as the day of Christ’s birth (even though it’s considered most likely that the date would have been in spring) ergo, “Christ’s Mass”. (Mass being what a protestant refers to as a ‘sermon’) What I’m getting at is, if you are calling the holiday ‘Christmas’ and you aren’t a Catholic, you are referring to the secularized holiday formerly known as Yule. There is no need to further secularize it by calling it a “Holiday”.

(I was at a charter school the other day that is hosted at a Catholic Church, and they actually used the phrase “Holiday Party” to describe the Christmas Party. If there’s one group that should be using the word “Christmas” it’s the Catholics)

So, if you hear me wish you a “Merry Christmas”, it’s because “May your feast of the Winter Solstice be enjoyable” is too cumbersome to say repeatedly.

Second.

“Jesus is the reason for the season”. See the above rant. Axis tilt (22.5 degrees) is the reason for the season. Lack of sunlight causing depression is the reason for the celebration. Marketing is the reason that Jesus is associated with the season.

Admen everywhere should give thanks for their unique heritage; and I really don’t understand a protestants insistance on associating Jesus and the Holiday formerly known as Yule. I thought they wanted to get away from Papal edict?

Third.

For some reason, the last few Christmas seasons have occasioned messages in my inbox exhorting us to rediscover our ‘Christian roots’, telling us to hold tight to our language and our culture. Most of them have declarative statements similar to the following:

“…Christian men and women, on Christian principles, founded this nation, and this is clearly documented.”

Anyone who has done more than a cursory hours worth of work on the subject KNOWS that this is incorrect. If you are talking about the ‘Founding fathers’, then you are talking about educated men for whom the dogma of organized religion represented the belief system of the past. True men of the enlightenment age (most of them) while they still professed a belief in god, they were not ‘Christians’. Fully half of them were acknowledged ‘Deists‘, which is the belief system of the true ‘father’ of the philosophy that is enshrined in the founding documents, John Locke, who first wrote the famous phrase as life, liberty, and estate (Jefferson changed the last to “Pursuit of Happiness” for various reasons)

But, the basis for this (country and philosophy) is not Christianity!

If, however, you are talking about the average people who founded this country…
…Then you would also be mistaken. From Buddhism to Zoroastrianism America has been host to every religion known to man, and those who came here weren’t told to “check their religion at the door”. We don’t even “Speak English” as some of the posts assert (the British would attest to that quite readily) walk into any major city and see how many languages you run across.

While I despise the word “multiculturalism” as much as the next guy (the next guy probably being blissfully ignorant of Postmodernism and its adherents dismissal of objective reality and reason. Reason being the basis for Humanism and the Enlightenment, this country’s REAL foundations) the “Melting pot” that is America isn’t something that happens instantaneously; and as with any alloy, the base material is changed by what is added.

Yes, I know, I’ve ruined Christmas for you. I’m sorry but, the world isn’t as simple as you want it to be, it won’t change just because you think it should, and like those toys you bought for the kids, it won’t go back in the !@#$%^&*! box so that you can return it to the pimply clerk that sold it to you so that you can just get the preassembled one that has all the pieces in the right place! The kid will be happy for the gift anyway, he probably won’t notice the missing parts, and the world will continue to spin on it’s (tilted) axis whether we will it or not.

Just relax, sit back, and have some more eggnog (or whatever your beverage of choice is) it’s just a few more weeks and then we’ll have a whole new year of problems to deal with. Now isn’t that a refreshing outlook?

…Oh, and Merry Christmas!