Last week my wife and I re-watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – the original Chuck Jones cartoon, not the later remakes. As we talked about it, I realized that that Christmas special, and the original book, are a great depiction of eudaimonism – perhaps even in a Confucian form.Continue reading
Tomorrow is the winter solstice: the shortest, darkest day of the year. After that, everything will slowly start getting lighter and brighter. And never in my lifetime has that felt like more of a perfect metaphor.
Christmas is perhaps the festival that most obviously commemorates the light in the darkness at this time of year, but it is not the only festival to acknowledge the darkest days and prepare for the light. Hanukkah is a smaller part of the Jewish ritual year than North Americans typically make it out to be – it is not nearly as important as Passover – but it is a real Jewish festival of light at the darkest time of the year. So too, Westerners mark a new year beginning just as the old year is at its darkest.
All these events happen every year. But this is a year like no other.Continue reading
My maternal grandfather, Claude Vipond, died peacefully last Tuesday. His life was long – he reached 95 years. Claude was a doctor and a World War II veteran, but I knew him entirely as a grandfather – an often larger-than-life figure at family gatherings, delivering corny jokes with an enthusiasm that made them hilarious. At large Christmas gatherings he would read to the grandchildren, not some sentimental Victorian Christmas story but Stephen Leacock‘s marvelously tongue-in-cheek Caroline’s Christmas.
The irreverence of Leacock’s self-subverting story left a strong impression on me as a boy – much like the movie The Princess Bride, which came out when I was the age of its child narratee. In a different way from my father, “Caroline’s Christmas” helped teach me the pleasures of being an outsider, with an ironic detachment expressed in humour – in ways perhaps more profound than I realized at the time. In many ways I think that story really sums up my grandfather’s spirit. Continue reading
I will be taking a break from blogging over the next few weeks’ holiday. When new posts return in January, they will be on a biweekly (or fortnightly, if you wish) schedule: every alternate Sunday rather than every Sunday. I continue to enjoy writing Love of All Wisdom and intend to keep doing so, but as I have tried publishing more conventional papers, studying computer science and teaching a course on top of my day job, the weekly schedule has been too hard to sustain. I hope that alternating weeks will make it easier for me to continue engaging in the wonderful exchanges of ideas that have taken place here.
In Canada and the US today, the Christian aspect of Christmas is likely most noticeable in the music. There are of course a great number of English-language Christmas songs with little or no Christmas element (“Jingle Bells”, “Deck The Halls”, “Frosty The Snowman” and so on). It is increasingly common to hear only these songs played in public places. But one may quickly feel something missing here. Certainly some of these songs are grander than others; it would be a difficult task indeed to argue that “Deck The Halls” is no better a work than “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. But even so, there is a certain depth that is missing from them.
By contrast, many Christian carols engage with some weighty theological questions, especially that most significant of all questions for monotheistic believers: theodicy, the problem of bad. If there is a God – specifically, a being both omnipotent and omnibenevolent – how can the world be so full of terrible things? Continue reading
In previous years I’ve insisted that Christmas has a significance and value to North American life well beyond Christianity. It is a ritual that brings families together – something Confucius would say is among the most important things in the world, irrespective of anything such rituals might mean. And its meaning is not limited to Christian stories; it is also a seasonal festival of light and darkness, of the winter solstice.
I stand by all of that. But having said it, I think that for secular North Americans (and likely Europeans as well) there is also considerable value in the specifically Christian meaning of the festival. Continue reading
As Christmas approaches, I return to the theme I took up two years ago of the meaning of Christmas to a non-Christian – spurred on in part by my recent reflections on single–mindedness. Ben, commenting on that previous post, noted:
Christmas appears to have a dual message in our culture. ‘Rampant consumerism’ is one half, and ‘The True Meaning Of Christmas ™’ is the second. While there are exceptions that focus more on family and loved ones and generosity, references to TTMOC largely also include references to the birth of Jesus.
I think Ben is on to something important: an unreflective understanding of Christmas can turn into a simple consumerism. So, many who do reflect on Christmas either refuse to celebrate it at all or try to make it entirely about Jesus. I think both reactions, but especially the latter, are examples of single-mindedness as a problem: an attempt to pick out one single meaning that’s most important and ignore the details. But for those of us who genuinely enjoy Christmas, the details can be the most important part. Continue reading
Having decided on marriage, my fiancée and I are now well immersed in the process of planning our wedding. And like many young couples, we feel a strong distaste for what we have come to call the wedding-industrial complex: the North American industry that makes a lucrative profit from telling couples what they must do and selling it to them, documented in Rebecca Mead’s One Perfect Day. And then too often, we have then wound up going through a process uncomfortably familiar to many couples in our situation: observing traditions you despise, deciding you’ll do it all differently, and then finding yourself going through the traditional process anyway. Susan Jane Gilman expressed it perfectly in her article (and then book) Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress. She and her fiancé decided that they hated the expense, pomp and sexism of a traditional wedding, and so theirs would be different. They’d just leave it as a fun party: hire a DJ, a bartender and an ice cream truck. But:
Somehow, Bob and I had also overlooked the fact that even if all you wanted was an ice cream truck, a bartender, and a deejay, you still needed a place to put them. And if you decided it might be nice to have some photographs of the day — photographs that did not scalp anyone, or feature detailed close-ups of your uncle’s thumb — it was best to hire a photographer. And then, as my mother diplomatically pointed out, if relatives were going to travel across the country to witness your marriage, it was probably polite to feed them more than a Fudgsicle and a glass of champagne. And surely, you couldn’t expect older folks to balance a plate on their hand all night: they had to sit somewhere. And since you were going to have tables anyway, would it really kill you to put out a few flowers to brighten things up?
Eventually Gilman even accepts the pouffy white wedding dress of her essay’s title: “My mind might have been that of a twenty-first-century feminist, but my body was that of a nineteenth-century Victorian, and the dress seemed to have been custom-made for my proportions.” And so it begins: Continue reading
[UPDATE: This has become my most frequently read blog post of all. I’m guessing that’s because a large number of undergraduate students come here wondering what Body Ritual among the Nacirema means. If that’s you, welcome! I would just ask two things of you: first, please do read Body Ritual and try to figure it out for yourself first before reading this post, and second, once you have read the post below, don’t spoil it for everyone else.]
One of the most important anthropological studies to be conducted in the past century is Horace Miner’s (very short) 1956 classic Body Ritual among the Nacirema. If you haven’t read it, you owe it to yourself to follow the link now and examine Miner’s penetrating insights into one of the most unusual cultural groups yet to be studied by ethnographers. Please do read the essay before you read the rest of this blog post, as the post won’t be very helpful without it. Continue reading
Heath White of PEA Soup has an interesting new post up called The Ethics of Santa. White argues that parents and educators should not teach their children the myth of Santa Claus, for three major reasons:
- It involves a lot of lying and deception practiced on credulous people.
- It tends to foster greed in children and contributes to their false impression that one’s happiness is determined by one’s material possessions.
- In telling children that the quantity and quality of one’s gifts are a function of one’s behavior, when actually they are a function of one’s socio-economic standing and parental temperament, it induces moral complacency in well-off children and false feelings of moral inferiority in less well-off children.
Every year around this time, the United States is subject to increasingly acrimonious “Christmas wars,” over whether the time of year should be called Christmas as it used to be, or a more generic “holidays.” Canada has not escaped these battles, but they seem to be a much smaller issue there, which I think is a very good thing.
Many people in the United States, of course, do not celebrate Christmas. Most often, such people are Jews, and perhaps sometimes Muslims and followers of Asian traditions. It is the rare atheist or agnostic who refuses to celebrate Christmas – a fact I find somewhat telling. In my own Canadian childhood I found that refusal somewhat bizarre. My family never went to church, my parents never believed or taught any ideas they recognized as Christian; but we nevertheless celebrated Christmas, as North Americans in North America, and nobody thought that was weird. When we went to India we always celebrated Diwali and Holi without thinking of ourselves as Hindus, and nobody seemed to think that was weird either.