The Myth Of Christmas

Reprinted from 12.24.06 – And it will continue to be printed until the O’Reilly-originated “War on Christmas” BS ends. There’s no antidote to lies except truth.

This would be the time, if ever there was one, to reflect on the meaning of Christmas, but before we can do that to any purpose we need to clear away some of the dead wood by exploding a couple of the myths that have built up around it since the holiday became popular in the late 19th century. Chief among these is the legend that Christmas is Christian, or even religious.
Myth #1: That Christmas used to be a religious holiday but has been turned into a consumer carnival

It may seem obvious that Christmas is a Christian holiday. The very name of the day suggests a celebration of Christ, and certainly many have bemoaned the fact that Xmas seems to have lost its religious meaning under a barrage of commercialism. Back in the 1950′s the satirist Stan Freberg released a classic record called “$Green Christmas$” which savagely criticized what Christmas had become even then; its chief sound effect was the ringing of a cash register. Behind all the criticism was then – and is now – a belief that Christmas had once meant something it no longer means, that what was originally the celebration of a religious figure has been twisted into a callous, materialist frenzy of buying stuff.

The truth is somewhat different.

In America, we are reminded, the idea of a Christmas celebration didn’t really take hold until commercial interests recognized its potential and began to sell it like corn flakes.

The growth of Santa as the predominant icon of Christmas in much of the world grew out of the efforts of retail wizards such as John Wanamaker and Rowland Hussey Macy, founders of the modern department store. Much like the early church fathers, Wanamaker and Macy systematically laid claim to a Christmas of their own making in the 19th century.By this point, said Russell W. Belk, a sociologist and anthropologist at York University in Toronto, Christmas had already been through several incarnations — Christians in the United States had initially resisted Christmas because it was seen as tied to the Catholic calendar, but waves of European immigrants brought traditions of Christmas celebrations with them. Still, the idea of giving gifts to relatives was not the norm, especially among English immigrants, where Christmas gifts were primarily seen as acts of benevolence toward servants and slaves.


Business magnates who had once protested that holidays such as Christmas were a drain on the economy spotted the business potential of Christmas and encouraged the idea of gift-giving among family. Where Christmas gifts had once been primarily about charity, advertisers and marketers encouraged the notion that Christmas was primarily a family celebration and stressed the importance of reciprocal gift exchanges for friends and relatives. By the 20th century, American marketing geniuses led by Coca-Cola had seized on the advertising potential of Santa Claus. Although Santa’s ancestors in Europe and Asia had various religious connotations, the modern Santa is an American invention, with growing appeal in Europe and around the world.

“Coca-Cola to some extent owns Christmas,” said Belk. In the 1930s, he added, “they had a painter commissioned to do one painting of Santa Claus every year . . . it seems likely that the red color of Santa’s outfits came from Coca-Cola’s paintings.”

 by Thomas NastIt doesn’t actually. “Santa Claus” is from the Dutch for Saint Nicholas – Sinterklaas – and the color red was always associated with the Greek St Nicholas who is the source of the icon. (More about him later.) Coke’s artists merely appropriated an image already made famous by Thomas Nast in the 1870′s and 80′s, an action that is fairly symbolic of how the holiday actually developed.

Myth #2: That Christmas is primarily a Christian holiday

The trappings of Christmas are almost entirely pagan in origin. Christmas trees, the lights on both trees and homes, wreaths, caroling, Santa Claus, the exchange of gifts – all of it was born in pagan solstice festivals beginning, as far as we can tell, long before Christ’s time. In the context of the solstice, it all makes perfect sense. In a Christian context, they simply don’t belong. What does Christ, a product of the Judean desert, have to do with pine trees, after all? Nothing.

  • Christmas trees – Probably born in Germany or the Nordic countries, the ritual symbolism of the solstice evergreen was just that: it was ever green. Unlike the deciduous trees that dominated the forests of northern Europe whose leaves died and fell away as winter began, fir trees remained green all year round. They were the perfect representation in pagan societies for the persistence of life and the fertility of the earth on which those societies depended. Druids (the real ones, not the pale, bogus artifices we know today) worshipped trees, evergreens in particular, because they believed they were the earthly incarnations of spirits and/or gods. Evergreens were believed either to be or to be the homes of spirits who controlled the sun and had the power to bring it back and renew the earth for another year. The custom of bringing a tree inside, almost certainly German, probably began as a form of pagan tree-worship.
  • Lights – As the days shortened and the sun threatened to disappear, the long nights became a source of real fear, not just because folk believed it might vanish but because they believed that evil spirits lurked in the dark, and the longer the nights were, the more chance there was that these monsters would wreak havoc on their villages. The solution, of course, was a Festival of Light held, naturally, on the one day of the year that had the least of it. There were torch parades and candles were kept burning all night. When the trees came inside, so did the candles, and by the Victorian era the candles had become attached to the branches of the tree.
  • Wreaths – Common to many cultures, wreaths were either worn, as in Rome, or displayed as signs of either special favor or protection from evil. Long before trees were brought into the house, wreaths were attached to doorposts, connecting the magic of the evergreen to individual homes.
  • Caroling – Noise has long been believed by many peoples to scare away evil spirits. In China they beat drums and gongs, in Europe they sang. The origin of this particular custom (called “wassailing” in Britain) is lost to history but it isn’t unreasonable to assume that it was a natural addition to all the other anti-evil charms employed by our ancestors. So is dancing, of course, so it isn’t surprising that the two were combined. In fact, the original meaning of the word was “circle dance” and was most likely an integral part of the midwinter ritual. We don’t do the dancing part much any more, and it’s too bad.
  • Santa Claus – Unlike the rest of our Christmas traditions, Santa Claus does have some slight connection to Christianity. Born to wealthy and devout Christian parents in Patara, then a province of Greece, St Nicholas is supposed to have taken the words of Christ to heart and given away the whole of his large inheritance to relieve the suffering of the poor and the sick. Though he was never ordained, his reputation for piety was such that he was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Persecuted and imprisoned by the Emperor Diocletian, he returned to Myra after his release and died there on December 6, 343. For many years after that, the anniversary of his death was celebrated as “St Nicholas Day”.Co-incidence? Sort of. The fact that he died in December only a few days before Saturnalia (the Roman midwinter festival) connected him quite naturally to what became Christmas when the Catholic Church appropriated midwinter festivals for a celebration of the birth of Christ. After centuries of trying unsuccessfully to stamp out these primarily pagan rituals, the geniuses in the Church came up with a brilliant idea: if they couldn’t be stopped, they could certainly be swallowed up – assimilated by the Church and given a Catholic context. This was to prove a valuable and almost universally successful tactic in the centuries to come.St Nicholas Day melded rather naturally into the solstice festivals and it wasn’t long before St Nick and Christmas were inseparable. In many parts of Europe, Dec 6 is still celebrated as both.It should be noted that the St Nick we know is neither Greek nor terribly Christian. He’s Dutch. Sort of….
  • The giving of gifts, stockings over the fireplace, and coming down the chimney– Both of these customs arose not in Europe but – are you ready for this? – here. In America. In New York, in fact.

    After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride the colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, influential patriot and antiquarian, who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and city. In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that year he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not a saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the origin of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas; that St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the first church was dedicated to him; and that St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving’s work was regarded as the “first notable work of imagination in the New World.”The New York Historical Society held its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner on December 6, 1810. John Pintard commissioned artist Alexander Anderson to create the first American image of Nicholas for the occasion. Nicholas was shown in a gift-giving role with children’s treats in stockings hanging at a fireplace. The accompanying poem ends, “Saint Nicholas, my dear good friend! To serve you ever was my end, If you will, now, me something give, I’ll serve you ever while I live.”

    So Washington Irving invented the Santa Claus we know more or less out of whole cloth, relying on legends (as he often did) and embellishing until the original story was barely recognizable. Irving entirely ignored the religious connotation of the title “saint” and any overt connection to religion, let alone to Christ. His St Nick was already 95% secular, a cultural symbol closer to solstice celebrations than Christian ones.

    The total secularization of St Nicholas, morphing him into the Santa Claus we know, was accomplished by only two men: Clement Moore (probably) and Thomas Nast. Moore is generally credited with writing A Visit from St Nicholas(“‘Twas the night before Christmas/and all through the house….” – you know it) for his children in 1822. It forever identified St Nick with the roly-poly, “jolly old elf” of Irving’s story and pretty much divorced him from any possible religious significance. Fifty years later, what Moore had done with words, Nast did with pictures. His cartoons of Santa Claus formed our visual image of the old guy once and for all. Following Irving and Moore, Nast’s Santa is no more a religious figure than, say,Uncle Sam.

Of all the traditions we associate with Christmas, only three are overtly religious: the Nativity Scene, the angel on top of the tree, and going to church. Many Christian churches have the former and most Christians do the latter on Christmas even if they never go the rest of the year. By my count, that makes Christmas roughly 87% secular whether Bill O’Reilly likes it or not.

You Can’t Have a Substantive Debate Unless You Have Substantive Candidates

TPM’s Caitlin MacNeal published the full text of Reince Priebus’ letter to NBC pulling out of their slated February debate and there is, not surprisingly, what you might call a not-so-subtle disconnect between the debate we saw and the debate he’s describing. The debate we all saw was a candidate free-for-all in which they treated the moderators – and the audience – with blistering contempt. They interrupted each other, refused to pay any attention to time constraints or the “rules” they themselves had demanded, yelled at each other, and generally acted like grade school bullies on a tear. But that isn’t the debate Priebus apparently saw.

The CNBC network is one of your media properties, and its handling of the debate was conducted in bad faith.

Really? How’s that?

CNBC billed the debate as one that would focus on “the key issues that matter to all voters—job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and the health of our national economy.” That was not the case.

Well, Reince, they tried. Give them credit for that. But look what happened when they did.  Asked for details as you request, they either answered by asserting generalities without explaining anything or they ignored the question entirely and went off on pre-scripted irrelevant rants.

Questions were inaccurate or downright offensive.

Inaccurate how, Reince? Was Quick’s question asking Carson to explain his economic program because the numbers didn’t add up – which they don’t, not even close – inaccurate? No, it was not. But more importantly, look at Carson’s answer: It will work because I say it will work. Asked how he would build his border wall, Trump answered: I’ll do it. It’ll be easy. Then he compared it to the Great Wall of China. Like, what?!

The fault, dear Reince, lies not in the moderators but in the candidates, and it’s simply stated:


And you don’t have any, Reince. What you’ve got are faith-based imagineers who are comfortable with loopy theories and wide swaths of non-specific generalizations and unproven assertions. None of them DO detail. Asked for it, they think they’re being attacked. All of your candidates are lightweight and ignorant. None of them has the remotest idea what govt does or how it does it, and none of them give a shit about learning.

While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of “gotcha” questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates. What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas.

The moderators – any moderators – can’t do it in a vacuum. Those questions were NOT “petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates.” They were attempting to elicit “policies and ideas” except your candidates don’t have any. Their collected economic policies could be written on a napkin, and not one of them has at any point in their careers come up with an idea that wasn’t old when Reagan was a baby.

Give it up, Reince. It’s hopeless. PR and marketing spin notwithstanding, you can’t make them something they’re not. Maybe you ought to consider Cruz’s suggestion and hire Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck as your next moderators. It’ll still be a trainwreck but more fun to watch.

Why Clinton’s Pandering Matters

David Dayen’s recent piece, what you might call a primary on primaries, makes some good points on why Clinton’s opposition to the TPP is a Good Thing even if it is “pandering” to a populist/progressive movement.

What’s wrong with pandering? Our system of government, as it has evolved, offers precious few opportunities for ordinary people to get into the national conversation. Big Money has a tight grip on governance through insistent lobbying, and for the most part they fund national elections.

For once, the Democratic nominating fight, and the emergence of Bernie Sanders, has given public interest groups a voice, a rare channel to impact the political system. We shouldn’t roll our eyes at that; we should respect it. National leaders should have to listen to their constituents and earn their support. Primaries are one of the only moments that allow such an opportunity.

Had Mr Dayen written this piece 10 years ago – even 5 – I would be cheering. After all, I’ve been saying for at least a decade, ever since liberal Dems started blaming Nader for Gore’s 2000 defeat, that a push from a third party looked to be the only way to force an increasingly conservative Democratic party back to its root liberalism. The party had been captured by Third Way cons – the so-called neoliberals – and needed a challenge from the left to move them back toward the center. Continue reading

I Live in NH and Joan Walsh Is Right

Salon’s Joan Walsh has been taking it on the chin for saying that NH’s GOP Trump supporters were “lowest common denominators” (which isn’t what she actually said) and that that was “sad”. She has since clarified the LCD comment-

I actually wasn’t referring to the voters themselves (in fact, that makes no sense); I was talking about the solutions they seem to embrace for the country’s woes.

– but either way she meant it, it’s true. Their attitudes do reflect LCD thinking, are childish, are free from every response but visceral wishful thinking. I know this because I grew up here surrounded by these people and left here in large part because of them. I’ve come back after 40 yrs to find that very little has changed. Continue reading

Dem Base Is Not the Tea Party

WaPo pundlette Paul Waldman wants to make an article out of this: “Republicans fear their activist base. Democrats don‘t.” Like there’s something going on here. Well, there’s a couple things going on here, alright –  a mistake and the Dem elite who control the party these days.

Mistake: “The Tea Party started just as much as a movement of self-styled outsiders, but unlike activists on the left, they pursued an inside strategy from the outset, one focused clearly on elections.”

Because they were NOT outsiders. The Tea Party was started by Dick Armey with Koch Bros money and aimed at the political disruption of establishment Dems from the very beginning. Neither Armey nor the GOP establishment expected that they would use what they were taught by them on their GOP Masters. BlackLivesMatter are NOT a trained arm of Dem operatives. They have arisen from a need and are clearly not politically sophisticated yet. No comparison.

The Dem elite: The simplest way to explain why the Third Way/BD/NewDem party leaders don’t give a shit about the base is to repeat Axelrod’s comment from 2012.

“We don’t have to care. Where else are they going to go?”

“A Republican Ruse”

The Republicans haven’t taken over yet but they’ve made their plans known and it won’t come as much of a surprise that their top priorities are tax cuts. One of the very first changes will be gaming the system that tracks whether or not tax cuts work. By every legitimate measure, including common sense, they don’t. The Pubs are going to change all that.

AS Republicans take control of Congress this month, at the top of their to-do list is changing how the government measures the impact of tax cuts on federal revenue: namely, to switch from so-called static scoring to “dynamic” scoring. While seemingly arcane, the change could have significant, negative consequences for enacting sustainable, long-term fiscal policies.

Whenever new tax legislation is proposed, the nonpartisanCongressional Budget Office “scores” it, to estimate whether the bill would raise more or less revenue than existing law would.


[The] conventional estimates do not, however, include any indirect feedback effects that tax law changes might have on overall national income. In other words, they do not incorporate macroeconomic behavioral changes.

Dynamic scoring does. Proponents point out, correctly, that if a tax proposal is large enough, then those sorts of feedback effects can aim the entire economy on a slightly different path.

“Dynamic scoring” basically allows the injection of unjustified assumptions about the future performance of the economy. IOW, adding a baseline article of faith from Reaganomics that all tax cuts on the wealthy raise revenues and if they don’t, it’s because they weren’t deep enough.

Federal deficits are on an unsustainable path (as it happens, because of undertaxation, not excessive spending). Simply cutting taxes against the headwind of structural deficits leads to lower growth, as government borrowing soaks up an ever-increasing share of savings.

The most optimistic dynamic models get around this by assuming that the world today is in fiscal equilibrium, where the deficit does not grow continuously as a percentage of gross domestic product. But that’s not true. If you add the reality of spiraling deficits into those models, they don’t work.

To make these models work, scorekeepers must arbitrarily assume either that we tax more and spend less today than is really the case — which is what they did for the Camp bill — or assume that a tax cut today will be followed by a spending cut or tax increase tomorrow. Economists describe such a move as “making counterfactual assumptions”; the rest of us call it “making stuff up.”

Again IOW, they’re going to enshrine in law a faith-based assessment mechanism guaranteed in advance to justify both their rosy predictions and their brutal get-tough-on-the-poor cuts to human services along with their go-easy-on-corporations cuts to everything from the SEC to the FDA. They will now be able to point to government-authorized conclusions that everything is fine even as it collapses around ordinary folk not rich enough to protect themselves from it.

The Republicans’ interest in dynamic scoring is not the result of a million-economist march on Washington; it comes from political factions convinced that tax cuts are the panacea for all economic ills. They will use dynamic scoring to justify a tax cut that, under conventional scorekeeping, loses revenue.

When revenues do in fact decline and deficits rise, those same proponents will push for steep cuts in government insurance or investment programs, because they will claim that the models demand it. That is what lies inside the Trojan horse of dynamic scoring.

A win-win. When their tax cuts make the economy worse, their scoring model will demand more tax cuts as a fix.

Priority #2 is likewise financially related: further weakening if not killing outright Dodd-Frank, once again allowing banks to rig their own scams.

The Dodd-Frank financial reform law was supposed to curb speculation in swaps. But as The Journal has reported, hedge funds are increasingly using swaps to wager on whether weak firms will live or die. RadioShack, the troubled consumer electronics retailer, is one of several prominent examples. In December, RadioShack’s total debt came to about $1.4 billion, but swaps outstanding on the performance of the debt totaled $23.5 billion. Similarly, J.C. Penney, the ailing department store chain, had total debt of some $8.7 billion, but swaps outstanding on the debt totaled $19.3 billion.

Those gaps suggest excessive speculation, though it is hard, if not impossible, to gauge the precise exposure of funds to big losses. What is known is that a hedge fund that is betting on a company’s default has an incentive to push it over the edge. Conversely, a fund that is betting a troubled company will not default has an incentive to keep it afloat, at least long enough to avoid a big payout. Either way, the company becomes a pawn in a financial game.

Speculative activity is likely to increase. Last month, Congress repealed an anti-speculation provision of Dodd-Frank that would have prevented federally insured banks from conducting several types of swap transactions. In addition, the Federal Reserve recently gave the banks two extra years to meet a Dodd-Frank provision requiring them to sell their investments in private equity funds and hedge funds.

And when the 2 yrs are up, the Fed will extend the deadline for 2 more yrs and then 2 more after that and so on and so on.

The Democrat minority will, of course, “compromise” by unconditionally surrendering when their corporate sponsors tell them to.

And so it goes.

Hillary and The Liberals ’16 (Updated)

The year before an election year, it is perhaps appropriate to start talking about Democrat hopefuls, party goals, and what the base of the party – liberals – will do when the Third Way Masters decree yet another Republican-lite candidate. If we’re going to have an impact on the process, we’ve got to figure out how to make an elite that believes in coddling corporations for the sake of donations understand that there’s more to democracy than raising $$$ to get elected with.

This will not be easy. Continue reading