• The Trouble With Christmas

    • Posted on Dec 24, 2000


    Make no mistake, Christmas is trouble.  Too much to do, too little time, too much hypocrisy, too many contradictions between the material and the spiritual, too much guilt, too little real joy.

    Trouble.  Come January, many us are so sick of Christmas that we're candidates for post-traumatic stress disorder therapy.  What to do?

    First we have to understand what we can't do.  We can't change the culture's habitual celebration of Christmas. This holiday hasn't changed substantially since late Victorian times, when Santa Clause and Scrooge saw the light of day and defined the secular side of Christmas. That's maybe a century and a half.

    Before that, Christmas existed as a modest celebration of winter solstice combined with the birthday of the Christ child.   In other words, a celebration of the return of the sun and the birth of the Son. It was altogether humble because people were materially poorer but--dare I say? --Spiritually richer. Small gifts were the order of the day, as were small remembrances of that famous birth story.

    No TV, no Wal-Mart, no mail-order houses, no Amazon.com.  It was a pre-stuff era, before citizens of industrialized nations believed they needed or wanted so much.

     Given the triumph of marketing and a century of serious capitalism, we're overwhelmed with powerful pressures to max out credit cards, to buy and give stuff no one needs or wants, to replace love with boxes of store-bought merchandise.  Loving is hard, merchandising easy.

    What can we do, given the fact that we can't change all this deeply ingrained behavior?  Short of dropping out from late November to early January, we might be able to rescue Christmas from its current doldrums.  How?

    First, give with quality and forget quantity. In gifting, quality means everything, quantity nothing.  One thoughtful, well-chosen gift matters a hundred times more than a half-dozen faddy pieces of junk, no matter how expensive.  The real challenge of giving involves observing and knowing someone well enough to know what they will treasure.           

    A gift certificate to a restaurant for those who feel too poor for a night on the town, a video of a well-loved but nearly forgotten old movie approach the best gifts of all:  Handmade anythings, poems, songs.  If gifts mean anything at all, it's thoughtfulness.

    Next, cut back.   Most Christmas cards have to go. They all say the same thing every year anyway.  Most holiday parties too, though not all.  I'd say give one small party and pick one other to attend.  Let the others go, and enjoy the released time.

    Three, and most important, relax and ponder the true meaning of Christmas. And what is that?  In spite of all those cards, letters, signs, and posters which proclaim that manger-born child, that's not the true meaning.

     The church's founders had no idea when Jesus was born.  They picked December 25 because it was such a widely celebrated pagan holiday, the winter solstice.   Early Christians appropriated the ancient holiday as their own, superimposing Jesus' reputed birth on a much older celebration. 

     So, if the birth of Christ and the winter solstice isn’t the true meaning of Christmas, what is?

    It's simple, and it's what Jesus at least partially stood for: Joy.   That's what we seek, what we want, what we need, and what we have a right to expect at Christmas.  Joy to the world. 

    Without joy, life becomes little more than a treadmill, a meaningless round of daily details that add up to little more than passing time. 

    Now I don't mean hedonistic joy, or private pleasures. I mean transcendent joy, joy that comes maybe once a year to the very lucky, when we realize that what's important has little to do with shopping, pageants, and parties, and everything to do with connecting with family, friends, and the world in a way that creates joy.  Joy in the world.

    I also don't mean robotic distractions of the season, those pale joys that come from nostalgia or habit or tradition, most of which are less from the heart and more from the memory.  Real joy is chosen, a product of awareness, attention, and love.  Joy from and beyond the world.  It's the very joy that all religions celebrate when they're at their best.

    Let heaven and nature sing.









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  • Democracy Not Quite Here Yet

    • Posted on Dec 17, 2000

    "Democracy is coming to the U.S.A," sings Leonard Cohen in his song by that title. As he knows, it's not here yet.  


    • President-elect Dubya Bush thanked the American people last Wednesday night 
    for his new-found place in history as America's 43rd President.  Only one problem: More Americans voted for his opponent than for him.  He should have thanked the Electoral College system, which is inherently undemocratic. 

    The founding fathers, bless their elitist hearts, didn't trust individual voters.  They feared mob rule, and some even wanted the president elected by Congress.  They accepted the Electoral College as a compromise.  It's not as controllable as election by Congress, but better than one person one vote, which could easily get out of hand. 
    Why, people might even elect a ruffian pro wrestler if they weren't subject to electoral controls.   

    Hence our new President arises not from citizens' votes, but from our electoral system. The fact that Bush II is only the fourth president to be so elected means that we probably can't abolish the Electoral College.  People believe in that system because it seems to have helped us survive and even prosper. 

    I say we've survived and prospered in spite of it.  If it happened more often, you can be sure we'd abolish it.  A little un-democracy goes a long way. 

    • On the local front, smokers in local restaurants retain the right to pollute indoor air. 
    What's undemocratic about that?  It's simply another instance of a minority of polluters 
    getting their way for years before the majority acts.  

    Democracy will come, slowly, to local restaurants.  Meanwhile, damage to non-smokers' respiratory system continues. Incidentally, lung cancer rates have dropped by fourteen percent since California banned indoor public smoking.  Surely that's enough evidence to start a ban in Iowa.

    I love eating in local restaurants, but would love it even more without that tell-tale lingering blue haze.  And I'm sure that non-smoking restaurant employees would appreciate it far more than me.
    Incidentally, not for a second do I want to entirely ban smoking.  That's call the tyranny of the majority, and I would oppose it to the point of injury.  If people want to smoke, that's fine with me, and their choice. I just don't want to have to breath their by-products.  

    • Also on the local front, the debate on gay, lesbian, and bisexual people's rights. 
    Adding "sexual orientation" to the  Cedar Falls city anti-discrimination code has 
    become controversial as of last week.  The code now reads that people cannot be discriminated against when renting apartments or selling homes, employment, or the use of public accommodations on the basis of age, sex, creed, religion, physical or mental disability, or national origin. 

    That means that Cedar Falls recognizes that all humans must be treated equally, that we live in a democracy based on that bedrock principle.  So far, Democracy has arrived.  

    Well, not quite yet.  Adding "sexual orientation"  means admitting that some humans aren't treated equally on the basis of their choice of partners.  In a true democracy, all humans are treated equally, and choice of partners surely ranks up there with creed, religion, national origin, and so on. In fact, it's one of the defining features of one's life.  
    If such choices can't be made freely, there's something wrong. 

    So why is adding "sexual orientation" controversial?  Fear, mostly, based on myths.  Women were once feared because of their strange powers, and hysterics burned them as witches.  Blacks were once lynched because they were feared and reviled as threats to white power.  And gay people have been routinely berated and assaulted as being perverse, as living against the laws of God and nature. 

    Most Americans now recognize that discrimination against women and blacks has no basis in reality, that such discrimination is anti-democratic and ultimately anti-human. 
    However, many Americans still don't recognize that their beliefs about gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are largely myths, based on fears.  

    Here are a few such myths:  Non-straight people are more promiscuous than straights.  Non-straights recruit straight people, who then become gay.  Non-straight sex is perverse.  Non-straight people don't fall in love.  

    All false, as anyone who has examined the subject knows. Here's what we know:  Sexuality is complex and multifaceted.  Many people cannot choose to be gay or straight, but some can.  Gays are no more promiscuous than straights.  No one can be "recruited" to change sexual orientation unless they will it.  Gay sex is no more perverse than straight sex; nearly all human sexuality is perverse from some point of view or another.  

    And gays fall in love, and partner up for life.  Not all, which is true of straights too.  

    Hence it's high time to add "sexual orientation" to the Cedar Falls' Anti-Discrimination Code. Similar laws have been adopted in Davenport, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Ames.  

     Democracy may be coming, slowly, to Iowa.   

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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.


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