A month ago President Trump wished all Americans a Merry Christmas and announced once again that he had won the “war on Christmas”. I’m not sure he realizes quite how long the battles over the importance of Christmas have been going on in the U.S.
Reading about history is one of my favorite hobbies and the holidays are a fascinating subject. Those of you who have read my first Margaret Fuller mystery story, A Death in Utopia, know it is set in Brook Farm, a Utopian community that flourished in Massachusetts during the 1840s, so I’ve done a lot of reading about Brook Farm.
I’ve never forgotten the memoir I read about an American boy who grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley, not very far from Massachusetts, which had been settled by Dutch generations earlier. His name was John Van der Zee Sears and he was sent to Brook Farm for his education. The greatest shock of his new school was to discover that the Christmas holiday “did not exist” for them. In the Hudson Valley it was the greatest holiday of the year. Young John and his sister could find no one at Brook Farm who realized what they were missing except for an Irish resident, John Cheever, who was a Catholic and therefore understood the importance of the holiday for people outside of New England.
The celebration of Christmas was a divisive issue for many people in early America. It was celebrated in the South, but not often in New England. During the 1850s and later, when more and more immigrants began arriving from Europe, they brought customs from the old country, which upset many of the traditions of each of these groups. Christmas trees began to appear in American homes and were soon adopted by families from many different backgrounds.
“A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore (although his authorship has been disputed) made an indelible impression with its picture of Santa Claus coming down the chimney to leave presents under the tree for all good girls and boys. Its popularity was one of the most unifying aspects of the Christmas holiday. As years went by and Christmas became more important as a gift-giving holiday than as a religious one, it was shared by people of all backgrounds and faiths.
Whether for Kwanza, Hanukah, or Christmas almost everyone now can unite in wanting to give and receive gifts during this holiday season. In fact, perhaps we ought to admit that what has saved Christmas for most Americans has been Santa Claus and the commercialism he represents.
Whatever the reason for the celebration, I hope everyone is enjoying a happy holiday season and looking forward to a good new year. Happy 2019!
Those of us who are old enough may remember a little verse by Sarah Cleghorn that we heard in school:
The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.
That verse popped into my mind yesterday as I heard the news about Congressmen (and women) leaving Washington this weekend to go back to their districts for the Fourth of July celebrations. Some of them are no doubt headed for golf courses. And meanwhile we have thousands of immigrant children being held in detention centers, separated from their parents, wondering what will happen to them. While our representatives celebrate the past glories of our country, they have not taken the time or made the effort to fix the immigration system so horrors like this do not occur.
This has been a bad year for America. Congress neglects its duties and focuses instead on satisfying donors and carrying out the demands of an erratic president. This month has shown how far America has wandered from the virtues celebrated in its usual July 4th self-congratulations.
Land of the Free? Well, not entirely. The Supreme Court upheld the right of individuals to use their religious beliefs to deprive some people of their right to buy a cake in a public shop. But now that Justice Kennedy has announced his retirement, Trump and his supporters are determined to appoint a new justice who will take away the right of women to practice their own beliefs in choosing the medical treatment that is right for them and their families. A justice who will support laws imposing the religious beliefs of some Americans about when human life begins to prevent all women from following their own consciences. Depriving other people of their right to privacy and their right to access appropriate treatment is not freedom.
Home of the Brave? It is difficult to see much bravery in Congress these days as they meekly accept the orders of an ignorant and bullying president. Paul Ryan, who spoke out bravely during the 2016 election campaign and refused to support a man whose morals showed him to be blatantly unfit for office, has crumbled along with the rest of the Republican majority. Congress stood by and watched the farce of accepting an order that immigrants from a number of Muslim-majority countries should be barred from the U.S. No one will be more secure because of this limitation, but many families will suffer. They passed a tax bill that reduced taxes for their supporters and probably themselves, but will leave ordinary working people behind. They accepted the imposition of a record-breaking national debt that our children and grandchildren will have to pay. And they failed to ensure that all Americans get a decent level of healthcare
No, this is not a Fourth of July to celebrate. Instead of mouthing worn-out phrases about America’s past glories, this is a year to start reversing, as much as we can, the slide backward into the bad old days we worked so hard to overcome. Instead we can
- Get in touch with our representatives and urge them to fix our immigration policies and live up to our ideals.
- Choose candidates in the upcoming midterm election who will battle to ensure that the gains that have been made over the past century in Civil Rights and Women’s Rights are not thrown away.
- Urge our leaders to work with our allies and democracies around the world to maintain peace and stability in the world. We do not need to cater to autocrats and sully our reputation as an example to the world.
- And the only way to do all of this is to REGISTER AND VOTE!
This has been a grim year for many of us. For me and most of my friends, the year started with a presidential inauguration that we dreaded and feared. As the weeks and months passed, the politics didn’t get any better. Much of public life was tinged with disappointment and a level of discussion more suitable for a TV reality show than for normal social communication.
As if that weren’t enough, we were plagued by natural disasters—hurricanes hitting Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico; wildfires in major portions of California—and unseasonable weather in much of the country. The bills for coping with these disasters are still coming in and the suffering of people who lost homes and property will continue well into 2018.
But no year is entirely bad. Each one gives us opportunities for new experiences, encounters with people and with arts that bring us new ideas and emotions. To celebrate 2017, I’ve chosen a few of these encounters that have pushed my ideas in new directions.
Early in the year, I saw the play Leni by Sarah Greenman at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Based on the life of Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who worked in Germany during the 1930s and produced pro-Hitler films such as Triumph of the Will, the play is an exploration of one person’s character. Obviously she is not a sympathetic character, but Greenman’s play shows her as a complicated woman who always insisted that her
interest was in producing art rather than supporting any political positions. The argument is not very convincing, but the play made me think about the tangled motives of real people caught up in world events they cannot comprehend. More than that, this production of Leni was an excellent example of how live theater can make characters come alive with a minimum of background, scenery or narrative. It was a great example of the power of live theater during this period when electronic presentations dominate most art forms.
I had another unexpected vision of an old art form when I went to the exhibit of Gods in Color at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. As I wrote here a few weeks ago when I blogged about the exhibit, it may seem trivial to see marble statues presented in a new way, but it made my imagination stretch. It is easy to think about familiar objects as set permanently in time, but it’s good to have our memories shaken occasionally.
One of the most recent books I read, and the one that left me with the most new ideas to ponder was Prairie Fires: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. Fraser not only writes a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but also gives a portrait of the lives of people who settled the plains states–Minnesota, North Dakota, Kansas, etc.–during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I, for one, had no idea how extremely difficult it was to settle those plains and how the Homestead Act, pushed as a noble deed by the U.S. government, actually encouraged people to settle in areas unsuitable for agriculture. For many people, the move west was a disaster because the plains states were subject to plagues of locusts as well as tornadoes, and extreme weather all of which made it impossible to raise crops profitably. And the farmers did not know that by plowing the plains they were removing the topsoil and thus causing the dust storms that ravaged much of the west during the depression years of the 1930s.
Laura Ingalls Wilder lived through a series of tragedies during her childhood and her early married life–loss of houses to fires and storms, loss of crops, loss of a stillborn baby. Only one child survived to grow up, Rose Wilder Lane, who became a journalist and writer. It wasn’t until Laura Wilder was in her fifties that she started to write. When she did, she found that her daughter was her greatest help in shaping her memoirs for publication, but the relationship between mother and daughter was always contentious. The Little House books grew out of this tangle and eventually became amazingly popular. Their false, cheerful picture of the life of pioneers influenced (and continue to influence) generations of children growing up in the 20th century and are still going strong. The TV shows that were presented in the 1970s falsified the stories even more than the books did and were even more popular.
When Franklin Roosevelt became President, both Laura and Rose became extremely conservative politically. They were rabid opponents of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Looking back it is almost impossible to believe that innovations, such as Social Security, which have become an integral part of American life were so controversial. Prairie Fires opened my eyes to a new view of American history. I strongly recommend it.
Looking back over these experiences that have enriched my life during 2017 gives me hope for the coming year. There will be more performances to hear during 2018, more art to see and, more great books to read. And above all, more new ideas to welcome and ponder.
Happy New Year!
Over the meadow and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifting snow…
That traditional Thanksgiving song might have been popular during the 19th century when Thanksgiving was first recognized as a holiday in America, but it didn’t reflect real life for many people. As cities grew in size, fewer and fewer people harvested their own food, sleighs became obsolete, and people didn’t find much to celebrate at harvest time.
By the late 1800s, many children didn’t have a big dinner to look forward to on Thanksgiving. In the cities, especially New York and Philadelphia, one of the most popular ways for children to have holiday treats was to dress up as ragamuffins and go from door to door begging for money. The ritual was mentioned in Betty Smith’s book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. This tradition flourished in New York City for 50 years or more into the 1940s. There are still ragamuffin parades on Thanksgiving in some parts of Brooklyn and the suburbs. It wasn’t until after World War II that Halloween took over in most of the country as the holiday for dressing up and begging for treats.
The reason for celebrating Thanksgiving on a Thursday rather than any other day of the week is not clear. Some people have suggested it is because ministers used to give lectures on Thursday afternoon in many churches, which made that day rather special. But whatever the reason, when more and more people began working in offices and switched to a five-day workweek, the Thursday date left an inconvenient Friday hanging. Many schools and offices began giving people the Friday off, and that was the beginning of Black Friday—the biggest shopping day of the year. Merchants began offering special sales and encouraged everyone to start their holiday shopping as soon as Thanksgiving was over. We all know what that led to—stores started opening earlier and earlier on Friday morning and some have now spilled over into Thanksgiving itself.
Aside from eating, shopping, and watching football, what else can people do on Thanksgiving? One suggestion is to give someone else a chance to have something to be thankful for. During a year like this when we are confronted every day by pictures of refugees, tired, hungry and desperate, it gets harder and harder to enjoy that turkey with all the trimmings.
It seems as if the least we can do is share our bounty with some of the other people around the world who are not as lucky as we are. The charities listed below have all been given high grades by Charity Navigator, so you can be sure that your gift will be used efficiently to benefit the needy.
Maybe if we spread the goodies around the world we can all have a better Thanksgiving this year.