Category Archives: holidays

What was good about 2017?

This has been a grim year for many of us. For me and most of my friends, the year 2017oldstarted 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

Leni

Leni Riefenstahl and Adolf Hitler

 

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 IMG_0632_edited-1ago 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 FDR_New Dealconservative 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!

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Not Your Usual Thanksgiving

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 ragamuffinspopular 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 Thanksgiving adswitched 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.

International Rescue Committee

USA for UNHCR United Nations Refugee Agency

Helping Hand for Relief and Development

Maybe if we spread the goodies around the world we can all have a better Thanksgiving this year.Thanksgiving

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