Christmas, Civil Rights, Egypt, Film


Charles Dickens, with his enduring 1843 tale A Christmas Carolinvented much of what we consider the traditions of Christmas – the gifting of presents, the big dinner and the fostering of good will and glad tidings. We each build upon the Dickens’ Christmas with our own traditions that lead to memory and, I’m convinced, contribute to much of the pleasure that is Christmas. One of our Christmas traditions has become the viewing of a wonderful movie – one of the very best Christmas movies ever – The Bishop’s Wife, a 1947 classic starting David Niven, Cary Grant and the lovely Loretta Young.

The plot, not unlike Frank Capra’s Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life, involves a charming angel named Dudley (played by Grant) who answers a prayer from the Bishop (Niven) who is struggling to raise the money to build his magnificent new cathedral. Dudley charms everyone, including the Bishop’s attractive wife (Young), and eventually helps the Bishop realize that there is more to his Christian leadership than fundraising and catering to the wealthy parishioners who are intent on building a big building.  With the annual viewing of The Bishop’s Wife it’s never difficult to find the real meaning of the season and the film always leads me back, Dickens-like, to Christmas past.

As 2012 gives way to the promise – eternally optimistic here – that our politics will move to the center, that reason and facts will come to prevail on hard cases as diverse as guns and climate and that jobs and education and cancer cures become the headlines of the New Year, I’ve been thinking about traditions that through the years have come to define memories of Christmas. Dickens may have invented the modern Christmas, but my mother perfected it. And, while Cary Grant’s angel reminds us what the season is really all about I am annually drawn back to – the tinsel.

You could say that my mom was a perfectionist. She never had a hair out of place, dressed as well as dad’s paycheck would permit and cultivated a sense of style that would not have been out of place in Hollywood or the Hampton’s. Not bad for a farm girl from western Nebraska. In terms of Christmas, for mom nothing succeeded like excess, particularly when it came to tinsel. Mother loved tinsel – silvery, shiny, straight and in volume. To hang the tinsel properly required, or course, a perfect tree. If the tree dad found wasn’t perfectly shaped, mom would get her sewing scissors out and cut and paste a branch or two until the shape suited her. Then came the tinsel, carefully preserved from year-to-year, stored safely away from one Christmas to the next. Occasionally she would agree to discard a short piece that had survived one tree too many, but not often. I distinctly remember “volunteering” to help mom hang the tinsel one year and being instructed in the fine art of making sure the strands were perfectly straight and in sufficient number. I didn’t have the tinsel gene and eventually backed off and allowed the tinsel queen her dominance. Perhaps that experience scared me for life because I shudder at the very sight of Christmas tree tinsel to this day. Some traditions are best remembered and not practiced.

Mom had certain traditional Christmas foods that would make a once a year appearance right about Christmas Eve. She made a sticky white candy – Divinity – that I never particularly warmed to, but – brace yourselves – her fruitcake was tremendous. I’ve heard all the bad jokes about Christmas fruitcake, but none of those put downs applied to mom’s cake. It was lighter than most fruitcakes, moist and lacking those awful candied fruits that often seem to have been as well preserved from year-to-year as the tree tinsel. Mom used fruit cocktail in her cake and when she learned that I didn’t particularly care for the walnuts that she added to the recipe she made me a walnut-free cake for my personal consumption. Heaven. No appetite for tinsel, but I can still taste that fruitcake.

My dad had few Christmas traditions other than to occasionally experiment with a Tom ‘n Jerry mix or to place the plastic Santa and two reindeer on the steep roof of the little house we lived in in Chadron, Nebraska when I was just old enough to have Christmas really register. Those were the days when Christmas lights were constructed so that one broken bulb would darken an entire string of lights. I can still see him outside struggling in the December darkness and cold to find and replace the offending bulb. He found it then came inside and sipped a Canadian whiskey and a splash of water while watching his elegant wife hang that damn tinsel. Dad knew better than to offer to help. Smart man that he was he admired perfection, cocktail in hand, from a distance.

As I grew older Christmas involved reading from the Gospel of St. Luke, a Christmas Eve buffet supper and memorable gifts. I still remember the bicycle and the double set of Tinker Toys. There may have been socks and gloves and pajamas, too. I gave my mother what I considered a lovely bottle of Evening in Paris cologne one year and, bless her heart, she acted like I had personally acquired the dime store fragrance from Coco Chanel.

Now, all those warm Christmas memories constitute the very best gifts I have ever received. Tinker Toys come and go, the tinsel gets discarded and the cologne fades, but the memories remain and thankfully new ones are created, including the memories I now carry of the carefully constructed scene and precious words at the end of that favorite Christmas movie. As David Niven’s Bishop Henry steps to the pulpit to deliver his Christmas sermon at the end of The Bishop Wife, Cary Grant’s angel – work completed – stands outside the church in the gently falling snow and listens to the words that have now become part of my Christmas memory.

“Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking,” the Bishop says. “Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry. A blazing star hung over a stable and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries; we celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, the sound of bells and with gifts. But especially with gifts. You give me a book; I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer and Uncle Henry could do with a new pipe. We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled… all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we are celebrating. Don’t ever let us forget that. Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most… and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”

Happy Christmas…and thanks for checking in here. All the best in 2013.


Christmas, Egypt

Christmas Memories

‘Tis the Season

Long ago I ceased being focused on what some nice spouse, relative or friend would place under the tree with my name attached. As much as I appreciate the generosity and the thought, Christmas has become for me a season of memory more than gifts and I find myself increasingly transported back to cold winter days where the thoughts are warm and inviting.

I was lucky enough to once spend Christmas in Paris and the City of Light did not disappoint. Christmas Day Mass at Notre-Dame – the Cardinal presiding and the music spectacular – followed by lunch in a memorable cafe on the Ile St. Louis. What a day. What a Christmas.

Forty years on I can now smile, sort of, about the hard court mishap that found this committed but awkward second-stringer tripping over his own feet, falling across the back of South Dakota’s best high school basketball player and knocking out my front teeth. It happened on Christmas evening as we practiced for a holiday tournament. Of course, my sympathetic Dad had to remark during the emergency trip to the dentist, “All he wants for Christmas is his two front teeth.” True story.

Speaking of Dad, he often told us the story of a very early Christmas memory of his when he and his brothers found an orange, a brilliant, colorful, tasty orange, in their Christmas stockings along with some hard candy and nuts. A juicy orange in December in Nebraska was, apparently, a very rare and big deal and that lovely memory stuck with him forever.

One Christmas, my father surprised Mom with several very suggestive pieces of, well, underwear. I was too young to know that it was called lingerie. Dad had hidden the various items under sofa cushions and behind the curtains. Mom had, in essence, a Christmas bra and panties scavenger hunt for which she was initially more than a bit embarrassed. Before long, she got into the spirit and would take her time finding the next unmentionable as the old man smiled in anticipation. It’s one of the earliest recognitions I had that my parents really were engaged in a serious love affair.

I’ve been asking friends to remember the best Christmas gift they ever received and the best gift they ever gave. It’s a great question that almost always elicits a big smile, a fun story and a warm memory.

I gave my Dad a box of really cheap cigars one Christmas. Really cheap. I still don’t know what possessed me. He never smoked cigars. He accepted them graciously and, I suspect, quietly sent them to the back yard trash with all the used Christmas wrapping.

Twice in recent years I’ve spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the marvelous old National Park Service lodge on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. What a place. Big fire roaring in the lobby fireplace, the canyon an unbelievable sight always, but extra special when the red and yellow landscape is dusted with a sprinkle of snow. It’s as if a light dusting of confectioner’s sugar had been spread over one of the Earth’s most awe inspiring places.

So, I’ll celebrate Christmas this year with a head and heart full of memory of friends and family and with a knowable of what I have to be very thankful for. I’ll watch Bing Crosby sing his famous song in Holiday Inn. I’ll put another log on the fire and watch Cary Grant help David Niven find the real meaning of Christmas in The Bishop’s Wife and wince at Chevy Chase’s disappointment when his Christmas bonus is a membership in the Jelly of the Month Club.

And, as night settles around, I’ll read again – as I have a hundred times – Joyce’s great story of Christmas – The Dead – with its haunting and magical last lines, “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Christmas is memory. Here’s to a happy one for you and yours.


Egypt, Foreign Policy, John Kennedy, Judiciary

Stuff Happens

imagesCAOS34K3Exceptionalism, Hubris, Cluelessness

The protesters in the streets of Cairo could most likely care less about American domestic political debate. They have bigger issues. Still, while the chaos continues to unfold in the streets of our erstwhile ally, it might be worthwhile for those of us watching to undertake some sober reflection of what the likely fall of Mubarak says about American foreign policy.

Two seemingly disconnected data points – the latest silly debate over American “exceptionalism” and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s new memoir – are informative launching pads for some of the reflection we need.

For a few days after President Obama’s State of the Union speech, cable’s talking heads were popping off about why the president refused to use the word “exceptionalism.” Exceptionalism is the notion that American ideals, ambitions, and commitment to liberty are so unique and so special that naturally the United States has not only the moral authority to lead the world, but the moral responsibility to export those ideals, ambitions and commitments.

The president did say that America is “the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea — the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny.” And that “America’s moral example must always shine for all who yearn for freedom and justice and dignity.”

Some conservatives, aware that Obama’s still greatest political vulnerability is his “differentness,” have seized on his allegedly tepid embrace of the exceptionalism notion to bash him. Columnist Kathleen Parker captured the essence of the argument in a recent piece when she said: “On the right, the word ‘exceptional’ – or ‘exceptionalism’ – lately has become a litmus test for patriotism. It’s the new flag lapel pin, the one-word pocket edition of the U.S. Constitution. To many on the left, it has become birther code for ‘he’s not one of us.’

“Between left and right, however, are those who merely want affirmation that all is right with the world. Most important, they want assurance that the president shares their values. So why won’t Obama just deliver the one word that would prompt arias from his doubters?”

My answer, all is not right with the world and the president, while embracing the moral leadership role that should go with the office he holds, tends to have a nuanced view of the world – not black/white, neither uniquely exceptional or standard run of the mill. The president is trying hard, against the last 100 years of history, to pull us back from the kind of exceptional arrogance that once led us into Vietnam and more recently into Iraq. For the exceptional crowd, its impossible to believe that the rest of the world just doesn’t get on the with the notion that it is American manifest destiny to lead the world and, when necessary, reshape it our liking.

Which brings us to Donald Rumsfeld. The advance press on his new book – it sounds like a standard score settler sure to get him on TV a great deal – seems sure to remind his detractors, including John McCain, of Rummy’s fundamental arrogance. The man who brought us such memorable lines as “stuff happens” in response to widespread Iraqi looting after the invasion and “known unknowns” about the non-existing weapons of mass destruction, says he has few regrets about Iraq.

Rumsfeld is a metaphor for American foreign policy cluelessness. Not only did he get almost everything wrong about the American invasion of Iraq, he clearly doesn’t possess the self reflection gene necessary to learn some of the all-too-obvious lessons. The real known unknown is what America doesn’t know – and usually refuses to learn – about the rest of the great world. We never seem to learn the limits to which others in the world are willing to embrace our ideals and follow our lead. We may be repeating this time tested mistake now in Egypt, Yemen and the rest of the volatile Middle East.

“We evidently think,” Idaho Sen. Frank Church once said, “that everything which happens abroad is our business…we have plunged into these former colonial regions as though we have been designated on high to act as trustee in bankruptcy for broken empires.”

The Middle East is ancient ground. The yoke of British, Ottoman, French and other colonial empires – and what must look to many young Arabs like the new American Empire – hangs uneasily over the region. Young people in Tunisia and Egypt, empowered by access to the Internet and ideas – not always ideas we like, for sure – are demanding change. It is hubris to think that our notions of what makes America exceptional is necessarily going to appeal, or be right, for them.

One Middle Eastern analyst, Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, says it bluntly: “No one in the region is pro-American anymore. The only hope is if Obama uses this opportunity to re-orientate U.S. policy in a fundamental way,” he said. “Otherwise, I think we’re losing the Arab world.”

With thousands of our troops spread across the region, with billions lavished on Mubarak for more than 30 years – by one estimate the old boy is worth as much as $70 billion – we’re down to being an after thought to the people in the street.

Writing for the New York Times, the sagacious Tim Egan, offers some of the best sober reflection: “…in the Internet age, no authoritarian can keep his own people from knowing the truth,” Egan writes. “Millions of Egyptians are disgusted with their leadership. They have hope. They want change. And we should stand with them with the tools of an open society: ideas and technology, and maybe a deft diplomatic nudge. Beyond that, it’s out of American hands.”

As we cast a very wary eye toward Cairo and beyond, a real question for Americans is whether we can be exceptional enough to understand the limits of our power; whether we can’t learn the humbling lesson that our ability to cause other cultures, with different histories, religions and traditions, to embrace our way is exceptionally limited.

Christmas, Egypt

Merry Christmas

Christmas TreeGhosts of Christmas Past

I was blessed as a kid growing up with a big and diverse extended family. I loved all my aunts and uncles and many cousins were great friends and playmates.

I remember that one uncle, one of my mother’s brothers, always seemed to have the latest gadget or the newest must have thing. When digital cameras were still a distant dream, my uncle had the 1960’s version of instant photography gratification – the Polaroid Land Camera. Make a picture, wait 60 seconds and like magic you had a small, square color picture.

This uncle had an American Motors Rambler, a mostly forgettable automobile that nonetheless was a bit of a novelty when it was introduced. And, apropos to Christmas, uncle had the first aluminum Christmas tree I ever remember seeing.

The shimmery, silver tree came in a big box. You had to assemble it limb-by-limb and once fitted together you could switch on a rotating light with three colored gels that, when positioned just right, constantly changed the tree color from green to red to gold. My mother loved her brother, but was appalled by that tree.

Only one type of tree ever graced my mother’s living room – a real, “live” tree, dripping with tinsel, many, many uniformly sized colored ornaments and tiny little colored lights. Mom was fastidious about most everything. She ironed the dish towels, never, ever left a bed unmade and never went to sleep with a dirty dish in the kitchen sink. Christmas trees in her world were natural, green and, if not just perfect in size and shape, subject to certain engineering modifications. I can still see her cutting off an unneeded lower branch of a big tree and grafting it into a naked spot higher up that just didn’t quite conform to her notion of what a proper tree looked like. She would use black sewing thread to hold the grafted branch in place. Not a chance that this woman would embrace the artificial tree movement.

It’s funny the things you remember from long ago. I certainly remember that cutting edge aluminum tree, but also can see mom standing on tip toes hanging long strands of tinsel, insisting that each piece be absolutely straight. I once offered to help, but was politely and firmly told there was only one way to decorate a Christmas tree and I was welcome to help, if I did it her way. I watched.

While I did not inherit mom’s fascination with Christmas tinsel, I did get her natural tree dominate gene. And like a visit from Marley’s ghost, all these years later, I can see clearly the living room, mom’s tree, my Christmas stocking and my brother’s and the little Christmas figures she would haul out every year.

Memories – those ghosts from years past – are the real joys of Christmas now. No coal for me and no fake tree. Just a lifetime of memories and mother decorating her tree.

Merry Christmas and happy memories.

Christmas, Egypt

Merry Christmas

Charles DickensA Dickens of a Christmas

There is a current school of thought that holds that Charles Dickens “invented” many of our current customs regarding how Christmas is celebrated. For sure his story about the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge has become a timeless classic and the Christmas feast a much anticipated routine.

Truth be told, the celebration of Christmas has long been a work in progress – sorry Bill O’Reilly – and always the subject of some controversy.

The Boston Globe had a wonderful piece this week about how the celebration of Christmas has evolved over the centuries in New England. It is worth a read. I learned, for instance, that Boston Puritans in the 1600’s effectively outlawed Christmas.

As author Stephen Nissenbaum writes: “On December 25, 1685, Boston Magistrate Samuel Sewall proudly wrote in his journal that ‘the Body of the People profane the Day’- that is, the town’s residents went about their work as usual – ‘and blessed be God no Authority yet compel them to keep it.’ Indeed, in a kind of reverse Blue Law, for a quarter century during the mid-1600s the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts actually outlawed its celebration.”

What were those Puritans thinking?

Garrison Keillor had some choice things to say recently about messing with Christmas tradition. He doesn’t like it, and he likes Silent Night just the way it is and, by the way, he isn’t crazy about those “lousy holiday songs” either, thank you.

“Christmas is a Christian holiday — if you’re not in the club, then buzz off,” Keillor wrote. “Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don’t mess with the Messiah.”

Keillor’s column, big surprise, offended Unitarians (and Jewish songwriters) and may have, momentarily, pleased that policeman of Christmas correctness the bombastic Mr. O’Reilly. Who’da thought that possible?

As for me, I like the Dickens Christmas sentiment best of all. In the great scene in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge encounters the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, Scrooge tells the ghost that he had once been a great businessman. Marley’s disagreeing response is, in many ways, the essence of Christmas:

“Mankind was my business,” Marley says. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Now, there is a Christmas sentiment.

Best wishes to you and yours for a Very Happy Christmas. And, yes, I’m sticking with “Happy Christmas” – not the popular and generic “Happy Holidays.” My own tradition.

Thanks to Dickens for that great story. I like what it has done for Christmas.