Christmas, American Style

The American way of celebrating Christmas has long been under attack by secularists. We are now used to what has become known as “the war on Christmas” and hopefully are responding appropriately. I’m fortunate to live in a place where the majority of public officials, merchants, and citizens are unintimidated by secularists and proudly acknowledge Christmas in the public square. I’ve already been wished “Merry Christmas” several times in the past 24 hours by waitresses, store clerks, and anonymous strangers.

What is less known is that the American way of celebrating Christmas is also under attack, for different reasons, by some traditionalists and religious conservatives. Chief among the objections is that Protestant America seems to have no regard for the Catholic liturgical calendar: most Americans begin celebrating Christmas before Advent commences! (One blogger refers to this phenomenon as “the war on Advent”.). The season of Advent is supposed to be moderately penitential, but one is pressured to attend so many parties during this time that the idea of penance is completely lost.

The Twelve Days of Christmas, observed from December 25 (Nativity) to January 6 (Epiphany), are virtually ignored apart from Christmas Day itself. Having celebrated “Christmas” since the day after Thanksgiving, by the time the real Christmas comes along everyone is sick of it. Saint Nicholas has morphed into Santa Claus, thereby eclipsing the real feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6. The post-Christmas feasts of Saint Stephen, Holy Innocents, Circumcision, and others are similarly ignored due to Christmas-fatigue.

Another common complaint, of course, is the crass commercialization of the holiday and the pressure to spend lots of money. This is followed by objections to other American customs – Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, Charles Dickens, Victorian Christmas displays, Christmas films and “carols” of questionable orthodoxy, etc. – to the point where it seems that nothing about American Christmas traditions are pure enough to touch.

How ought a Catholic respond to this?

I have to confess that I love many things about our American-style Christmas. While growing up, my mother always made Christmas seem magical. Christmas, in fact, helped lead me from teenage agnosticism/atheism back to faith in Christ. The sentimental Christmas songs on the radio helped force me to confront the unsentimental claims of historic Christianity. From Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”, from Clement Clarke Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” (the song, not the film), many American traditions of the season are dear to me.

A word about commercialization. Yes, it is totally out of control. Yes, it has obscured the real meaning of Christmas in many ways, and to that extent must be resisted. However, let’s keep one thing in mind: just because something has a commercial origin doesn’t make it “fake” or lacking in cultural significance. Commerce is culture, too. It’s a good thing that merchants honor Christmas, decorate their shops, have pre-Christmas sales and so forth. It’s a good thing that some people can make a living operating Christmas tree farms. It’s a good thing that chambers of commerce all over America organize Christmas events for the benefit of their members. It’s a good thing that, for a few weeks out of the year, a few more Protestant Americans will ask themselves “who is the real Santa Claus?” and thereby become familiar with a great Catholic saint. The problem is not that some people benefit financially from Christmas; the problem is that, for too many, Christmas has become a sacred means to worldly ends.

As Catholics, of course, we have happily made some adjustments. Worship – the Mass in Christmas – is the season’s absolute priority. We try to keep a good Advent. We don’t put up the tree – and we don’t start listening to Christmas music (much to the consternation of our kids who never tire of it) – until Gaudete Sunday or later. We have moved our gift exchange to Epiphany so as to better keep the twelve days of Christmas. We are trying to cut back on gifts for those who have plenty, and to re-emphasize giving to the poor. But we do participate in the larger celebration of the community, insofar as we are able, even if we aren’t quite sure where to draw the line at times. I’m cheered by the ringing of the Salvation Army bells. So long as there is a Salvation Army, I’m glad they do what they do this time of year. We are Americans, too, and fortunately it isn’t difficult to find redeeming qualities in the way Americans celebrate Christmas.

No friends in high places

Attorney General Jerry Brown, charged with defending Proposition 8 against its challengers, is urging the state Supreme Court to void the initiative. It’s bad enough that the fate of Prop 8 will be decided by the same judges who illegally voided Prop 22. Now, the initiative does not even have the formality of support by the executive branch. What a circus. Barring divine intervention, I expect same-sex marriage will be the law in California before the end of 2009.

Thursday evening

Elena Maria Vidal’s Tea at Trianon is one blog that never wastes any bandwidth. Every word is worth reading. Today she gently reminds us that Civility Towards the Aged is an important Christian duty:

“There are many little courtesies that can and should surround the elderly …  Even if a story is being told for the thousandth time, the young can learn to listen patiently, or at least, not to interrupt. An older person should never be isolated at a party or dinner; the young should be encouraged to sit with them, get them refreshments, talk to them, listen to their stories, asking pertinent questions. An older person should be served first at dinner. Boys and girls can easily learn to hold a door open for grandma or grandpa, letting them go first. If necessary, an older child or teenager can readily give up his or her seat for an older person, if chairs are limited. For that matter, although it may seem quaint, it is respectful for children and young people to rise when an elderly friend or member of the family enters the room, if this can be done without causing embarrassment and inconvenience.


Is California ungovernable? I think we’ll find out next year:

“Others say this nation-state is so oversized, balkanized and polarized that it is destined for dysfunction no matter who is in charge. They cite the influx of immigrants, the constant tensions over water supply and large, self-contained regions that bear little resemblance to one another.

It has even been suggested that the state should break into multiple, more manageable pieces. More than two dozen attempts at that have been tried during the years, the latest by a Northern California lawmaker in the early 1990s. More recently, a blog called Three Californias was created to advocate carving California out of the union and into a new country with three states.”


Wendell Berry on the depreciation of work (via Jim Curley):

“With industrialization has come a general depreciation of work. As the price of work has gone up, the value of it has gone down, until it is now so depressed that people simply do not want to do it anymore. We can say without exaggeration that the present national ambition of the United States is unemployment. People live for quitting time, for weekends, for vacations, and for retirement; moreover, this ambition seems to be classless, as true in the executive suites as on the assembly line. One works, not because work is necessary, valuable, useful to a desirable end, or because one loves to do it, but only to be able to quit-a condition that a saner time would regard as infernal, a condemnation. This is explained, of course, by the dullness of the work, by the loss of responsibility for, or credit for, or knowledge of the thing made. What can be the status of the working small farmer in a nation whose motto is a sigh of relief: ‘Thank God it’s Friday’?”

Thank the Middle Ages

One of the things I enjoy is learning the origins of English words and phrases. Not surprisingly, many English phrases are of biblical origin. Biblical illiteracy being what it is today, I am sure that most people who say things like “bite the dust”, “by the skin of your teeth”, or “sour grapes” have no idea as to their Christian origins. The contribution of William Shakespeare to the treasury of English idiom is likewise enormous but mostly lost on contemporary English speakers. Shakespeare, immersed in the language and thought of Christendom, was also influenced by the English Book of Common Prayer, another important literary stream from which we have received gems like “speak now or forever hold your peace”, “till death us do part”, and the most commonly known version of the Lord’s Prayer, recited also by English-speaking Catholics.

A good many words in English come to us from the Age of Faith, popularly known as the Middle Ages. Here’s a website that lists a few of them, and I offer the following samples:

BANK/BANKRUPT- In mideaval times Italian moneylenders used benches in the marketplace to conduct business. Latin for bench was Banca, which transferred to English as bank. These lenders were required to publically break up their benches if their businesses failed, the Latin expression being banca rupta-, becoming bankrupt in English.

BEDLAM:- Bethlehem hospital in London was built to house the mentally ill. As most commoners were at best semi-literate, they mangled the name so that it emerged as “bedlam,” with the implication of chaos deriving from the insane antics of the residents.

BLACKMAIL- Sixteenth century Scottish farmers paid their rent, or mail, to English absentee landlords in the form of WHITE MAIL (silver money), or BLACKMAIL (rent payment in the form of produce or livestock). The term blackmail took on a bad connotation only when the greedy landlords forced many poor farmers to pay much more in goods than the they would pay in silver. Later, when robbers along the borders demanded payment for passage and “protection” the farmers called this extortion blackmail as well.

CURFEW- Despite the modern perception, Medieval cities were actually rather well regulated places, with municipal ordinances governing many aspects of public life to maintain order and safety. However, even the best maintained cities were mostly built of wood, fire was a constant danger, and most cities experienced a devastating fire every few decades. To help provide some protection against fires, many cities required that fires be banked at night. On his first rounds of the evening, the night watchman would remind all the citizens to cover their fires. In Old French this was covre feu, which became coeverfu in Anglo-French after the Norman Conquest, courfeu in Old English, and eventually our modern “curfew,” with the meaning of a limitation.

HAVOC- A medieval war cry signifying “no quarter.

MAUDLIN- Another attempt by Medieval Londoners to pronounce a hospital name, this time it being “Magdalene.”

TAWDRY- On the Feast of St. Audrey it was common to give as gifts little trinkets –religious medallions, charms, and such– of no great value. As a result, the phrase “a St. Audrey” came to mean something cheap, which eventually, became “tawdry.”

A little bit of heaven

We picked up a Christmas tree this evening – not the one I wanted, but the one LeXuan wanted. She had decorating plans, you see. And she made it more beautiful than I could have imagined.

Heaven must be something like…

a cold December night,
a blazing fire in the woodstove,
a new Christmas tree,
the sounds of Handel,
a rose-cheeked woman nursing a baby and teaching
origami to her children,
a glass of red wine,
children excited over hot chocolate,
a child reading Dickens,
a child reading Tolkein,
a tiny hand grasping for ornaments,
the warmth of Christmas approaching,
the promise of a child’s life,
wonder at the grace of it all.

No heart attack

I am back home, feeling fine. What a week.

Mostly I am overwhelmed by the firestorm of prayers ignited by my wife’s phone calls and emails – not to mention her, ahem, unauthorized update to my last post. (You know I love you, honey!) And God bless all of you who responded with your generous prayers, your requests for more prayers, and your comments.  I just don’t know what could be more humbling. Right off the top of my head I could name dozens of more deserving objects of heavenly favors, with more serious needs – but six of them live under my own roof, so perhaps I shouldn’t complain for their sake. I tried to offer up this small trial for a dear relative who probably suffers more every day than what I endured for a mere 48 hours. May your prayers for me, now answered in abundance, be efficacious for my uncle in Alabama.

It sure is nice to see old friends in my comment boxes! And new ones, too!

No, this wasn’t a ploy to get linked on Mark Shea’s blog, but: thanks again Mark!

The chest pain disappeared Wednesday evening, while I was waiting in ER for admission to the hospital. The doctors had found irregularities in my EKG, and high levels of cardiac enzymes in my blood, indicating that I had suffered an unspecified “cardiac event”. Of course we were all thinking “heart attack”, but they were careful not to say that.

The angiogram proved conclusively that I do not have heart disease and did not have a heart attack. There is no blockage or narrowing of the arteries, and my heart is strong. After the angiogram, my cardiologist – a prince of a man – asked if I would like him to call my wife to tell her the happy news. He pulled out his cell phone and called her immediately. A little gesture like this makes all the difference.

Because the feeling of pain was similar to the pericarditis I had 21 years ago, they performed a couple of additional tests looking for signs of a recurrence. Again, they found nothing. The leading theory now is that the problem was either a exacerbated GI condition, or an infection, or a combination of both. I do have an enlarged left ventricle, which can cause some minor problems, but they do not believe it is dangerous.

(For my part, I’m not ruling out the possibility that it was something more serious followed by a miracle …)

Many weaknesses are exposed in a hospital setting. One of the male nurses asked about my “necklace”. When I told him it was a scapular, he said he thought so, and that he had one too but doesn’t wear it much. Foolishly I did not speak with him about Our Lady’s promises attached to the scapular, but instead muttered some small talk about church and being Catholic. How easy it is to avoid a conversation about spiritual things, even when it is practically begging to happen.

My roommate was a 61 year old man who had just undergone a stent procedure, his second in four years. He was a big fellow – probably about 300 lbs – the owner of an auto repair shop in a little town not too far from here.  We had some very interesting conversations, and one in particular that will haunt me for a while …

Well, that’s all for now. I thank you not only for the charity of your prayers, but for the reminder that I myself should pray much more than I do. A happy solemnity of Our Lady to everyone.


Haven’t been this sick and miserable since, oh, about this time last year. The stomach has stopped working, is bloated, the pain now mostly in the chest. Breathing hurts. There is no getting comfortable. Hope it passes by Saturday …

Update from Mrs. C

Jeff was admitted to the hospital for a heart attack according to preliminary blood work.  Please spare a Hail Mary or two for him.  God bless you for your generosity.  LeXuan

Regionalism in California

The latest issue of “The Univerity Bookman” (HT: Rod Dreher) is devoted to the theme of regionalism, which I believe to be essential for any cultural restoration or renaissance in this country. As Bill Kaufman writes in the introduction:

Regionalism is not an ism, or an ideology. It has always been a feature of American writing, for “America” is not so much a single unit as it is the magnificent welter of hundreds, nay thousands, of smaller places, from Sinclair Lewis’s Sauk Centre to Elmer Kelton’s West Texas. The two great flowerings of regional literature were in the 1880s (the so-called “local color” school of Jewett, Freeman, Eggleston, Garland, et al.) and the 1930s, when a regionalist movement in art (Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton) also flourished, and some sainted souls even attempted to fashion a regionalist economics …

For a taste, sample Who Owns America? (1936), the programmatic sequel to the Twelve Southerners’ agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930), as well as the works of such American distributists as Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Allen Tate, and Herbert Agar. The flavor was rural Catholic and Jeffersonian Protestant, which is to say in favor of the widespread distribution of property, the preservation of small farms and encouragement of homecrafts and gardens, and the decentralization of political power.

Regionalism is complex for Californians, as it is for anyone living in places just recently settled. The city of Orland is only 100 years old this year; by contrast, the city of New York is 384 years old, Boston is 380, Philadelphia is 307. To put this in perspective, Orland may hold five generations of families at most. East coast cities have families going back 18 generations and more. In anthropological terms, it is the long-settledness of people that gives a region its specific cultural identity. Most places in California lack that long-settledness and continuity, and so regional identities are not so well defined. Complicating things even further is the fact that California was largely settled in the 20th century by what was and remains a highly mobile population.  While 50 or 100 years might be enough time to get a regional identity off to a good start, the process falters if the population is turning over every five or ten years. A highly mobile population is simply not capable of producing a regional culture.

Californians need not despair, however. We still have plenty of places outside the largest urban centers where regional cultures still flourish. The north valley, in which I have spent 33 years of my life, is unique enough to earn the disdain of many southern California sophisticates. We even have an accent, which sounds midwestern to other Californians. Many early families arrived directly from the midwest or southern states, and not a few from the east coast. My family is here as a result of a wave of LAPD veterans who, after 20 miserable years of crime-fighting in LA, retired and bought ranches in northern California and southern Oregon. Before these men were southern Californians, they were midwesterners (or from families of midwesterners).  Early immigrants from Italy, China, Japan, Mexico, and the Azores found themselves in communites with a dominant culture, and to this they eventually succombed.

Today, things are more fluid. Many small towns have been declining for years, and young people in these towns can’t wait to leave.  The latest immigrant wave in these parts is from Mexico, the numbers are large, and our institutions – including the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento – are doing very little to encourage assimilation. Due to the presence of the university, Chico is no longer rural and provincial but cosmopolitan and liberal – “Berkeley North”, I like to call it. So we are in a state of flux culturally.

The flip side of this is an opportunity. That is to say, Californians have the opportunity to shape the personalities of their respective regions for the future. It is a creative endevaor. We should build on what we have, incorporating the best of our past and present, but with an awareness that we are stepping into something of a vacuum – not a blank slate by any means, but not a finished product either – and that our regional identity will be defined in large part by what we bring to it.


A local official remarked recently that he “lives in Orland by choice“. He told us that he had the resources to live anywhere he wanted in northern California, but chooses to live in Orland because of its many qualities. That was meant as a compliment to the town, and it should be taken as such. What kind of a town wouldn’t want good people choosing to live in it? I chose Orland, too, probably for the same reasons he did.

When you think about it, though, the statement “I live in Orland by choice” is remarkable because of the unspoken contrast. Why would anyone say such a thing? What makes it significant? It is significant because most Orlanders do not live here by choice. Most Orlanders live here because family, or social connections, or economics compel them to live here. They are trapped, or at least they consider themselves to be without options. The implication is that, if such people had viable options, maybe they wouldn’t be living here, and so maybe the person who lives here by choice is more loyal, or a better citizen, or what have you. There can be value in looking at things this way, so I’m not discounting the thought process. However, I think this approach can obscure or distort the meaning of what a home is, or should be.

You don’t choose a home; home chooses you. There is a sense in which the man who “chooses” his home is really a man without a home. We come into this world in a social and geographical context we didn’t choose. We didn’t choose our families, we didn’t choose the people among whom they lived, we didn’t choose our country, we didn’t choose our birthplaces. These things, taken together, constitute what should be our natural homes. But three things generally happen in modern life: 1) tolerable homes disintegrate and disappear; 2) we leave tolerable homes for “better” ones and end up starting over; 3) we leave intolerable homes by necessity. There is not much that any individual can do about #1 or #3 for himself. However, we can all take a good hard look at #2, and see to it that our children do not have the burdens of #1 and #3.

I’ve always had a bad case of wanderlust. Only recently have I identified its source: a search for home. By “home” I mean to say a geographical place in which – to which –  I belong. This belonging, I have always imagined, is a magical feeling, kind of like “love at first sight”. But of course that isn’t how home really works. For a place to be home, there need to be relationships, there needs to be history, there needs to be time, and wanderlust conspires against the accumulation of time in any one place. Ironically, then, the homesick man who is afflicted with wanderlust never stays in any one place long enough to make a real home.  And that’s what I have done. We all go through life with various handicaps, and mine is that I will never belong to any one place or community in this way.

Business has been awful this past year (though it has picked up a little since the election). For the past several months I have been actively looking for alternative employment. If I had been offered the right job in another city, or another state, I would have taken it. But nothing has turned up. We have considered selling the ranch and moving to greener pastures, but real estate just isn’t selling in this market apart from foreclosures and short sales. We’re trapped.

Yes, trapped. And to tell you the truth, I don’t mind at all. In fact it is something of a relief. Whatever I’m going to do, I have to do it here, at least for the time being. I may have chosen Orland four years ago, but today Orland is choosing me … and it’s finally starting to feel a little bit like home.