Obsolete, Impractical, Informative
THREE WEEKS, VOLUME 1 ISSUE 4 - DECEMBER 18, 2001
"From a hundred rabbits you cannot make a horse."
Who Santa Claus Is, by Henry William Brownejohns
Developments at Either End of History, by Eliza Anne Bonney
Turncoats and Double Standards, by Alexander Swartwout
On Brunch, by the Editors
The Weather, by Ephrain Underhill
Return to Three Weeks Issues
A TOTAL EXPLANATION OF THIS BIZARRE CHARACTER, AND HOW HE CAME TO BE SO THOROUGHLY INGRAINED IN OUR CULTURE
And the Happy Conclusion that Christmas is the Most Profane of American Holidays, and thus Enjoyable for All
by Henry William Brownejohns
You, Reader, and the public you represent, as a rule do not know a fifth as much as you believe you do, and as concerns the seasonably relevant figure of Santa Claus, you likely know even less. That is why THREE WEEKS, with barely constrained aplomb, will here offer the reading public a full and thorough reckoning of this mascot of the American Christmas season, to increase the knowledge of that body, and to improve its enjoyment of the holidays by virtue of awareness and understanding. For the story of Santa Claus’ ascent into our cultural subconscious is a far more rewarding one than any of the over-used moralistic folk yarns otherwise bound to be told over the holiday feast-table, and it will please this paper’s editors immensely to be responsible for such a rare illumination.
The first step in any proper cultural study is to detach oneself from the subject, and to pretend that one knows nothing about the custom to be studied, in order to see the thing with unbiased eyes. And in so regarding the case of Santa Claus, the reader will quickly see just what a perverse and confused myth this has become. While yesterday Santa Claus was nothing out of the ordinary - just another ornament on the periphery of the unchanging holiday landscape - today, he is an anomaly.
Santa Claus, to an American of the present century, is an elderly, portly man with a great white beard, who invariably wears a red suit with white trim, and is generally in possession of a sack of toys. There’s isn’t a being in all fifty states who doesn’t also know that Mr. Claus ostensibly lives at the North Pole, where he spends the year in charge of an army of elves, until on the night of December 25th, he is carried in a sleigh by eight flying reindeer to every house in the world, where he delivers his goods. Some of the country’s better minds can even name those reindeer, but even the comatose can reliably come up with at least one or two, and would surely recognize the others, if they were provided.
Now, if the reader was able to properly distance themselves from their own cultural baggage, the prior paragraph should have legitimately inspired the empirical question: from just where did this overweight oaf arise, and why is he so innately related to Christmas, a day when the Pope in Rome is solemnly donning his best slippers, and the rest of the Judeo-Christian world is fawning over candles and scripture? It turns out, contrary to reams of urban legend, that Mr. Claus is not derived from any single figure, but half a globe’s mythology. It is as useful to begin our explication of him with some of his most familiar aspects, if only to discover how unfamiliar he actually is.
SAINT NICHOLAS, or SACRED SOURCES.
The figure of Santa Claus indeed got his name, if little else, from the historical figure of Saint Nicholas. ‘Santa Claus’ is a Northern European truncation of St. Nicholas: Saint ‘Claus, or Sancte Claus. However, Mr. Claus and the martyr himself have so little else in common, that it is difficult to remember there is any relationship at all between them.
This accounts for the surprise the traveller might experience, if he found himself wending his way along the highway between Antalya and Kas on the Southern coast of Turkey, seeing on one side the calcite cliffs beat upon by the Mediterranean Sea, and on the other mosques and 3,000 year-old Lycian ruins, when, arriving at a town called Demre, he sees above the road an archway decorated with the incongruous portly figure of Santa Claus himself, waving to visitors.
For this little Turkish seaside suburb was in fact the home of the historical Saint Nicholas, in the fourth century, and the modern residents of that place, Moslems and not fools, aren’t going to let you through without noticing, and stopping in for a post-card and an explanation.
In Nicholas’ time, the town was known as Myra, and was an affluent burgh of the post-Constantinian Byzantine Empire - a Christian town. Nicholas became the bishop of Myra, and after that verifiable facts are scarce, and hearsay rears its many heads. Even his ascension to the bishopry seems dubious: a voice from Heaven made the simplistic demand that the next fellow to walk into the church whose name was Nicholas should get the job - an onanistic fantasy that I have been guilty of myself, trying to will good things to people who go by my name.
The variety of legends concerning Saint Nicholas are difficult to keep up with, but they variously revolve around acts of charity, and the number three. In one, the bishop learns of the plight of three sisters, whose father has become so impoverished that they are forced to consider prostitution to raise their marriage dowries. On three consecutive nights, each sister readies herself to go out and begin her new profession by hanging her stocking to dry either under a window or in the hearth, and in every instance, discovers the next morning that her stocking is full of gold. The gold itself traditionally comes in three pieces, which happens to be the source of the universal pawnbroker’s symbol, three golden circles. Thus Nicholas is the patron saint of unmarried girls, and pawnbrokers.
In another legend, (apparently based on nothing more than an ancient misinterpretation of a poorly made painting), Nicholas reattaches the heads of three decapitated children, and brings them back to life, which earned him his patronship to that immature demographic. Nicholas also famously saved several ships from the ravages of stormy weather, and became in due course the patron saint of sailors, as well. For this, he later suffered the indignity of having his bones become the object of several piratical crusades. Once his remains were secured in his shrine at Myra, and that town was overrun by the Ottomans, pirates from Bari, in Italy, looted Nicholas’ hometown and recovered his bones, and took them to Christian Italy with them. (There is still some confusion between Bari and modern Demre over where Nicholas’ bones now rest. Bari, a seagoing town since its founding, and thus devoted to their patron saint’s relics, still claims to possess them, while Demre proudly displays a reliquary full of bones which it also claims are Nicholas’, the pirates having failed, somehow, to take them all at once. Those Demrenians in the know, however, suggest that a Christian aristocrat of the Middle Ages felt so unjustly about Nicholas’ bones being looted from his hometown, that he ordered in his will that his own bones be put in a reliquary, and passed off as the saint’s. The Turks to this day will ask visitors if they would like to see “Santa Claus’ bones,” and most people shudder only momentarily before they say yes. Sanctity aside, at this point it is a betrayal of capitalism to ask too much about their authenticity.)
His statue, in the garden at the church which stills stands in Demre, depicts a tall, lean figure dressed in a typical Byzantine robe, surrounded by children, and with an active enough imagination, one might be able to convince themselves that they are looking at an early incarnation of ‘Father Christmas,’ or some such thing. Also, Saint Nicholas’ feast day is December 6, and it is not hard to see how over 1,500 years, his celebration might have run in a bit with the Winter solstice celebrations of the non-Christians, and the subsequent Christian celebration of Christmas. But it isn’t so simple as putting historical Saint Nicholas in a red suit and chalking it up to a confusion of dates. For the cults of Nicholas, which spread considerably through Northern Europe, went quite the opposite direction from evolving him into a jovial fat elf. Instead, Nicholas became something of disciplinarian, and his feast day, throughout the Middle Ages, was a counterpoint to Christmas, and not a compliment.
Children were told that on December 6th, Nicholas would come to their house and quiz them on their Bible verses, and that those who failed, or who behaved badly, would be beaten with a birch rod, and even taken to hell for a year. He was a strict and austere martyr, and the legends of him that arose during this age all wind up with him doling out some severe form of physical punishment. One particularly entertaining tale is of a brotherhood of monks in Holland who decided it would be swell to sing the responses of St. Nicholas in their services. But their abbot refused, claiming that those were ‘worldly and profane music.’ The good Saint, hearing all from his seat beside the Lord, became understandably incensed, and descended to the abbot’s bedroom, hauled him out of bed by the hair, and beat him within an inch of his life, until the abbot placated him, and put a few songs in the service. There does not seem to be any precursor to jolly old Saint Nick here. In fact, to get from this point in the evolution of Santa Claus to the familiar souse in his chintzy throne at Macy’s, we will have to depart from Nicholas altogether, and follow a line leading out of the pagan religions of Northern Europe and Scandinavia.
BELSHNICKLE, OR PROFANE SOURCES.
Homo Sapiens has been using the Winter solstice as an excuse for merrymaking ever since he first came out of the trees. When the days were at their darkest, and every living thing had either gone on vacation or died, clever Man figured that perhaps if he made enough of a commotion, he might jump-start Nature, and make his way back to Springtime. And it has worked every single year since.
Furthermore, when people carouse, they also dress up - and while we are ghouls on Halloween, dunces on our birthday, and fools on St. Valentine’s Day, on the Winter solstice, men traditionally got dolled up as the ‘Wild Man,’ as he is now known to anthropologists. This figure, incidentally, is the most ubiquitous symbolic character in human mythology, and he exists in every culture. Today, we would probably consider him a Sasquatch, or a Bigfoot - but he is essentially the spirit of untamed Nature, and humans’ conviction that he is present, and on their side, has been critical to every society that ever was.
Typically, such a character is big, strong, covered in hair, and possesses a voracious sexual appetite. In Europe, fertility festivals were held several times a year in which such a character, or characters, would march through the village carrying an oversized phallus, and after some drinking and singing or whatever was deemed necessary to set the mood, public copulation would be encouraged - not for fun, but rather so as to show the plants and animals how it is done, and to get Nature to its work. Of course, such a character is already vaguely familiar even to remedial mythologists, in the Greek figure of the satyr, who was something of a cousin to the Wild Man, though generally portrayed with cloven feet and horns. These two characters diverged and converged several times in tradition, and traces of him occur as far back in the literature as the Epic of Gilgamesh; in Shakespeare, as Puck; and as aforementioned, as recently as the Weekly World News, as Bigfoot. All of these characters, additionally, share a strong resemblance with another enigmatic figure of yon, whose own transformation is worth outlining - generically, the Devil, but to those who know him well, Satan.
Prior to the reign of Pope Gregory, who ascended in the year 590, the keener student of theology will recall that Satan is portrayed as an angel, albeit a fallen one, often merely pictured upside down, implying his disgrace. And in the whole of the New Testament, Satan is mentioned just half a dozen times, and his appearance is never described. He may have been a lot of things, but even the most pious early Christian would still give it to him that he was pretty, an angel, first. Yet, ask any modern Sunday-schooler to draw you the Devil, and without missing a beat they will ask you for a red crayon, and start with the horns. Where could this pronounced, and nonapocryphal, change have come from?
It so happens that Pope Gregory, more than a little put off by the pagan’s insistent seasonal fornicating, decided that he needed to editorialize on the guiltless partying of the heathens, so that no Christians might be inclined to join in. He commissioned artwork, and inserted in the canon of the Church that from thereafter, Satan was to be considered a goat-legged, horned, and hairy beast, and no longer just a pretty angel with a bad attitude. Thus, it made it much easier for Gregory to denounce the fertility festivals of the unenlightened - now they were dancing with the Devil himself.
Thousand-year-old traditions die hard, of course, and while the Pope’s order profoundly influenced Christian iconography, and thus the whole of Western imagery forever, it did not mean that European villagers - washed and unwashed - did not still believe that a hairy anthropomorph was needed to inspire the fecundity of Nature. It simply became a guilty pleasure, and carried a whole new array of meanings. There remain Wild Man rites to this day throughout Europe and Asia, though they are considerably more restrained than in the good old days.
As Europe Christianized and coalesced, the Wild Man figure became a hybrid - he was a devil, but a benevolent, or at least necessary, one. He remained the harbinger of Spring in the heart of Winter, all at the same time that the Church was promulgating an identical image for the Prince of Darkness. By the time of the Reformation, this character had become somewhat institutionalized, though he carried a thousand different names, for every locale. Because of his logical affiliation with the season, he also began to be associated with the feast days of December saints, and of course, with the feast of Christ as well, Christmas. At the Reformation, in the sixteenth century, the whole confusing arrangement has taken on an entirely novel form.
We begin to hear about a Yuletide character called Pelznichol. Literally translated - for those without any linguistic intuition at all - this is Furry Nicholas. It is not hard to divine what has been occurring - the Wild Man has kept his fur, and his disheveled appearance, but has tangentially assumed some of the traits, perhaps, of the saint by that same name. And indeed, upon the Reformation itself, with the division of the Church into two, so does the symbolic figure of the season also become divided. Beginning about this time, Christmas means a visit not by Saint Nicholas or Pelznichol alone, but by both of them, and sometimes even a whole expedition of folkloric characters. And here, the Bettelheimian interpretations run almost maddeningly rampant.
Nicholas has assumed the role of stern, episcopal, and sober religious man, who, if the children of the house were well-versed in their scripture, and well-behaved, might allow them a coin in their shoe. But in Protestant Europe he was accompanied now by this other figure, variously known as Pelznichol, Belshnickle, Ruprecht Necht (Peter Night), Black Pete, Shwarzermann, Hans Muff, Krampus, Rumpanz, Klaubauf, Kinder Fesser, Aschenklas, or Putenmandl. The duty of the second fellow was to terrify the children, to make noise, to rattle his chains, and, in the presence of a certifiable brat, to beat him awfully.
All of these names have in common an element of darkness - aschen, schwartz, necht, kinder fesser (child-eater). Several of their legends indicate that they either arrive or exit via the chimney or the hearth, which is an effectively frightening place for a troll to conceal himself, and thus are perpetually dirty. It doesn’t seem preposterous either to suppose that this crowd of helpers around solemn Saint Nicholas is a source for the elves of our contemporary Santa’s workshop. What is absolutely certain, though it leans toward the modernistic and analytical, is that with the Reformation, the holy-day visitor was divided into what the Germans aptly call a doppelganger. Here is a good guy, and a bad guy; you may extend the analogy as far as you like. If you wind up with blackness and whiteness, dark and light, God and the Devil, you haven’t gone too far.
For Nicholas, in some sources, and more often later in the story, is replaced outright with the Christkindl, or Christ-child, who does the good stuff, and is escorted by one of the sooty, debaucherous Wild Men attached to the tradition, by sheer force of misinterpretation. The name of the Christ-kindl is a popular explanation for Santa’s alias, Kris Kringle. But before you put that in your book-report, another theoretical source for that is Grisht-kindl, gifts for children, which is what a later incarnation of Belshnickle ran around handing out. But this is leaping too far ahead.
So Santa Claus, in the person of a filthy ogre named, for one, Ruprecht, and a repressive Asian saint, have made it intact to Protestant Northern Europe, and is ready to be transported to the New World. Yet, the lesson of this tale is that, whenever some transition in meaning or geography seems simple, it is not. Nobody merely translated this Christmas tradition directly to the Americas - it would arrive piecemeal, and this would be the key to changing our quasi-sacred mythological odd-couple into our present-day materialistic oaf.
MANIFESTATIONS IN AMERICA.
Chastity, sobriety, discipline, and uprightness have never stood much chance when competing with dangerousness, debauchery, impery, and chaos; and as such, by the time Pennsylvania was well-settled by the Germans, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, those folks had begun to favor the fiendish sidekick as a holiday visitor, to the dull old saint. By 1800, the older children in these Germanic villages would dress up annually as Belshnickle, and make the rounds of the wealthy homes, collecting treats and gifts, and once so happily burdened, they would visit the poorer homes, and first terrorize the children, and then give them those presents. “(D)ressed in skins or old clothes, his face black, a bell, a whip, and a pocket full of cakes or nuts. It is no sooner dark than the Bellshniggle’s bell is heard flitting from house to house. He slips down the chimney at the fairy hour of midnight, and deposits his present quietly in the prepared stocking.” (We are borrowing here from the Philadelphia Gazette, of 1827, and hope they do not object.)
Nicholas had taken something of a back seat in these New World rituals, something for the adults to piously consider while the children riot in the next room. While the worship of the Winter solstice had largely been forgotten, its mascot had assumed the more popular role, and Christmas had begun to be seen as a children’s holiday. Pennsylvania was, incidentally, politically dominated at the time by the Quakers, who, like Pope Gregory in the sixth century, found all this Belshnickery distasteful, and profane. They were able to pass a bill through the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1801 outlawing masquerading, under the penalty of a $50,000 fine - a steep figure, not adjusted here for inflation. The law was never enforced, and its only effect was to persuade the Mummers - the English revelers who similarly dressed up for the Winter solstice and ran amok - to move their celebration to New Year’s Day, to exempt themselves from the law.
Meanwhile, Saint Nicholas’ own progress to the New World was significantly slower, and by several accounts, only ever succeeded by virtue of a series of hoaxes and put-ons.
There is a long tradition of misinformation which declares that the patron saint of the Dutch who settled our own New Amsterdam was Nicholas. The case more accurately seems to be that Mr. Washington Irving, patriarch of American letters, wielding his intellect against the ignorance of the public, simply convinced everyone that this was true. The Dutch did not particularly revere Nicholas over any other saint, but the historical record of their time in New Amsterdam is decidedly scant.
Mr. Irving published his Knickerbocker’s History of New York in 1809, a hundred and fifty years after the English had superceded the Dutch there, and called it New York. And in this volume, which is a satirical history of the city from its founding, Mr. Irving invents the fact that Nicholas was the Dutch patron. The New-York Historical Society, founded just five years prior, had itself claimed the patronage of Saint Nicholas, and Mr. Irving, upon publication of the History, was invited to join. With the considerable resources of the Society at his disposal, he revised the History in 1812, and included more invented material on the Dutch and St. Nicholas. Mr. Irving, who is respected around these offices not unlike a saint in his own right, simply cobbled together some of the Protestant Christmas traditions that he was aware of, and in an act, for its era, of sheer absurdism, applied them to the most somber religious figure imaginable. He described how an ancient Dutch tradition declared that on Christmas, St. Nicholas would ride his wagon along the tops of the trees, and land on the roofs of houses full of children.
It is a testament to the happier intellectual climate of Mr. Irving’s time that his book became such a roaring success that it was required reading in the grammar schools, but also one to the unchanging human capacity for being bamboozled that his satire took on the solidity of historical fact. Although certainties are rare, we would here like to speculate that nobody is as responsible for confusing the American people about the differentiation between a Northern European wood-troll and an Anatolian saint as good Washington Irving. You will recollect how he has done equal wonders for the tourism industry of Sleepy Hollow, a bit upstate.
After 1812, then, the historian of Santa Claus must simply sit back and watch as one mistaken citation after another accumulates the modern American folk figure out of the Germanic ogre and the Irvingian joke.
William Gilley, in 1821, published a tiny poem which described how ‘Santeclaus,’ dressed all in fur, would make his rounds behind the strength of a single reindeer, who remained unnamed. The following year, the Troy Sentinel published that ubiquitous anthem now known as “The Night Before Christmas,” but at the time was more formally called “An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas.” The debate rages to this day about who actually wrote the thing, whether it was the kindly old small-town pastor Clement Clark Moore, or an anonymous and disenfranchised printer’s assistant, or neither; but whomever is responsible, he seeded a veritable forty acres of made-up facts regarding the modern folk Santa. It is difficult to picture how a child of the era might have heard this ditty, though, for Santa Claus was still a fur-clad, pint-sized imp in the public’s visual imagination. More significantly, the author of the poem set the guidelines for Santa’s ruminant escort, by naming the reindeer and arbitrarily setting their number at eight.
Here the world is introduced to Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. It should be noted that some of those academics who discount Mr. Moore’s authorship of the poem have presented conclusive evidence that Donner and Blixen are themselves fallible. The poem seems to have been several times transcribed prior to publication, and when it was at last prepared for press, variants of these names were fabricated from the originals, which were Donder and Blixem: the Norse demigods of Thunder and Lightning - appropriate accompaniment for a pagan gnome’s excursions through the firmament. Indeed, of the various incarnations of their names, the ones we now use are actually only ever found together in Mr. Moore’s belated 1844 anthology of ‘his’ poems. In every prior version, the reindeer are known by variation of Donder and Blixem.
(Rudolph, incidentally, did not emerge until 1939, when his sob-story was passed off in a Montgomery-Ward sales brochure as a legitimate piece of Christmas lore. The man who wrote it, Robert May, had a cousin who was something of a tunesmith, and ten years later, one Johnny Marks had written “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Performed by Gene Autry, it became a smash hit akin to our own shabby era’s “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” and convinced a noninquisitive generation that Rudolph had simply always been there.)
Santa Claus began to assume his current shape in the 1860s, when Thomas Nast, the son of Bavarian immigrants, executed a series of illustrations for Harper’s Weekly, based on the Pelznichol figure remembered from his youth and combined with the figure of the Irvingian St. Nicholas. Nast’s illustrations of Santa Claus did much to contribute to the public image of the fellow, including whitening his beard, reddening his cheeks, and making him a full-sized person, rather than an obese elf. Nast also pictured Santa in a toy workshop set deep in some anonymous wintry landscape, which was enough to persuade a gullible nation that that’s where he spends all of his free time.
It should be mentioned that the growth of Santa from dwarfish to hormonally balanced was probably set off twenty years earlier, when a Mr. J.W. Parkinson of the Philadelphia department store of the same name, hired a fellow for the first time to dress up in a Santa-esque suit, and play the part for the children of his customers. The store called itself “Kriss Kringle’s Headquarters,” and inaugurated the age of the department-store Santa. It should be evident by now that every one of the Christmas legends to be developed hereafter was done so in the name of marketing. The canonization of Santa and the institutionalization of his appearance; Rudolph; the fattening up of the fellow by the Coca-Cola company; and the deepening of the mythology by “The Miracle on 34th Street” and that naïve little girl Virginia; they are all indelible elements of the American Santa Claus, and they were all meant to drive the American public into a swirl of ever-increasing holiday Warenlust.
PROJECTIONS & CONCLUSION.
It would be a repetition of every human generation’s crime to presume that all progress is stopped, and that our present circumstances are the final and perfect result of all the processes of history. So while Santa Claus may seem immovable and unchangeable in his current form, it must be allowed that he will continue to change as he so evidently has over the past ten centuries - by misinterpretation, degradation through generations, and incomprehension across barriers of language and custom. Is it worth making guesses at how he may be further developed? Absolutely not. Yet I shall not be discouraged by futility.
The massiveness of modern culture, and the speed at which it is transmitted diminish the ease with which its significant elements can be seriously altered. But the most effective agents of change - confusion and misinformation - are today only replaced by mass gullibility, combined with overwhelming volume. Cultures are not changed so much by small miscommunications and an osmosis of information anymore, as they are by loud, widespread, incessant repetition of facts and fantasies. Our Santa Claus’ next development will probably be one back out across the seas, until he is assimilated into non-Western cultures around the world. It happens that the machinery of our own culture makes such a racket, that it is hard for our neighbors not to pick up some of our tastes. Santa Claus, as we see him, is at this moment being beamed to millions of utterly bewildered heathens, and as there is little about him to object to - he is not apparently religious, he is not offensive, he does not specifically ask anything of anybody - he will be largely accepted into cultures that heretofore had nothing to do with either St. Nicholas, Christmas, or in some more equatorial cases, even much concern over the Winter solstice. For example, in China - still communist, and largely Buddhist - the 25th of December is now celebrated with gusto by the young professional set, who enjoy the opportunity to give gifts for no reason other than the pleasure of getting them in return. Santa Claus, meaningless and guilelessly materialistic, is the unofficial emblem of this unofficial Chinese Christmas. Expect him to continue such a goodwill tour.
In the course of such long travels, across such profound barriers, it is possible that Mr. Claus will acquire characteristics that we currently do not attribute to him. He may go all the way around the globe, and return to us with a differently colored suit, or a more shapely beard, or even some new extra-terrestrial companion. Of course, nobody has so much control over whether this happens as the Walt Disney Company or AOL Time Warner; someone who can shout so loudly and so sharply that their whims immediately become the status quo of the human id. An essay of this sort a hundred years hence may be required to elaborate on the origin of the various insignias worn by St. Nick upon his running-suit. It can only be naively hoped that the collective human imagination will reject less interesting additions to the folklore as these, and thus Santa will grow more gradually, and more accurately into humanity’s default democratic fever-dream.
And I mean democratic indeed. I assert that Santa Claus represents nothing less than the working of a millennium of creative democracy. Every element of his personage has been bequeathed to him by the unconscious will of the human race. He is dreamed up by them, he is dressed by them, and his personality is shaped by them. By virtue of his multifarious construction, he is the ideal figure of all that we most prefer in ourselves.
And because he has, in this form, so thoroughly appropriated ‘Christmas’ here in America, I would like to propose here that this formerly chaste and sacred feast-day is now the greatest of all American holidays, because it is the one most analogous to America. The wisdom of the Framers told them to set aside the biases of their specific faith in order to accomplish the best possible circumstances in this world, and so they founded this confounding and marvelous society, where Zoroastrians, Satanists, and Evangelicals live together - at least civilly, if not utopically.
Santa Claus represents the same thing, to me, as the cherished ideological neutrality of our secular Union. He is worldly; he encourages us to delight in our surroundings and in simple objects, and by extension those who give them to us. The story of the Nativity, meanwhile, has become a meaningless folktale awkwardly tacked on to this most-cherished American day, and one which pales in comparative pleasure even to those strings of lights that are decadently strung across its front-lawn re-creations. Christmas is about lights, and sounds, and things, and for every American, it is the last moment in the year for one to be making plans for the next world. Christmas in America is the most profane holiday, and it is therefore the most patriotic.
Even New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving are tainted by exclusive theological undertones. Thanksgiving implies that something other than gumption and human ingenuity has arrived us at our respective stations; and New Year’s Eve, if the Christians are going to be held to the same strictures of logic as the rest of humanity, seems like it should be the anniversary of Christ’s birth - or else it is senseless to count from one to two thousand, without any motivation for having begun when you did.
Christmas should be celebrated with the universality and unself-consciousness of the Fourth of July, which is a close second favorite of the reasonable and the humane American. A Christmas of things and gifts and temporality is the appropriate Winter solstice celebration of our neo-pagan republic, our worldly and human nation. Christmas in America is the secular centerpiece of Chanukah, Ramadan, Nativity-Day, and any other sacred wintertime holiday, and it is adequately located to counterpoint the exclusivity of those days, by its own American inclusiveness. At last, atheists, polytheists, and exceptional monotheists alike may cease their qualms about treating the 25th any differently than any other day. It is different, and in America, it is different for all of us.
It may still be necessary to mention one additional fact about Santa Claus, before I can honestly conclude a thorough exegesis on him; and that is that Santa Claus, as an actual individual, does not exist. The U.S. Census Bureau, who is often caught counting figures that seem superfluous, provides the statistic that American children cease to believe in Saint Nick by an average age of seven. Of course, the rest of us can account for the more subtle reality of the situation, which is those seven years of conditioning leave a profound impression on us, and thus the impressive mythical quality of the old fellow runs strongly through the whole American psyche. On Christmas Eve, even agnostics get a little chill when the weather-man on the late news pretends to spot Santa’s sleigh on the radar. This isn’t because anyone is afraid that their life-long accumulation of certainty and skepticism is being overturned, but because everyone knows that for a moment, they are sharing the same pleasant sensation of regression and remembrance of innocence as the rest of their countrymen. As an icon of that worldliness that is what is most essential to the American character, Santa Claus is unobjectionable; and as our pols and our pundits seem to become more appallingly holy as it becomes politically convenient, the profane image of that portly old fiend is all the more welcome.
ON THE PRECIPITOUS DECLINE IN THE PRICE OF THIS PAPER
It will not escape the acicular perception of our readers that three weeks ago, the privilege of this publication cost them one dollar, and today, it only asks two pennies. Some explanation ought to be provided for this sudden and fortuitous discount, and it shall be presently. Plainly, we do not like the taste of your money.
It has surprised even us how much of it you are willing to get rid of for our sakes, but simultaneously, it has made us feel uneasy. In calculating the total commerce - intellectual and material - inherent in the exchange of this paper, we initially felt that the public would surely owe us a certain pecuniary reward, for our mental and physical labors. But then we soon realized that collecting the hard-earned money of the hordes was not a reward, but a tangible and emotional task, which we did not feel we were obligated to do. Already, we exhaust ourselves providing the good people of New York and America with the wisdom and sense that we have just recently discovered we possess in excess; and so to also be saddled with the difficulties of collecting all that money - flattening out every crumpled dollar, calculating every associate’s share, and overcoming the feeling of further draining the resources of the much put-upon American public - it is too much for us to bear. Thus, we are now offering our illustrious pamphlet for nothing - or its nearest monetary equivalent, two cents. To charge one cent, of course, would be an unfunny joke, and three cents we feared might cause the most overcautious among you to leave us alone, so we settled on the mean - which, happily, you will recall is also a popular idiom for the unprovoked opinionation of a common stranger.
Upon the issue of making the paper altogether free, Mr. Brownejohns was in favor, while Mr. Swartwout proposed the present experiment. Something of an amateur sociologist, Mr. Swartwout wondered if he might be able to ignite a miniature economy, entirely within the confines of those ubiquitous ‘Have-a-penny-Leave-a-penny, Need-a-penny-Take-a-Penny’ troughs at every cash register in America. He is acutely aware of the circulation crisis of the American one-cent piece - billions of liquid capital has been frozen into the piggy-banks and change jars of the numerically lax American populace. So Mr. Swartwout is indulging his curiosity, and Mr. Brownejohns is allowing it. So buy the paper, or take it, as feels proper.
It has been written here several times that the primary function of this paper is to leave its own editors satisfied, and it shall do so immensely more if we know that more people are reading it, rather than figuring it into their budgets. As the economy continues to be chased into the badlands by the harmful nepotism of the governing powers, it is in our interest as ambitious pedagogues, and in the public’s interest as the victims of this downturn, to have this paper circulating, and easily obtainable.
For sustenance, we will rely on as-yet-unidentified benefactors, and the so-far-undisclosed personal fortunes of our own members. And while we did not take any pleasure in gathering the solitary dollars of our loyal and impoverished readership, we do not want to discourage those more materially comfortable patriots from lending us their support. We are lousy capitalists, but we are not insane. The mailing address on this page is as good for money orders as it is for mail bombs and love letters.
DEVELOPMENTS AT EITHER END OF HISTORY
THE AUDACITY OF OUR SPECIES IS EXTENDED IN BOTH DIRECTIONS IN TIME
by Eliza Anne Bonney
Within the same week, the news came out that a company in Worcester, Massachusetts had successfully cloned a human embryo, and that in the caves of South Africa, refined bone tools were discovered at a site which suggested the presence of Homo Sapiens 70,000 years ago - a full 30,000 years earlier than previously suspected, not to mention six thousand miles away from where he had previously been believed to have made his first gadgets.
The first item - the cloning - has inaugurated a predictable new round of uproar among the ideologues and those startled by loud noises. The second item has gone largely unnoticed, even though I have seen pictures of the tools, and they really are exceptionally made.
The dilemma brought up by the conjunction of these two reports, to my mind, has nothing to do with the so-called morality of cloning people, or the overturning of the paradigms of human evolutionary theory. What is more troubling is to find out that we are actually 30,000 years less advanced in our society and our technology than we had thought, and yet we’re still struggling to overcome the stodgy naysayers among us, before we can actually get anything interesting done.
Until a few months ago, it was generally accepted that Homo Sapiens made his triumphant debut in Europe about 40,000 years ago, and announced his arrival to paleontologists by leaving caches of dexterously carved flints, axes, and blades, and by scribbling upon his walls like a disaffected adolescent - a thing not done by Neanderthalensis, previously.
But the spearheads at the South African site (known as Blombos Cave) are so exquisitely carved and polished, that they go well beyond utilitarianism, though they date to an era well before European Homo Sapiens were decorating their caves with charcoal and ocher. The African artifacts indicate a decidedly unprimitive taste for nice things over merely useful ones, at a time when elsewhere on earth, any tool at all was news. Our species is defined by this very distinction, deny it as you might: our capacity for comparison shopping. It is the emergence of taste, good and bad, that signals our modern manifestation on the stage of history.
The old theory went, pending contrary evidence, that the emergence of language and abstract reckoning came about all of a sudden, by evolutionary standards, in a ‘creative explosion’ 40,000 years ago, and may have been the result of a specific set of mutations in the brain. What the caves of South Africa reveal is that instead, those innately human characteristics seem to have come about - like everything else - quite gradually.
So, while the new round of bickering over the propriety of cloning embryos would have been just another tiresome formality of our species’ transition into modernity, in light of these extra 30,000 years of technological and social evolution, it suddenly seems like an embarrassingly belated obstruction to merely catching up with ourselves. It was reasonable to take our time and thoroughly debate the issue when we were cloning ourselves at only 40,000 years old, but now to be hardly anywhere at 70,000 - is shameful. It is like a twenty-year-old intern has been informed that in fact, he’s thirty-five. If last night he was a go-getter, tonight he is politely called a little slow.
The debate over cloning needs to be greatly streamlined, because it is holding us up, as a species. The reordering of the human timetable by the finds at Blombos Cave show us that not only should we already be thoroughly cloned, but we should already live on a terraformed Mars, be able to move objects with our minds, and live to a hundred and fifty. The experiments in Worcester show us that the practical cloning of human beings is inevitable, as much as is the picking of a scab, or the poking-at-with-a-stick of anything we find along the side of the road. Either it will be done by mad scientists outside the law, or by mainstream ones reasonably regulated. It is merely a matter of how, and in what capacity, and toward what end.
Only a simpleton remains convinced that armies of brainwashed clones are going to march out of a laboratory one day and replace us all. Instead, it’s a matter of figuring out what shortcomings of our own physiology we want to treat with the technology, and how soon. Because all of our advances are suddenly 30,000 years behind schedule, it seems obvious that we cannot afford to waste any more time in thrall to sniveling legislators at the mercy of superstitious lobbyists, unless we desire to be the laughing stock of all the universe’s life-forms. When contact is made with the good green folks of Andromeda, either we had better be handy with our hover-cars and cloning booths, or else we had better be convincing when we lie about our age. 3W
TURNCOATS AND DOUBLE STANDARDS
JOHN WALKER LINDH AND AMERICAN INCONSISTENCY
by Alexander Swartwout
The case of John Walker Lindh is the most perfect development imaginable to throw into sharp relief the irreconcilable contradictions of logic and decency in the government’s so-called War on Terrorism. By making himself such an exception to normalcy and such an enigma to every prejudice, he may well be the salvation of common sense, if not Jeffersonian democracy - by forcing scrutiny of the government’s policies, and thus illuminating the fatuity of them.
Mr. Walker (he is still his mother’s son), and known variously as Abdul Hamid and Suleyman Al-Faris, is the young San Francisco suburbanite who emerged December 1st from a tunnel beneath the Qala Jangi prison in Afghanistan, with about eighty Taliban soldiers, after they surrendered a week-long revolt in that untidy spot. He had been fighting alongside the Taliban since the start of the war, and was, along with those few dozen scant survivors - among hundreds of insurgents - able to hold off an army of Afghan mercenaries, British and American special operations soldiers, and American airstrikes, until finally being flooded out after seven days. I wish to note that it is now among my priorities, once I have a working time machine, to travel to that spot at the instant Mr. Walker staggered out of the darkness, and broke the news of his origin to the first marine he found. On the whole globe, at that moment, there cannot have been a more intriguing exchange than the one prefaced by Mr. Walker-Lindh-Hamil-Al-Faris with an incongruously prep-school cadenced “I’m an American.”
Mr. Walker does not look all that different from the young and disenfranchised ‘free-thinkers’ often asking for change in our own most fashionable neighborhoods - and at this point he is probably an inspiration to those persons, when they occasionally question the choices they’ve made, and which have left them on city sidewalks, nursing donated lattes. “At least,” thinks the disestablishmentarian begging for coins and concert tickets, “I never joined the Taliban.”
Indeed, from all perspectives, things do not bode well for Mr. Walker. But while he may look stupid to most, having put himself on the losing end of a wager that not even the most deranged Las Vegas oddsmakers could calculate a spread for, he provides our wildly reactionary government a much-needed opportunity to look even stupider.
For Mr. Walker’s emergence comes just as the lunatics, the asylum well in hand, have begun espousing the merits of the military tribunal for trying ‘terrorists’, with its useful evasion of due processes and Constitutional legitimacy. Mr. Bush himself wrote up the order, which amounts to such an inversion of justice and reason that he is denounced even by dictators around the globe, who are rightly afeared of being outdone. Mr. Bush’s sole concession to the spirit of American democracy is that the secret tribunals will only be held for non-citizens accused of terrorism. (Which, it should be mentioned, is a crime as of yet without a formal definition. In the terminologically stringent landscape of courts of law, accusing a person of terrorism is still barely more meaningful than accusing someone of filferism, or mippery.)
Mr. Bush has assured the American people that he is waging an absolute war against terrorists of every stripe, and those who harbor them. The unpretty existence of Mr. Walker then begs the question, How do we wage such a war if some of those terrorists are American with American rights, and they are harbored right here among the green lawns and gallerias of the homeland? We have this unkempt young man to thank for planting the bramble right where the president is standing.
Is Mr. Walker subject to be tried in a military tribunal? Certainly not. He is neither a terrorist, as we understand the term, or a ‘non-citizen.’ He is not even likely to be tried - in a regular, accountable, civilian court - for the arguably apt crime of treason. Mr. Walker is generally being viewed as just a poor misguided youth, who seems to be rehabilitable into an inoffensive American shop-a-holic, like the rest of acceptable society. Mr. Walker is merely a sobering near miss - the nice suburban white kid who accidentally fell into the government’s foreigner-trap. But it is this very rationalization that makes him such a needle in the shoe of American policy. We allow that Americans generally have the right to disagree with America, and to a large extent, to announce it. But then how can the U.S. reconcile refusing any such rights to non-Americans in this country, rounding them up and secretly incarcerating them for crimes which are considerably less heinous than Mr. Walker’s? And what happens if there’s another John Walker Lindh out there, a full-fledged American terrorist just a little further along in his indoctrination?
Why, he’d have to be tried in court - and oh, how that slow, agonizing application of reason, responsibility, and thoughtful justice would wreak havoc on Generalissimo Bush, even if it did end with an execution. It is the means that Mr. Bush needs to control, more than the end. He trusts the people’s taste for blood, but not their will to draw it. So, to satisfy the president’s authoritarian streak, the means to that brutal end will be secret, subjective, and selective.
Selective indeed. For it turns out that there are scores of American terrorists, and they have been exceptionally busy since the whole brouhaha erupted on September 11th. While the FBI has been knocking on the doors of mosques and convenience marts, looking for the purveyors of the domestic anthrax scare, the largest campaign of postal terrorism - in our history - has been promulgated not by muhajadeen, but by a group called the Army of God; and by ‘God,’ these folks do not mean Allah, but a Caucasian god like the one that Mr. Bush keeps telling to bless me. The most active terrorists in America are Americans, zealots, and Christian.
In the weeks since anthrax first arrived in the Senate and at the media outlets, almost three hundred envelopes containing white powder, with claims of being anthrax, have been delivered variously to offices of Planned Parenthood, women’s health clinics, and women’s advocacy lobbies around the country. This campaign has gone largely unreported, probably because it does not fit too tidily with the white hat/black hat storyline offered by the American media; and the investigative effort exerted by the government has been woefully inconsistent with their stated intention of prosecuting all terrorists. While 500 still unidentified people are incarcerated by Mr. Ashcroft’s rampant Justice Department, and 5,000 Middle-Easterners have been singled out for unwarranted interrogation, the FBI is attributing the Planned Parenthood attacks to just one man, Clayton Waagner, and affirm that he is acting alone, even though he is an admitted member of the Army of God. Even as Mr. Waagner is taken into custody, and his impressive wrap sheet is unfurled before the press, the Army of God - Christ’s Al Qaeda - continues to support his actions, and those of all of its soldiers. They even provide a helpful link, on their inter-net site, to the Nuremberg Files, a dubiously Constitutional hit-list of doctors who perform abortions, with those already assassinated crossed out in red. Reverend Donald Spitz, a high-ranking, slow-speaking official of the Army of God, openly condones any murder deemed necessary by the soldiers of the Army - all of which seems another obvious parallel to Al Qaeda, with its clean-handed generals and homicidal infantry.
It seems certain that if anyone in this country were to announce such shining support for Mr. Bin Laden’s activities, their door wouldn’t stay long on its hinges, considering how overenthusiastic the government has been about forgoing due process when Islamist ‘terrorism’ is at issue. Yet the Army of God is no less lethal than Mr. Bin Laden or Al Qaeda - they are responsible for dozens of murders and scores of casualties in their own holy war, extending back two decades. James Kopp and Eric Rudolph, convicted killers each, and card-carrying soldiers of the Army of God, are no more desirable to the human race than Mohammed Atta or Zacarias Moussaoui. The most incapacitated logician must wonder why the federal government and Mr. Ashcroft’s ministry are acting so inconsistently in the face of these two manifestations of lethal religious extremism.
And sadly, only cynical answers can be intuited. Mr. Ashcroft is, after all, that famous ex-Senator who has worked feverishly his whole career to criminalize abortion without exception, and who has long looked the other way after those clinics were bombed, burned, and shot at. It is difficult, in the face of the Attorney General’s demur attitude to this ‘other kind’ of terrorism, to not suspect his own political preferences have got him acting less responsively to these developments than he is sworn to. If Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Bush have found the gall in their bladders to overturn the protections of human and Constitutional rights for Middle-Easterners in this country who may have once heard about a terrorist, it does not seem an outrageous expectation for them to do the same for corn-fed American religious fanatics, who are publishing manuals on how to kill doctors, and what prayers to mutter during the act. Sadly, it seems that even in their own overhyped emergency circumstances, the Bush Administration is guided not by humane motivations, but utterly squalid political ones.
Clayton Waagner, having just been apprehended off the FBI’s most-wanted list for the anthrax mailings (which, incidentally, have so far tested negative), is not much more than a mere infantryman for the Army of God, and there isn’t an intern at the FBI who doesn’t know it. Mr. Bin Laden heads up that list, and is no more of a ‘loner’ than Mr. Waagner, yet for whatever ungainly reason, Mr. Bin Laden’s every second cousin twice-removed is being detained in some secret stockade, while, the Army of God hums gleefully along, tucked not so much in remote mountain caves overseas, but variously in the backwoods of Virginia, the ranches of Idaho, the suburbs of Maryland, et cetera.
Terrorists, whatever and wherever they may be, are consistently undesirable to society, and the government of the people, for the people, and by the people, at least ought to pursue them as consistently. So far I am not too heartened by the reckless methods the government is employing to quell the present threats. But it is even more deeply troubling that nothing but Mr. Ashcroft’s own resemblance to such purveyors of domestic terrorism is preventing him from unleashing his unruly brand of hyperactive policing upon them, as he does upon the swarthier sort. His preposterous interpretation of lawfulness and propriety is maddening enough; but his failure to even remain consistent to his own lousy standard is enough to make one hope desperately for rapture, and not much else.
At last, the Attorney General has either taken the latter portion of his title entirely too literally, or he is under a perfect misconception about exactly which country he holds that title for.
Not but a day after Kandahar was abandoned by the enemy, Mr. Ashcroft sat before the U.S. Senate, under the pretense of explaining his draconian strategy for preventing sabotage and punishing those already guilty of it, and instead declared, without irony, that anybody who criticizes him or the administration he works for is aiding the terrorists, and harming the nation.
Now this is the broadest accusation of treason to be made in a long, long time, but it is astonishing only because most people already had such a generous estimate of how much moxie this sourpuss possessed, and yet he still utterly surpassed expectations.
Mr. Ashcroft has called the Senate traitors; he has called the New York Times and Mr. Safire a traitor; he has called tens of millions of idle water-cooler commentators traitors; and he has called me a traitor. Every registered armchair critic of the powers that govern is a traitor; and as treason does not come in degrees, the lot of us are left to presume that Mr. Ashcroft holds us all in equal disdain to that of a character, perhaps, like John Walker Lindh.
Mr. Ashcroft, an unrepentant careerist of the extreme right wing, and as backwoodsy a white-bred evangelical as has ever held the dishonorable office of America’s top lawyer, has placed himself square in the middle of the righteous universe, like an ideological Ptolemy; and, refuting every inkling of the principle of dissension and debate within a democracy, has declared everyone who disagrees with him an enemy of the State. Impressive indeed.
Part of the problem, I think, is that because of the hullabaloo set off by anthrax in the postal service, there is no mail getting to the government. In the halls of the Bush Administration, it must seem like a raucous nation is finally being obediently quiet, and to a tunnel-visionary like Mr. Ashcroft, any criticism he hears is therefore a surprise, and seems inappropriate. So until the Pony Express is riding again, and can carry the sanity and indignation of the people into Mr. Ashcroft’s lap once more, I propose that they just get in touch with him by phone - either 202-353-1555, or 514-2001. If he is not available to speak in person, leave a message: neither are you the traitor, nor is he the patriot, that his delusion has so declared. 3W
THE THREE WEEKS Conflict Resolution Program somehow still awaits participants. Are you on either side of an irreconcilable conundrum? Deliver it to us, and we shall decide it with the same impeccable moral judgement on display in these pages.
OUR FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTS have in fact been in touch. It so happens that we so expected them to neglect us again, that we did not leave room for their reports. We will approach the next issue more optimistically.
by the Editors
We are not sure when it happened, or why, but brunch has gotten out of control. On a recent Sunday afternoon, we sent one of our interns trawling along the avenue to find some sandwiches for a mid-afternoon snack, only to have him come back exasperated and empty-handed, informing us that - even though it was half-past three - sandwiches could not be had, because all of the better eateries in the neighborhood were still serving ‘brunch.’
And this is not our only run-in with brunch. Our chief, Mr. Brownejohns, is, clearly, a hard worker, and he is an early riser. On Saturdays and Sundays, like anybody, he gives himself the liberty of an extra hour or two of sleep, but in his case this only means he is up and dressed by nine. And he has actually been turned away from these same venues because on these days, when brunch is enforced, they do not have anything to serve until ten, and in some cases not until eleven.
First of all, we did not notice when brunch, specifically, became so fashionable. We have long known that we are members of a uniquely torpid generation, raised on weekends of sugary late-morning breakfast cereal and cartoons. But it isn’t clear when the semantics changed, and the sleepers-in went from eating mildly shameful ‘late breakfasts’ on their days off to enjoying acceptance - even bourgeois affirmation - with ‘brunch,’ replete with Eggs Florentine and rosemary potatoes.
But secondly, we are concerned by the ignominious sprawl of hours in the day across which brunch is now acceptably served. That a person cannot get an omelette at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, because the bulk of his demographic is not expected out of bed until noon is only slightly less outrageous than him being unable to have a reasonable Sunday dinner because the most unreformed sloths are still arriving for brunch.
In naming this amorphous meal, it is wrongly legitimized. A civilized being is properly aware that to eat ‘breakfast’ past noon, or ‘lunch’ after four, or ‘dinner’ at midnight is to announce one’s misanthropy. ‘Brunch’ forgives the slow and awkward their slowness and awkwardness, and compromises the efforts of the rest of us to maintain a civil society.
We do not mean to say that on a cold sunny weekend we do not all like to sleep until we are done sleeping, and then eat a slow decadent meal of anything we like. Brunch is an inevitable pleasure of the comfortable standard of living we have been graced with in this country - a dose of anarchy that makes bearable our necessary regimen of order. But it is also an allowance to chaos, and if it is not checked, it can consume the whole structure of civilization.
We call on the fooderies of the gentry to make themselves reasonable and accountable to civilization, and constrain brunch to the limits of its origin - half breakfast, half lunch - and call the thing off by three, at the latest. 3W
A bevy of concerned citizens reported to us regarding our explanation of the Turkey in our second number. Nothing bothers us more than the confusion that so readily sprouts in the human brain, and so we here clarify a couple of things.
1.) Turkeys are considered stupid for good reason; an agrarian acquaintance of ours reports that their food needs to be mixed with colorful marbles, or else they will not be interested enough to eat it.
2.) A Persian, or Oriental, carpet will be more ornate and organic in design than one of the famous Turkey carpets, which tend to be more geometrical. If yours contains many flowers and curves, it is probably Persian. Both types are exquisite, and signify a house in good standing.
2001 - 2002
I have just come back from the store with a quart of milk that is scheduled to curdle in January of 2002, and it is the first such object I have owned. This is a significant incident in my own annual routine; the moment at which the immediate future, signified by the shelf-life of a dairy product or the publication date of the magazines in the mail, suddenly envelopes the end of the year, and the start of the new one.
Formerly, it came much earlier, in the form of car advertisements on television, which boasted of next year’s model a full five months before this year’s could be considered passé. But in adulthood time is compressed by choice and by circumstances. We do not want to think about next year until it is nearly upon us, and as we rarely have the time or the attention to notice that the new line of Toyotas is available in August, the impact of the new year is happily not really felt until it is only a week or two away. The milk and its precognition of its own January death is as close as we need to be to the turning of the page to make it register.
Intellectually we know the transition from one year to the next is meaningless, and yet there is a visceral effect to the changing of the year, felt by everyone, either while they are buying that carton of milk two weeks hence or on the very night of significance itself. It tends to be a more profound sense of the passage of time than even a birthday can summon, and generally, I think, a much more depressing one. New Year’s Eve is the world’s celebration, and yet every individual inhabitant of that world is possessed by a self-centered sadness that while the collective celebrates, they alone are left to ponder their insignificance. What is everybody so happy about?
It is a remarkably nonlinear holiday indeed that sees its festivity increase proportionate to the melancholy of the millions of individuals who are ostensibly doing the festivating. This also would seem to be the source for the nearly universal sense of anticlimax felt by human beings on New Year’s. A celebration rages on, by sheer momentum, while a hundred million minds dwell on the profound issues facing the human individual: time, loneliness, significance, and purpose. The party is a cruel, ironic background for such gloomy musings, and it is being thrown either as an intended distraction from such thoughts, or like a force of nature, in spite of them.
The important mental work of the transition from one year to the next takes place in this time prior to the event itself, and this is why the premature obituary of my milk is such a significant signal. On my way home from the store I began running the palindromic number 2002 through my head, simply to accustom myself to its feel. The year, meaningless in every practical way, nevertheless sits upon us like a shroud, and if we can’t get used to the way it looks on us, then we are doomed to go through the next twelve months like any dimwit who has forgotten what clothes they’re wearing.
The modest numerical thrill of the 2000s has largely faded, as we have now lived through a couple of them, and they have turned out to be as troublesome and unpleasant as any of the antique 1900s had been. The promise of a new humanity - of a quieter, cleaner, more efficient and appealing world - has gone unrealized with the arrival of zeroes on our calendars. 2000 and 2001 proved to be so much like 1980 or 1990, and in fact quite a bit worse, that 2002, which once sparked idealistic images of hover-cars and robotic butlers and contentment around the world, now just seems like another task to be completed, with no sign of redemption foreseeable. So the adjustment to the new year is merely an adjustment to numbers, and an elaboration on the annual denial of mortality. Millennial expectations are too weighty, and too worthless, to cling to anymore.
The weeks leading up to the arrival on store shelves of this New Year’s milk were so balmy and sun-drenched that it seemed perhaps only the most dire of those expectations - the tropicalization of the world - were going to come true. However, the Floridian December has yielded at last to air appropriately frigid to match the cruel, dark, abbreviated days. So as the cusp of calendars approaches, and our planet retraces that same old rut in its orbit around the sun, we my have nothing to mourn other than the same old complaints - human fallibility; the solitude of being one among billions; the agonizingly slow progress of our species, and even its occasional regression; and our humiliating reliance on nature and each other, to mark our passage through life and through history, respectively.