Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The Only Modern Xmas Story

Dr. Black has already embedded one of the few worthwhile modern Xmas songs.* And I usually leave re-posting this story to Brad DeLong, but he appears to have gone all-in for Latin and skipped it this year. So, without further ado, Mark Evanier:

I arrived, headed for my favorite barbecue stand and, en route, noticed that Mel Torme was seated at one of the tables.

Mel Torme. My favorite singer. Just sitting there, sipping a cup of coffee, munching on an English Muffin, reading The New York Times. Mel Torme.

I had never met Mel Torme. Alas, I still haven’t and now I never will. He looked like he was engrossed in the paper that day so I didn’t stop and say, “Excuse me, I just wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed all your records.” I wish I had….

I waved the leader of the chorale over and directed his attention to Mr. Torme, seated about twenty yards from me.

“That’s Mel Torme down there. Do you know who he is?”

The singer was about 25 so it didn’t horrify me that he said, “No.”

I asked, “Do you know ‘The Christmas Song?'”

Again, a “No.”

I said, “That’s the one that starts, ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…'”

“Oh, yes,” the caroler chirped. “Is that what it’s called? ‘The Christmas Song?'”

“That’s the name,” I explained. “And that man wrote it.” The singer thanked me, returned to his group for a brief huddle…and then they strolled down towards Mel Torme. I ditched the rest of my sandwich and followed, a few steps behind. As they reached their quarry, they began singing, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” directly to him.

A big smile formed on Mel Torme’s face — and it wasn’t the only one around. Most of those sitting at nearby tables knew who he was and many seemed aware of the significance of singing that song to him. For those who didn’t, there was a sudden flurry of whispers: “That’s Mel Torme…he wrote that…”

As the choir reached the last chorus or two of the song, Mel got to his feet and made a little gesture that meant, “Let me sing one chorus solo.” The carolers — all still apparently unaware they were in the presence of one of the world’s great singers — looked a bit uncomfortable. I’d bet at least a couple were thinking, “Oh, no…the little fat guy wants to sing.”

But they stopped and the little fat guy started to sing…and, of course, out came this beautiful, melodic, perfectly-on-pitch voice. The look on the face of the singer I’d briefed was amazed at first…then properly impressed.

On Mr. Torme’s signal, they all joined in on the final lines: “Although it’s been said, many times, many ways…Merry Christmas to you…” Big smiles all around.

And not just from them. I looked and at all the tables surrounding the impromptu performance, I saw huge grins of delight…which segued, as the song ended, into a huge burst of applause. The whole tune only lasted about two minutes but I doubt anyone who was there will ever forget it.

Go read the whole thing. The rest of us have to abide with this:

If you liked this, please consider joining me in donations to Oxfam America or Heifer in honor of others. Which will still deliver an e-card in time for the 25 December thingie.

*The other was, of course, sung without the slightest sense of irony at soup kitchen being run at a homeless shelter by the cast of Glee.

How Unitarians Saved Christmas

Poking a little bit of fun at his own traditions and perhaps a bit also at the ‘war on Christmas’ that is becoming a tradition in our politics, my minister offered this ‘sermonette’ to his congregation last Sunday.  I thought to put it up in a more prose form to remind us also to remember our roots and the founding fathers, invoked so often to lay claim to authority.   (Our church was really popular back then.)   Dan

“How Unitarians Saved Christmas (and why we celebrate the Solstice)” 

by Rev. Nathan Detering

We are going to begin by ask us a few questions. Are we ready? How many of us asked, or heard it asked – Do Unitarian Universalists celebrate Christmas?  How many of us have been or will be here on Christmas Eve where we tell the story of the birth of Jesus, and the nativity, and there is the pageant and the familiar carols?

And, with those two questions in mind, do we ever wonder what happened to the good old days, when ‘the holidays’ were not a euphemism for Christmas and Hanukkah? When the Christmas tree was trimmed with simple homemade ornaments and we would exchange simple gifts and where there wasn’t all this commercialism and shopping, and the true spiritual meaning of these holidays was first and foremost?

If you wonder any of these things, then we’ve got news! This kind of Christmas – the true Christmas that was only about Jesus or only about spiritual matters – never really existed. I hope this is freeing news for us! You don’t have to feel guilty! Because in fact, Christmas over the centuries has always been a hodge-podge of celebration, merriment, giving presents, getting together with family and friends, buying frivolous decorations (anyone seen the giant inflatable Santa’s?), and religious story. And – this is probably not news – many of the Christmas traditions we celebrate have their origins in the celebrations of the winter solstice.

So, a few facts before we get to our solstice-centered story this morning: Long before lights and cell phones and t.v.’s and illuminated our homes, the darkness and cold and retreating sun made many people depressed and even rather scared. So, when the ancient people started to see the sun return – as it will on Friday, after the shortest day of the year – these people celebrated the event with big dinners and singing and even exchanging gifts (sound familiar?) Some of their symbols of revelry are still with us – holly and ivy and wreaths and decking the halls with greens (as we will in a moment). A tradition they also had is one we’ve maybe heard of: kissing under the mistle-toe.

Another fact: The early Christian church did not celebrate Jesus’ birth at all. In other words, there were no Christmas Eve services and no pageants and no ministers trying to make sense of it all! Only over centuries, and only after these solstice feasts turned really wild and really out of control, did Christians seek to offer an alternative, calling it “Christ’s Mass,” or Christmas.

Another fact: nobody was as hard on Christmas as the Puritans, the folks who built the pews you are sitting in, who thought that Christmas wasn’t biblical and Jesus wouldn’t have approved of any birthday celebrations. They ordered shops to stay open on Christmas, banned holiday cakes and candles, and also managed to have the Massachusetts Congress declare Christmas illegal from 1659-1681. Bah-Hum-Bug!

And last, some final facts to make us Unitarians feel good. Christmas as we know it didn’t really get going until the mid-1800’s, and that was largely because of one story – A Christmas Carol – written by Unitarian Charles Dickens.

Another fact: how many of us have Christmas trees at home? Well, for that you can thank Charles Follen, minister of our Unitarian congregation in Lexington, MA, who introduced the idea of the Christmas Tree to New England, a tradition that has German and pagan roots. And, best of all, Unitarian James Pierpont wrote “Jingle Bells.’ Did Unitarians save Christmas? I think so!

So why do we do tell the story of Solstice here in our UU church? Because, I think, it honors the traditions of our forbears, it helps us reclaim the past, it teaches us something about why and how we do things at this time of year. And, best of all, it allows to show how far we’ve come since the Puritan days.

Holiday Gift Guide Advice

by Mike Kimel

Holiday Gift Guide Advice

Megan McArdle just put out what she calls the “Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Kitchen Edition. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t contain the sort of things that I (or I think, most Americans) would likely buy. A Chinois, a KitchenAid KICA0WH Ice Cream Maker Attachment (which apparently is only useful if you know the giftee already has a KitchenAid stand mixer), and of course, a $1,500 Thermomix. To be honest, I had no idea what most of the stuff on the list actually is. We have a fairly large kitchen in our house, but I imagine if we owned half the stuff on McArdle’s list we’d need to get rid of the microwave, the fridge, and the oven to get around.

As an economist, I would suggest seeking out more practical advice.