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Santa, Our National Patron Saint!!

A patron saint is defined as a mythical and revered guardian figure of a people or country. Who, I ask, is the patron saint of the United States? George Washington? Since he is a relatively recent historical figure, he is subsequently disqualified – we understand Washington and others like him (Jefferson and Franklin) to be founding fathers. Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyon, or John Henry? We’re getting closer, but most American kids would recognize only one of the three, at best. How about Uncle Sam? He looks the part in red, white, and blue – but what more do we know of him than his finger pointed beckoning citizens to national service? To be a national patron saint, all – especially children – need to understand the details of the candidate’s story. Santa is the only one who qualifies; he, unquestionably, is the American national patron saint in this current day of commerce, materialism, and consumerism.

Santa – unequivocally an American invention – has an interesting history. It starts with St. Nicholas (270-343), a Christian bishop who lived in Myra – modern-day Turkey. He had a reputation for favoring children; he brought them justice and gave them gifts.

jalbm st. nicholas

A depiction of St. Nicholas of Myra. Notice the bishop’s mitre, the shepherd’s staff, the cross, and the religious vestments.

The date of his death, December 6, became his festival day. For centuries, various places in Europe revered the saint and practiced gift giving on his festival day. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves if we make a direct unbroken link from St. Nick’s December festival day and its practice of gift giving to the Christmas of today. More so, there’s a deeper connection between today’s gift giving and the ancient rhythms of indulgence (sometimes to the point of excess) during the winter months.

The winter solstice, December 21 – the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere – has a deep and long cultural history. The celebration of greens and lights at the solstice, as is well-known, predates Christianity by millennia. The early church, not yet consolidated in doctrine and calendar, celebrated the birth of Christ on different dates throughout the year according to local custom. Constantine corporatized the church in 325, bringing conformity to its doctrine. Pope Julius brought consolidation to its calendar in 350 and proclaimed December 25 to be the festival day of the birth of Christ. The church understood its position to be strong enough to compete with Saturnalia and other pagan festivals celebrating the rebirth of the sun, covering over them, as it were, with the birth of the Son.

Historian Stephen Nissenbaum (The Battle for Christmas, Knopf, 1997) astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct.

Protestantism’s penchant to not revere saints meant that St. Nick didn’t make the trip to the New World neither with the Pilgrims, the Puritans, nor northern European immigrants (Nissenbaum says that American Christmas as an early 19th century Dutch import is an “invented tradition”). As a matter of fact, Christmas celebrations in early America had more in common with the ancient celebrations related to the rhythms of harvest and the solstice than they did with church teaching. In the Northern Hemisphere, the weeks preceding and following the solstice (what we moderns call November, December, and January) traditionally have been the time of gathering in harvests, slaughtering for fresh meat, and enjoying the products of fermentation, beer and wine. We Northern Hemisphere moderns who purchase fresh apples from Chile in May might have difficulty understanding this ancient rhythm, since we are able to procure most whatever we want any time during the year. Even so, let me ask you to entertain a few questions: Do you have a tendency to put on a few pounds over the winter holiday season? Have you ever signed up for a gym membership in January? December was and is the time for excess – eating, drinking, giving, celebrating, leisure – a time to enjoy the labors of year-end and a time for misrule.

Misrule, historically, was a moment of social inversion when the wealthy and powerful deferred to their dependents and poorer neighbors. Practiced in Europe and early America, misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!

One of the unwritten rules of misrule, however, was the continuation of a social bargain. The peasants, satisfied with the brief turning of the tables during misrule, were to offer their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the rest of the year. If you’ve ever received a Christmas bonus at a job where you felt you were underpaid, you can see that misrule is still with us. It’s the misrule bargain: accept your once-a-year bonus and do not grumble about your low pay for the balance of the year – a gift given in exchange for goodwill.

Misrule became domesticated in mid-19th century America: peasant and working-class folks were pushed aside as children became the season’s focus of charity and display of social inversion. Christmas celebrations would newly consist of private family gatherings inside homes; roving bands of young men pounding on doors and demanding the spoils of misrule disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of St. Nick yet alive – was rediscovered and the church was most pleased to be part of a toned-down, family affair focused on another child, the babe of Mary. Not all churches in mid-19th century America held Christmas services. That began to change, however, and the societal move away from excesses so ingrained into the season by climate, culture, and practice was gaining momentum – until, that is, Sinterklaas took on American shape and form.

Sinterklaas, Dutch for St. Nicholas, became Americanized awfully fast. The Dutch version of St. Nicholas was transformed significantly to become the American Santa Claus: stripped bare of all religious symbolism and enhanced according to the traditional seasonal excesses. No mitre, but a cap; no shepherd’s staff, but a whip for his reindeer; no crosses, but gifts galore. The cleric red vestments were replaced by a snowsuit, covering an extensive paunch. As a matter of fact, depictions of Santa show his belly growing larger and larger as the mid-19th century gave way to the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and its proliferation of excess.

Santa-Claus-Pics-0415

Our modern Santa – with a little commercial backing.

 

James Farrell (One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seduction of American Shopping, Smithsonian, 2004) calls Santa the most appropriate icon for an affluent society. Santa made his first Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade appearance in 1924, and then became comfortably ensconced into malls when they came to prominence in post-WW II America. Malls in America: where else would Santa, the very embodiment of consumption’s blessings for the youngest members of our society, be more apropos? The united values of consumption and materialism are effectively reinforced in American malls. The domestication of misrule moves forward, as the bearded and bellied commercial icon par excellence looks into the eyes of a child and all but promises her that her material dreams will be fulfilled – with a similar misrule social bargain – as long as she behaves.

Ol’ Claus by Ferrell’s estimation is the national “symbol of material abundance and hedonistic pleasure.” Even so, the big old man has a religious aura – he’s supernatural and omniscient, somehow all-knowing of our activities, good and bad. In Santa’s kingdom, the nice receive pleasing gifts and the naughty get a second chance. And just like that, with a twinkle in his eye, he gives his divine like blessing upon our materialistic American Christmas. More Americans exchange gifts during the season than make traditional religious observance. What St. Santa represents – commerce, materialism, consumption – qualifies as the dominant religion of the land.

In my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good I argue that this dominant religion or ultimate concern (to use theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase) has for the most part been a good religion that has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions – lifting many of these from the grips of economic poverty. But when this religion goes too far, and becomes an end in and of itself – the religion breaks bad and the societal common good suffers. Our unexamined proclivity to trust in economic growth as the healer of all our ills is misguided; economic growth has done its good work for American society, but we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Further gains in income and wealth for affluent societies don’t give its citizens the improvements once seen in the societies’ earlier and less affluent days. Since 1980, economic gains in the United States, going mostly to the richest Americans, have unfortunately helped exacerbate social problems related to inequality: mental illness, teenage pregnancy, obesity, incarceration rates, and (decreasing) upward social mobility rates. Many of these problems directly and indirectly affect American children, one out of every four of them living in poverty, in the richest country in the history of the world.

It’s naturally based in history that the Northern Hemisphere’s season of winter solstice and accompanying holidays come with a touch of excess celebration, leisure, and the sharing and consumption of material goods. The grand majority of us look forward to and appreciate the December/January holiday season. It’s good to have a change of pace and break from that which the rest of the year consists: work and necessary routine.

Santa, the quintessential icon and patron saint for a highly consumerist society, tells us quite a bit about our own character and identity as a society (and what it is we teach our children). Does it all boil down to this: If we have enough stuff we’ll be alright?

 

 

This blog post and others on this website are representative of my views and writing in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, distributed nationally by ACTA Publications, and available at http://www.blueocotillo.com, Amazon, or any other bookselling venue.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

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Deja Vu – Say It Ain’t True – Another Subprime Loan Debacle Emerging

Who can forget the 2007-08 economic swoon brought on, in great part, by greed and over-extension in the subprime housing loan industry? File the following under the We Haven’t Learned a Blame Thing from Recent History category: it looks like the same exact thing is happening in the subprime auto loan industry.

You might have heard that 2014 was a good year for the US auto industry – its best year since 2006. Lower gasoline prices have certainly helped sales, but the industry push to get people with poor credit into cars is the main driver. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). You’ve heard, haven’t you? No credit, bad credit, any credit – you won’t be turned away!

bad creditOne-fourth of all car loans – new and used – now go to folks with poor credit ratings, double the rate since 2010. The duration of loans is at an all-time high mark of 5.5 years, with 7 and 8 year loans now available. Really? Eight years? Some people will be doling out payments on a car they will no longer possess or that will no longer run. On top of this, wages of most of those taking subprime car loans are flat. And on top of that, Wall Street has been securitizing these loans at record levels in the last two years. Predictably on cue, the delinquency rate on subprime loans is rising as the auto repossession rate soars. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

There is nothing wrong with people who have poor credit getting into houses and cars. Credit is a powerful tool for social and economic mobility. All who have “made it” have been the recipients of blessed financial credit many times over. (No one can justly claim to be “self-made” – to do so is to play the part of Pinocchio.) There are people who rightfully deserve a poor credit rating, reflective of bad decision making. But there are many who have poor credit ratings due to uncontrollable and difficult life circumstances. Sometimes people need a helping hand. Having a house to live in can be a significant stabilizing factor in the life of a family – much more so than having to move from apartment to apartment chasing affordable rent payments. Having a car for transportation is a near-necessity in much of the American job market.

There is something wrong with large banks – no longer enjoying the hyper-growth and ill profits from the pre-2008 housing market – looking for similar type gains from the subprime car loan market of today. During the housing market fiasco, lenders encouraged loan applicants to fudge their stated income upward in order to facilitate closings. Concerns abound that the same type of lax administration is fueling the subprime car loan boom.

The underpaid American lower economic classes need transportation to go to work, buy groceries, and take their kids to the doctor. Easy targets for the subprime loan industry, they are vulnerable to being pushed into overpriced vehicles via loans that are predatory. Ah, the new American way for lenders: make big bucks by stuffing folks from low-income communities into cars they can only afford by being put on the hook with insupportable debt.*

In a society of rampant consumerism – what’s not to like? People who need cars get cars and lenders and investors rake in cash. Forgive my decidedly old-fashioned sentiments: Is there anyone in the lending community with a conscience yet intact?

Wells-Fargo, one of the principal subprime car loan leaders, is showing such signs of moral sense. As of March 1, Wells-Fargo is capping its subprime loans to a ten percent ceiling of all its car loans. This is significant; Wells-Fargo is announcing to its banking competitors that it has learned something from the 2007-08 swoon. Whether or not its competitors follow Wells-Fargo’s lead remains to be seen.

Fortunately, the subprime auto loan industry is only one-fiftieth the size of the pre-2008 subprime housing market. All the same, let’s hope a hard-earned lesson from the 2007-08 economic swoon is not forgotten: the uninhibited pursuit of wealth and gain oftentimes is a moral hazard that damages societal common good.

 

This blog post is representative of my work in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. The book is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

*Bruce Cockburn, They Call It Democracy (1986).

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America’s True Religion

(It’s been a year since Cadillac – spot on – defined America’s dominant religion. Let’s revisit this classic.)

The Cadillac commercial many saw during the February 2014 Winter Olympic Games coverage precisely embodies America’s true religion: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. Check it out below.

Theologian Paul Tillich broadened the definition of religion when he described it as “ultimate concern.” The actor in the commercial, Neal McDonough, strikingly articulates America’s dominant religion step-by-step. “We’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers.” And then he tells us what we believe in, while striding aside the $75,000 four-wheeled object of adulation: “It’s pretty simple. You work hard, you create own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible.”

Don’t get me wrong – on the surface, commerce/materialism/consumerism is not a bad religion, or ultimate concern. It’s fed, clothed, housed, employed, and provided for millions of Americans (and many others) and served the common good for a number of generations. Work, a vital component of the religion, enables our survival at the most basic level. But when it goes to excess – hours worked, inordinate material and consumerist pursuits – the religion becomes idolatrous. McDonough’s character becomes a type of high priest enticing us to a counterfeit promised land found via “just a little bit more.” Americans began to work more and more hours in the late 1970s, reversing a long-standing trend of declining number of hours worked. Whereas America has been historically associated with the opportunity to work, the country now seems to be associated with the domination of work (for those who can find it).

We do work hard (only South Koreans and Australians work more hours than Americans), but the American economic mobility that used to be the benchmark for the rest of the world has significantly eroded away. The philosophy of work hard and advance applies to an increasingly smaller group of Americans than it used to. Our high priest of materialism disparages that “other countries take August off.” Does he not know that time away from work has been assiduously fought for over the decades since the Industrial era brought its blessings and curses? A bit more than a century ago Andrew Carnegie’s steelworkers worked twelve hour days, seven days a week. The upside of that? They helped build the nation that later spawned characters like McDonough’s that imply poor people have no one to blame but themselves, lazy and uninspired.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good further details America’s true religion and calls for a counter movement based in economic democracy. The book is available through this website, and wherever books are sold. The following excerpt is from chapter 5:

Work is a great opportunity in the United States. We’re thankful for it even as it saps our energy and youthfulness. But, does work always deliver on its promise to take care of us? Whom does our work benefit – ourselves and our community, or are we unwittingly part of some larger design where our contributions are parasitically annexed for someone else’s gain? Is the pace we keep with our work one that gives freedom or creates bondage? Increasingly, our rates of consumption with their propensity toward excesses speak of bondage – exorbitantly so. Americans have 1.3 billion credit cards (four for every man, woman, and child) while our savings rate continues to plummet to nearly net zero.

All rights reserved. Blue Ocotillo Publishing, May 2014.

Just a Little Bit More is available on Amazon for slightly less than $75k.

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Black Friday Eve – I mean, Thanksgiving

The hallmark shopping day that is called Black Friday threatens to subsume the previous day, still known as Thanksgiving. Perhaps Thanksgiving needs to be put on some type of endangered holiday list. The following excerpt from Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good describes the dominant culture in the US since the early 1980s: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. It’s like a religion in the sense that it is of “ultimate importance.” It’s been a good religion providing food, clothing, shelter and employment for many, but when it goes too far (as exemplified below), this religion breaks bad and damages societal common good.

 

Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2011, was the day that a number of big American retailers—Kohl’s, Target, Best Buy, and Walmart—extended the biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, with a prelude. Their doors would open at 10 p.m. Thursday night and stay open through Friday.* The big, bloating turkey and trimmings meal that begets tiredness be damned; employees would need to report to work early Thanksgiving evening to prepare for the onslaught of shoppers.

That evening at a Walmart in Los Angeles, a woman doused fellow shoppers with pepper spray in order to get her hands on one of a few discounted Xbox video-game players available. The woman was accused of “competitive shopping,” using the spray to gain preferred access to merchandise in various parts of the store. She left after making her purchases; twenty people were eventually treated for minor injuries from the pepper spray. A Los Angeles police lieutenant described the melee as “customer versus customer shopping rage.” That same evening in six additional states other retailers witnessed similar violence.

Research shows that the same area in the brain is stimulated and rewarded when the following tasks are involved: making money, having sex, getting a good deal, and using cocaine. Dopamine receptors in the primitive brain light up when one “scores”—financially, sexually, or chemically. In one study, laboratory rats, when wired to receive electrical stimuli in the dopamine centers of their brains, opted to continually press a lever facilitating the stimulus—this “hit” eventually became more important than all other activities, including eating and drinking: death by dopamine. We humans are infinitely wiser than rats, but the options that titillate our lizard brain dopamine centers are more expansive as well. Thankfully, Black Friday Eve—rather, Thanksgiving—comes only once a year.

*Malls are following the trend to open their doors on Thanksgiving for shoppers, cooperating with the big retailers to essentially annex the holiday for commercial purposes. Chapter 5 of Just a Little Bit More further explores the role of malls in what I call America’s mythic religion.

 All rights reserved by T. Carlos Anderson and Blue Ocotillo Publishing, 2014.

Click here to purchase Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Paperback, $14.95. You will be redirected to the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website. JaLBM, admittedly, is not as much fun as an Xbox, but the lessons therein might inspire an Xbox-loving reader to consider ventures beyond the world of virtuality.

Click here if you prefer to purchase paperback from Amazon. Ebook available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

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