Tag Archives: Excess

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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The Donald for Class President – or Not

A friend teaches US history at a local middle school (6th-8th grades). He is of retirement age, but he told me he wants to teach one more year in order to process the 2016 presidential election with his students. “It’s just too interesting to pass up,” he said with a smile.

I agreed with his assessment of the upcoming election and ventured the opinion that “Trump is like a seventh-grader running for class president.” His response: “Exactly!” My teacher friend knows the territory quite well.

Young%20Donald%20Trump

Don’t get me wrong – I have respect for many of Mr. Trump’s supporters and know a few who will vote for him in November. As is well-documented, Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders both tapped into the malaise of many lower- and middle-class Americans. Trump is no isolated, rich aristocrat. He’s in touch with what a number of Americans feel in their gut: things aren’t as they should or could be.

Whereas Sanders took the high road – not denigrating those he blamed for the malaise (“1 percenters”) or demonizing opponents – it didn’t win him a party nomination. Trump, on the other hand, ran his primary campaign as would a seventh-grade bully. Stereotyping in large strokes, name-calling, and fear-mongering with bravado flair – these helped him win a nomination. The tone of his presidential campaign continues on the same trajectory. Being the bully (or the most anti-politically correct candidate), however, won’t win him November’s big prize.

Attacks on Mexicans, Americans of Mexican descent, and Muslims in America; the condoning of violence at campaign events, and the enticing of violent reaction (if he doesn’t win the election) aren’t very presidential in manner or form. Personal attacks and threats of violence are reactionary devices that come straight out of a seventh-grade bully’s playbook, and in the end, they won’t help The Donald get to the Oval Office.

In my book Just a Little Bit More, I describe the current era of excess that began in 1980. Extremism, one of the era’s hallmarks, manifests itself politically (gridlock), financially (increased inequality), and socially (anxiety). Only during an era of excess could someone like Mr. Trump actually pass as a legitimate candidate for president. In an era of greater egalitarianism, candidate Trump’s overstatements and sweeping stereotypes would not have garnered him or his campaign any traction with voters. Additionally, his braggadocio concerning his financial bottom line (“I’m the most successful person to ever run for the presidency”) would have disqualified him because during eras of egalitarianism fewer people consider great wealth to be a societal virtue. Historically, Trump is one of the least philanthropic of wealthy Americans. Son Eric outdistances his father substantially as a philanthropist.

Bullying gets results in the short-term and thrives in an environment where it is hidden or underexposed. But once a sufficient number of people organize and leverage their power to expose the bully and the bullying, the game is over. As Trump’s message and antics go nationwide, they are exposed as simplistic, sensational, and lacking of substance. His poll numbers trend down, evidence that he now alienates more voters than he attracts.

Seventh grade, as we all know, doesn’t last forever; and neither does a bully’s day in the sun. Things in our country could and should be better, as Mr. Trump claims. But that better day, if it comes, will not be forged through bullying, violence, or rage. We’ve learned these important truths in our history classes; it’s not time to abandon these valuable and hard-earned lessons now.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

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Diabetes Through the Roof in the US and Developed World

For those of us concerned about socioeconomic trends and their consequences, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth is one of the most important books we’ll see in 2016. This blog post is the second in a series that touches upon the issues the book covers: inequality, economic growth, and poverty, among others. Click here for the first post.

 

My book Just a Little Bit More chronicles the rise of excess and inequality in American society, generally since the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and specifically since the beginning of the 1980s. The sixth chapter, “Excess,” is the longest chapter in the book and covers an array of topics from political polarization and the domination of materialistic values in the marketplace to the oversized inefficiencies of the health care system and the pharmaceutical industry’s commitment to marketing over research and development. I also covered recent changes in the American diet.

When I was doing research on the American diet, I wanted to see hard numbers on the increase of type 2 diabetes since 1980.* Type 2 diabetes is mostly adult-onset, oftentimes related to poor diet and lack of exercise, attributable also to genetic predisposition. I was surprised, however, when I didn’t readily find numbers detailing the increase. Eventually, using data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I was able to determine that the number of Americans with diabetes from 1980 to 2010 had increased by 275 percent. Gazoids. To say the least – an increase of 275 percent since 1980 is an astounding figure. We’ve heard about the childhood obesity epidemic for quite a while; the numbers for type 2 diabetes consequently could get worse in the future. But even so, there doesn’t seem to be that much of an outcry or societal alarm. I imagine the pharmaceutical companies don’t mind the quietness . . .

Change is in the air – perhaps. Earlier this month (April 2016) the World Health Organization released a report detailing a doubling of the prevalence of diabetes globally from 1980 to 2014 (an estimated 422 million people, 8.5 percent of adults worldwide today are diabetic, up from 4.7 percent in 1980). The “fast food” diet is a culprit in the increase, and so is plain ol’ excess.

Robert Gordon, the author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, explains that caloric availability and consumption in the United States, steady from 1800 to 1980 at just below 3000 calories/day, is now on the rise. Whereas a healthy diet consists of 1900-3200 calories/day depending upon age and gender, daily caloric consumption and availability has risen since 1980 and now ranges from 3500-4000 calories/day (pgs. 63-4). We and others around the world are simply consuming more calories per person than previous generations. The worldwide rise in diabetes is not only affecting rich, developed nations but also middle- and lower-income nations like Polynesia and Micronesia. American Samoa, at 30 percent of its population, has the highest rate of adult diabetics in the world. The lowest rate of diabetes is found in northwest Europe at 5 percent. The United States has a rate of just under 10 percent.

This doesn’t mean that every person diagnosed with type 2 diabetes is an overeating slacker. Some are simply genetically predisposed more than others to contract diabetes. We also know that poverty is a culprit in the increase of diabetes. Less expensive foods (chips, cookies, crackers), laden with sugar and/or fat, are good at filling stomachs but substandard at providing necessary nutrition. A first-time reversal in human history beginning in the 1980s, the poor are obese and the rich are thin. In the United States (adult populations), 17 percent of Latinos, 16 percent of Native Americans, and 13 percent of African Americans are diabetic. The rate for whites is 7 percent.

Our various religious traditions teach that limits are a natural part of the created order. Since the Gilded Age, an influential part of American society has championed the idea that limits are unnecessary, because more is always better. The surge in diabetes over the past thirty years tells an important tale: our religious traditions, formed centuries ago, yet speak truth today. Some of our modern societal narratives – more is always better, as an example – are simply falsehoods.

 

*Type 1 diabetes, formerly called juvenile diabetes, is differentiated from type 2 diabetes, biologically and in terms of its causality. See this link from the American Diabetes Association for a detailed explanation on the difference.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

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The Proper Place of Excess

Thanksgiving, once again, is here and gone. I know I had too much to eat and drink. How about you?

Excess is a regular part of the natural order. Our bodies turn excess calories into fat cells – technically, stored energy for later use. Most excess weight, however, is simply lugged around serving unwittingly as a contributing factor to health problems. Alcohol, on the other hand, is eliminated by the body. But a morning-after dehydration headache, caused by excessive drinking, lets you know you overdid it. Long-term excessive drinking, of course, will kill you.

Excess has its consequences.

Excess, nevertheless, plays an important role in the survival process. You and I are here thanks to an excessive amount of spermatozoa, from which emerged one little victor to join forces with an ovum. Survival of the fittest and the fertilized! And not only that, some of the plants which provide food, oxygen, and beauty upon the earth produce seeds for their own reproduction numbering in excess of hundreds and thousands. As a Texas gardener, I plant basil for the summer and cilantro for the winter (for year-round pesto). For seven years running, I haven’t had to purchase seeds to keep my gardens growing. Their seed production is voluminous; I only have to figure out where I left the seeds collected from the previous season!

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Historically, Northern Hemisphere winter has been the season of rest and recuperation. During winter seasons ancestral, many of our forebears rejoiced in the gathered harvest, savored freshly slaughtered meat, and delighted in new beer and wine. Before hunkering down to wait out the winter, trusting their accumulated supplies to hold out – our Northern Hemisphere ancestors celebrated. The winter solstice, December 21, marking the rebirth of the sun, has traditionally been associated with feasts and festivals replete with excesses. Our own secular Christmastime holiday is a direct descendant of these revelries.

Roman Saturnalia and misrule, centered on feasting and gift-giving, also featured societal role reversals where servants and peasants became lords and ladies for a day or short season. The usually steady tables of fortune were turned, if only for a moment. During misrule (common in European societies and colonial America) individuals of low socioeconomic status demanded that their wealthier neighbors and patrons treat them – the servants and peons of society – as if they were the wealthy and deserving. Servants pounded on the doors of their superiors demanding fresh meat and fresh brew. For the most part, these and far more unsavory indulgences were tolerated during misrule. You might have heard or read about the Puritans of Massachusetts infamously outlawing Christmas in the late 1600s. It wasn’t the legendary anniversary of the Savior’s birth with which they had trouble, but the simultaneous misrule celebrations that exalted excesses, some acceptable and others decidedly distasteful.

Later, in the 1800s, misrule evolved into a new type of social inversion that has persisted to our own day, justly captured in the well-known Mel Tormé lyric: Christmas was made for children. In the mid-1800s, before compulsory schooling, children were understood to be miniature adults who occupied the bottom rung of social hierarchy along with peasants and servants. Modern secular Christmas – a family celebration – was created at this time with children becoming the focus of charity and goodwill. Misrule became domesticated, but its excesses were not lost in the transition.

Many of our familial antecedents received only oranges and hard candy for Christmas as children during the Depression (they were thankful for it, though – ask them while you still can and they’ll tell you).  As if DNA code, the excesses inherent to the original secular celebrations that shaped our modern Christmas – Saturnalia and misrule – survived the Depression and now thrive as never before. Today’s high and holy season of excess – starting with Black Friday Eve (it used to be called Thanksgiving) and continuing through New Year’s Day celebrations – is unmatched in terms of devotion to consumerism, materialism, consumption, waste, and over-indulgence.

As the wisdom teacher of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for all things under the sun. Even excess. I enjoy the extended holiday, especially as my birthday falls during the season. It’s a good thing to celebrate the milestones of this life – on occasion – with a bit of excess. A case of really good wine, a lavish celebratory meal, an expensive trip with loved ones, extended vacation, tickets to a show – it’s your own misrule for a day or season.

It’s natural in the Northern Hemisphere to overdo it a bit at this time of the year. It’s been this way for millennia. But, as wisdom says, all good things in moderation. Whereas a season or moment of excess can have, on occasion, a proper place, we best be wary of its supposed charms.

too much

“How much is enough, Walt?” Breaking Bad, “Gliding Over All,” Season 5

Father Richard Rohr says: “Excess turns all gifts into curses.”

We live in a society where excess has become a way of life, a way of understanding the world, a way of being and interacting in the world. Excess, a cultural value revered and worshipped since the early 1980s in the US, invites extremism and undermines societal common good. How much is enough?

 

T. Carlos Anderson is the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014).

 

 

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