Friday, December 15, 2006

In the Spirit of the Season


I had a colleague once upon a time who had a unique approach to the holidays.

She was Jewish, her husband was Protestant, and they had two kids.

But instead of going through the anguish of whose religious preference prevailed, they simply celebrated everything.

Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa - you name it, they did it. It was a clever way to solve a knotty problem.

If only all of us would be so creative.

I thought of her recently when I read that the folks up at Sea-Tac Airport in the state of Washington removed all the terminal's Christmas trees in response to a complaint by a rabbi.

The rabbi wanted to install an 8-foot menorah and have a public lighting ceremony and threatened to sue if it wasn't done.

So airport officials, using the meat-cleaver approach to problem solving, decided they didn't have time to "add a fair representation of all cultures," so they took down all the decorations.

I don't quite understand why it would take more time to erect a menorah than it would to take down 15 Christmas trees, but people think differently in the Pacific Northwest. I think it's the dampness.

Eventually, the trees, called "holiday trees" by airport officials in a burst of political correctness, were restored when the rabbi insisted it was not his intent to "hold Christmas hostage."

But there's still no menorah. Stay tuned.

The entire silly episode is an example of the battle to sanitize our culture that is being waged by the armies of political correctness and fueled by a population in which everyone believes he or she is a victim.

Don't get me wrong. I don't believe anyone should shove their beliefs down another person's throat. I also believe we should be sensitive to our cultural differences and learn to celebrate them.

And I don't buy into the goofball theory of Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly who claims that "it's all part of the secular progressive agenda ... to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square." He also says that this larger agenda includes "legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage."

Sorry, Bill, it's not a conspiracy. In fact, it may be worse than that. It's a bunch of well-intentioned people run amok.

Why do we walk on eggshells for fear of offending non-Christians, when, at the same time, surveys show most non-Christians in the U.S. celebrate Christmas in one form or another?

Which underscores the point that, like it or not, Christmas is not the religious holiday it once was. We have Charles Dickens to thank for that.

According to historian Ronald Hutton, the current state of observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by Dickens. In "A Christmas Carol," Hutton argues, Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Oddly, the Brits themselves are in an uproar about what their Mr. Dickens hath wrought. A recent article in the Daily Mail decried the fact that "only one in 100 Christmas cards sold in Britain contains religious imagery or message.

"One offensive card ... suggested that shepherds only saw the angel appear on the hillside because they were hallucinating after smoking drugs.

"Another card ignores Christmas altogether - wishing the recipient a `Happy December."'

Meanwhile, back in the United States, there are some signs that sanity may be making a return appearance.

Many retailers and corporations are reversing their decisions to avoid use of the term "Christmas" in their advertising and promotions, a really bad decision made last year. Among those who have decided to re-embrace Christmas are Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl's, Sears Holdings Corp. (Sears and K-Mart) and Macy's. Maybe we should boycott them anyway for stupidity.

In the meantime, go ahead and shout it from the rooftops: "Merry Christmas!" It's making a comeback. Celebrate it however you please. Call it what you want. But just enjoy it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Talk Is Cheap


YOU could say that there is a mathematical property of statistically independent events bunching together.

Or you can say that bad things happen in threes.

Anyway you slice it, we were subjected this week to yet another member of the acting profession popping off, following the well-worn path recently tread by Mel Gibson and Michael Richards.

This week's winner of the "put-a-sock-in-it" award goes to Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow who reportedly feels dinner talk is far more interesting in her adopted homeland Britain than back in her native country, the good old USA.

"I love the English lifestyle, it's not as capitalistic as America. People don't talk about work and money, they talk about interesting things at dinner," she told NS, the weekend magazine supplement of daily Portuguese newspaper Diario de Noticias on Saturday.

She later backtracked, verbally waving the American flag while explaining that her remarks were misconstrued because of language differences.

But whatever the explanation, Gwen hasn't exactly been quiet on the issue.

According to published reports, she told London's Guardian in January: "I love the English way, which is not as capitalistic as it is in America. People don't talk about work and money; they talk about interesting things at dinner parties. I like living here, because I don't tap into the bad side of American psychology, which is `I'm not achieving enough, I'm not making enough, I'm not at the top of the pile.' It's just kind of like, `I am."'

And she told Harper's Bazaar she preferred her British friends to her American friends: `They're intelligent, and they're not looking over my shoulder at dinner to see if there's anyone better walking in."

Given the state of British cuisine, they're probably looking at their plates in horror wondering what the hell they've been served.

But onward.

OK, maybe this doesn't match Michael and Mel for sheer dehumanizing bigotry. But there's something nutty about someone who, while living a life of wealth and privilege, spends her professional life hanging with actors, directors and producers, then extrapolating their sometime egomaniacal and/or eccentric behavior onto the entire American populace.

So she doesn't like to talk about capitalism? How does she think she got rich while mouthing words that other people wrote?

Besides, rich people don't have to talk about money. Or work. They talk about things that matter. Like beating the tax code.

Those Brits. The last time I was in a London pub, all I wanted to talk about Arsenal versus Manchester United. All they wanted to talk about was Beowulf.

In the same interview, Gwen says that having pop star Madonna, 48, who married British film director Guy Ritchie six years ago, nearby was another advantage to living in London.

Now, there's someone I'd like to chat with over dinner. By the way, didn't she use to call herself the Material Girl? Sounds capitalistic to me. And wasn't she the one who once said, "When I get down on my knees, it's not to pray"?

I guess it never comes up in dinner conversation.

A Game for the Ages


THERE are days when there's nothing finer than to live in Southern California.

0ne of those days was Saturday in Pasadena.

On a sparkling clear day with the San Gabriel Mountains awash in sunlight, on an afternoon of high definition hues and images, UCLA and USC engaged in a football game for the ages.

UCLA won but that's only part of the story.

If you were lucky enough to be there, you participated in one of the great traditions our area has to offer.

The Bruins and Trojans have been engaged in unique combat for more than 75 years. No other city in the U.S. features two major universities a scant 10 miles apart who compete at a championship level.

The fans, athletes, coaches and alums rub elbows throughout the year, ratcheting up the intensity level. Families, friends and neighbors are united. And divided. Bets are made. Barbs are exchanged.

Thousands have participated, millions have lived and died with the result.

For awhile, I feared it might fade away.

USC had assembled a football juggernaut at the same time UCLA was going through a down period.

Last year, USC won by 47 points, their seventh win in a row. So dominating were the Trojans that it appeared their game with the Bruins had become an afterthought. Indeed, many at USC consider Notre Dame their biggest rival.

Over at UCLA, the basketball team has been the dominate force in that sport for years, which tended to cool the rivalry. Football fans in Westwood had become downright fatalistic about their prospects, tired of being a lightweight in a heavyweight fight even though it wasn't too long ago the Bruins had won eight times in a row.

Would success breed failure? Would dominance doom the rivalry?

Those issues were put to rest Saturday with a UCLA win that restored some of the luster to the Bruin program while knocking the Trojans out of the national championship game.

People laughed, people cried. It was theater on a grand scale, played out on the grand stage of the Rose Bowl.

But more importantly, it gave the rivalry a needed shot in the arm. Revenge will do that.

And it's a good thing. Because this is Americana at its best. And because no matter what side you're on, for one afternoon a year, it brings us all together.

Meanwhile, somewhere on Monday, a USC alum found his office filled with blue and gold balloons. Somewhere, an SC alum had to pick up the dinner tab. Somewhere, an SC backer was forced to wear a UCLA shirt after losing a bet. And somewhere, a UCLA fan is ordering Christmas cards inscribed, "UCLA 13, USC 9. Happy Holidays."

Long live the Bruins. Long live the Trojans. And the games they play.

Put a Sock In It

JUST in time for Christmas, I bring you the results of my highly unscientific, maybe even unreliable, but curiously on-point survey of gift giving in the U.S. and assorted other foreign lands.

And the winner for the most detested present received during the holidays by all races, creeds and colors: socks.

That's right, folks, if you want to alienate your spouse, kids, in-laws and friends, bundle up an arrangement of socks in myriad colors and styles for them to discover underneath the tree.

Socks triumph over underwear, fruit cakes and nose hair trimmers as gifts that say, "Hey, I was in a hurry, and it was cheap."

The feelings that wash over those who receive the gift of socks could last a lifetime.

Other memorable gifts culled from a sampling of people who apparently have been dealing with the ensuing issues for many years:

"The Man Catcher Voodoo Kit: Nothing says `I think you are reaching the point of desperation' more than a gift of voodoo charms meant to attract a mate."

"Hankies. I was nine years old, and very unimpressed. It didn't help that the hankies were printed with festive Santas carrying bulging sacks of presents that were obviously not hankies."

"My father got me the complete works of William Shakespeare. I was 7 at the time. Another Christmas, Dad gave me a diet book, an etiquette book and a book on how to attract men with a card that said `with the hope you'll grow into a proper young lady.' I was 24."

"Our family of two small girls plus mom and dad received a family gift from my mother-in-law. The package was carefully wrapped. ...Who should get to open the gift for all of us? Finally, one of the girls began the ripping and tearing process with all of us cheering and expectant. Boy, surprise, the letdown, how odd and inappropriate, a home electrolysis kit!"

"One walkie-talkie. Ordinarily this might be a cute idea except the gift-giver definitely did not have the other one nor know the whereabouts of it."

But it could be worse. A cursory cruise though the Internet offers oddities like Twinkie-flavored lip gloss and guitar pick earrings, not to mention the pregnant trailer trash doll and a doormat that reads, "nice underwear."

Then there's the disappearing civil liberties mug, which is covered with the complete text of the Bill of Rights. But when you pour in hot liquids, the rights that are infringed by the Patriot Act vanish before your very eyes.

Too liberal for you? Try the talking Ann Coulter action doll. Just press her belly, and listen to Ann spout her own special brand of anti-liberal opinions. You'll hear Ann's own voice attack everyone from swing voters to the Hollywood elite. All in all, Ann mouths 14 different conservative comments.

Tacky? Sure. But what are the holidays without tacky? And while we're on the subject, nobody does tacky like the entertainment industry.

Consider this example from writer John Scalzi who recounts it in a piece called "The 10 Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time," a tales which may or may not be true:

Listeners of radio's Columbia Broadcasting System who tuned in to hear a Christmas Eve rendition of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in 1939 were shocked when they heard what appeared to be a newscast from the North Pole, reporting that Santa's workshop had been overrun in a blitzkrieg by Finnish proxies of the Nazi German government.

The newscast, a hoax created by 20-something wunderkind Orson Wells as a seasonal allegory about the spread of fascism in Europe, was so successful that few listeners stayed to listen until the end, when St. Nick emerged from the smoking ruins of his workshop to deliver a rousing call to action against the authoritarian tide and to urge peace on Earth, good will toward men and expound on the joys of a hot cup of Mercury Theater of Air's sponsor, Campbell's soup.

Instead, tens of thousands of New York City children mobbed the Macy's Department Store on 34th, long presumed to be Santa's New York embassy, and sang Christmas carols in wee, sobbing tones. Only a midnight appearance of New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in full Santa getup quelled the agitated tykes.

Welles, now a hunted man on the Eastern seaboard, decamped for Hollywood shortly thereafter.