A Marxist Christmastide: Celebrating the Season with Silliness

Christmas is not only a feast of children, but in some sense a feast of fools.
~ G.K. Chesterton

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Anastasia of Sirmium: The Patron Saint of Christmas

Possibly martyred under Diocletian at Sirmium in Pannonia, she is commemorated at the second mass of Christmas.
~ John Coulson

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Remembering the ‘Christmas Truce’

That the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.
~ Pope Benedict XV

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A Father’s Day Christmas Appeal from a Dinosaur Dad

Randi Zuckerberg, Mark’s big sister, has tech street cred – and not just because of whom she happens to be related to. She put in her time at her brother’s firm, where she got Facebook Live up and running, but she has also gone on to accomplish lots of other stuff – like a tech blog, as well as a radio show, a book series, and a cyber-restaurant chain.

So it was with great pleasure when I read the closing line of Randi’s profile that appears in this weekend’s WSJ. “No invention, no technology, is ever 100% positive,” she said, “and that’s something no one could predict in the early days.”

Now, I’m not sure what she means by the early days – like, does she mean those poor primates at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey that start belting each other with bones? In Stanley Kubrick’s vision, they were nature’s earliest adopters, and they sure couldn’t predict anything about where their tech adaptations would take the world.

I’m going to assume that Randi was talking about the more recent tech boom – say, since the 1980s, with the cultural tsunami of personal computers and internet, and now mobile gadgetry beyond even Kubrick’s (and Arthur C. Clarke’s) wildest dreams.

Yet, I must demur. There must be scads of people who saw the handwriting on the wall back when IBM and Apple, Microsoft and Motorola were taking over the world. I’m no genius, and even I was able to predict the downside of that tsunami. It’s why I’ve never carried a cellphone, and I never will.

It’s become my calling card – at least among my former students. I’ve been teaching nursing for about 15 years now, which means that I frequently bump into graduates in hospitals and other healthcare facilities around town. It’s always gratifying to see them flourishing in their profession of caring, “RN” prominently displayed on their ID badges, and to know that I played a small role in shepherding them along the way.

After the usual exchange of pleasantries (their “Are you still teaching?” and my “What unit are you working on?”), they’ll sometimes reminisce about my professorial peculiarities. “Don’t judge me for my tan,” they might say, tongue in cheek – for they remember how I mercilessly hammered the foolhardy recklessness inherent in intentional tanning. “You know I will!” is my standard rejoinder.

Regardless of whatever other idiosyncrasies they might mention, the cellphone thing almost always comes up. “Still no cell?” they’ll ask.

“Nope – you know better than that!” is my comeback. “I’m holding out.”

Often, they’ll just grin and shake their heads in wonderment, but sometimes they’ll add a comment: “You’re probably better off.”

There’s no “probably” about it. I’m deliriously happy to be free of smartphone servitude, and, without judging anyone, I only wish that I could convince more folks to adopt a similar lifestyle – to shed their dependence on the constant tug of their bleeping, buzzing Beelzebubs; to jettison the distraction and dangers (behind the wheel); to discover the joy inherent in approaching cyber-connectivity as a convenience rather than a crutch. I get so worked up about it, I sometimes envision myself as a latter-day quasi-Luddite heir to Marx: “Apple and android vassals of the world, unite! All you have to lose are your chains!”

Yet, here I am, writing this screed on a computer, and I’ll be posting it online. “Hypocrite!” you cry. “Charlatan!” Well, maybe. I have email and blogs and a Google account. Send me a message on Facebook (during waking hours), and chances are I’ll be back in touch with you within hours, maybe even minutes. I share YouTube videos with my friends, look up stuff on my search bar instead of hunting it down in a physical book, and listen to my cheesy Pandora mix (basically George Winston + Gregorian chant) as I work.

So, what’s the difference?

The difference is that I’m not attached to all that at the hip – literally. There’s no question that I rely on computers and the internet to maneuver in the 21st century. They are incredibly powerful tools – amazing even. There’s no question that they’ve made life better on so many levels for so many people. Besides, there’s no going back – the world is wired. “Resistance is futile,” you might say, but I’m not resisting it.

What I am resisting are the genuflections inherent in carrying those powerful tools around with us at all times. Yes, I have an old flip phone in my glove compartment in case of emergencies, but I rarely take it out. What I’m stubbornly resisting is cellphone servitude and addiction. I’m resisting the disruption that those infernal devices bring to our relationships and social cohesion.

And, so, on this Father’s Day, I’m going to leverage my paternity and make an outlandish request to my kids: No cellphones for a day. Not just at dinner, not just in the movie theater, but everywhere and under all circumstance throughout an entire day – heck, I’ll even narrow that down to just sunup to sundown. Note that it’s a request, not a demand – a Father’s Day application of Paul’s plea to Philemon: “Although I have the full right in Christ to order you to do what is proper,” he scolded, “I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man” (Phlm 9).

What’s more, I’m not even making the request for today – I’m not naïve! They’ll need time to prepare for this radical gesture.

No, I’m thinking ahead to Christmas – a mere 6 months away. Here’s how I picture it: Cookies in the oven, lights and greens being strewn about here and there, and all the traditional trappings of the season slowly, ever so slowly, making their appearance. The 24/7 Christmas station is on and has been since before Thanksgiving – and nobody cares that Bing Crosby’s version of that Hawaiian carol is on heavy rotation. Rushing here and there for last-minute gifts; travels homeward and warm greetings at the door.

And, on the appointed day, there’ll be a basket at the door. Maybe a simple wicker basket with tissue paper and tinsel, and we’ll all plop our gizmos and gadgets into it. I’ll even get my TracFone out of the glove compartment to throw in for good measure. It’ll be a belated Father’s Day gift to me, but I’d like to think it’d be a gift to the whole family. Imagine the conversations. Imagine the games we’ll play, the stories we’ll swap, the undiluted communion we’ll share. Imagine the interior sighs of relief to be free from constant distraction and mental noise. Presence as family presents all around.

Doesn’t that sound great? I know many other families do this routinely, so I want to give it a shot. I’m guessing everybody will enjoy it as much as I will. Maybe they’ll even follow my lead and swap their cells in for TracFones!

We’ll see. I’ll let you know how that goes.

The Summery Gift of ‘The Snowman’

The whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness. It was a magical day, and it was on that day I made the Snowman.
~ Raymond Briggs

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On “Silent Night,” SATB, and a High School Choir Director

There was a lot of commotion in the German trenches, and then they sang ‘Silent Night’ – ‘Stille Nacht.’ I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life.
~ Albert Moren of the 2nd Queen’s Regiment, France (Christmas Eve, 1914)

We have a carol sing at our parish every year during the Octave of Christmas. The idea is to promote the celebration of Christmas beyond Christmas Day – “Keeping the Feast” is what we call it. This year, it took place on December 30 – the Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas – and it included a potluck dinner, yuletide cookies and treats, plenty of conversation and laughter, and some hearty vocals.

keepingthefeastMy wife, Nancy, made many of the arrangements ahead of time and got all the tables in the gym decorated nicely, but when it came to the music, she asked for some help. “I have someone to play the piano,” she told me, “but could you lead the singing?”

I had a brief career as a cantor, so my standing as a mediocre vocal talent is well established. Even so, singing at Mass put me over the hump with regards to stage fright at my parish. “Of course,” I replied. “It would be a pleasure.”

After folks had a chance to tuck into their fried chicken and Santa cupcakes, I moseyed over to the upright piano where Barbara, our evening’s guest pianist, was warming up a bit. “Ready?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “I know almost all the carols in the booklet, and the ones I don’t know I can fake alright.”

I tested the microphone, made a couple announcements, and then launched into “Adestes Fidelis,” followed by “Away in the Manger” – only because it was next in the booklet. To get away from an alphabetical evening, we went next with “Hark the Herald” and “I Saw Three Ships.” After that, Ben, a grade-schooler, sat in on the piano and led us in “Good King Wenceslaus,” and Juan did a terrific rendition of “Feliz Navidad.”

Franz_Xaver_Gruber_(1787-1863)We had a few more requests, and then Nancy gave me the high sign to wind things up, so I announced “Silent Night” – isn’t it always the most appropriate ending carol? We started singing, and I automatically switched from singing in unison to a more-or-less tenor harmonization – which confused Barbara and the other carolers in my immediate vicinity.

As I mentioned, I’m not a trained singer, although I sang a bunch in church and school choirs growing up. These days, however, I can barely pick out the melodies of unfamiliar songs in the hymnal, so harmony parts are generally out of the question. “Silent Night” is a prominent exception for me, and even though I get the tenor and bass lines all mixed up, I find it difficult to stick with the melody line alone – a compulsion on display last Wednesday, and one my kids have annually had to endure this time of year.

I learned the “Silent Night” harmony parts while a student at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado. Fairview always had a fantastic music program, and the choir department then was headed up by Ron Revier. Ron’s a showman at heart, and his concerts were always elaborately staged and choreographed. Plus, Mr. Revier and his colleagues were superb musicians and uncompromising directors, so not only were the programs varied and engaging, the performances were consistently sterling.

The Christmas concerts, though, were special favorites every year, and they included both secular and sacred numbers – no apologies! And, traditionally, they concluded with a “Silent Night” sing-along led by all the school choirs spread out in the aisles of the auditorium. I sang in choirs all four years of high school, so I participated in four of those concerts, and Ron’s version of a four-part “Silent Night” became an ingrained part of my mohrChristmas consciousness. The Colorado snow, the anticipation of a holiday break, the genuine good will and cheer engendered by the season, and the satisfaction of together putting on a show so well received – all that is associated with “Silent Night” for me (and countless other Fairview grads I suspect). Combined with even a momentary rumination on the incarnation and the Bethlehem miracle, that marvelous carol richly voiced in four parts routinely brought tears to my eyes.

It still does – every time.

Later on Wednesday night, I plopped down at the computer to check email and the weather forecast. A quick check of Facebook – lo and behold, it was Ron’s birthday that very day! I scanned the long list of well-wishers – some very familiar, but plenty more strangers to me – and their expressions of gratitude, their cherished memories. “You’ve given generations the gift of song,” went one post, “and taught so many that music is indeed the strongest form of magic!”

So true – particularly this time of year. Thanks, Mr. Revier. You taught me much – about music, about striving for excellence, about friendship – and you’ll ever be a part of my Christmas.

A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Great Bridge Feast of Pope St. Sylvester

God-Haunted Lunatic


Come, O Lord, to the help of your people, sustained by the intercession of Pope Saint Sylvester, so that, running the course of this present life under your guidance we may happily attain life without end.
~ Collect for St. Sylvester

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