The dark days of winter always make me feel gloomy. I’m not a skier, so I don’t look forward to snow. Cold makes me ache, and on cloudy days I just want to hibernate.
For most of the past 20 years or so I’ve managed to spend a significant part of the winter in Guatemala, where winter is pretty much like spring here in the north. This year it looks like I will have business to attend to, so I will be spending the winter here at home. (For those who are on my distribution list to receive my yearly travel journal, you’ll have to content yourself with installments from years past (see the Guatemala Gazette link on the top left of this page.)
Usually by this time of year my bags are packed, except for a little last-minute fine tuning; I am looking forward to a round of holiday parties and then getting out of the country for a few months.
In recent years winter is not the only reason I look forward to the escape. It is almost a relief to leave the pressure cooker this polarized country has become, even for a while. Things just keep getting weirder and weirder—it’s hard to keep on top of everything. Some time ago I first heard the phrase “outrage fatigue.” Since then there have been plenty more outrages, but I’m just too tired of it all to get worked up about it.
Republican congressman John McCain and the Bush administration have been debating the meaning of the word “torture,” and how much of it is OK. (Ah, for the good ol’ days when Clinton sought clarification from his accusers as to “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”) McCain, who was tortured as a POW in Viet Nam, has a pretty clear idea what torture is, and is against it. The Bush administration evidently isn’t. Wasn’t there a time when the idea that our government was trying to legalize torture would be an outrage? Not these days.
A few days ago we found out the president has asked the National Security Administration (NSA) to eavesdrop on people in this country “connected to al-Qaeda.” (Hmmm, I wonder what the meaning of the word “connected” is. Bush seems to think that if you aren’t on his side, you must be on theirs.)
The job of the NSA has been to spy on people in other countries, and it is specifically forbidden to spy on us. That’s what the FBI is for. A few years back the NSA was so secret almost no one outside of government knew about it.
Then rumors of a program called “ECHELON” started leaking out. It was denied at first, of course. But now it is well known that ECHELON, a joint effort primarily between the US and its closest ally, the UK, monitors literally billions of communications around the world daily. If you’ve ever been outside the US and have called someone, chances are your call was being monitored.
Evidently it is becoming more likely our calls will be monitored here at home, too. Thanks to the PATRIOT Act, the government already can check up on what books you are buying or checking out of the library, as well as your phone and internet records. Your home can be searched without your knowledge. I’m guessing blogs like this one are monitored. (Hi guys!) Maybe letting the NSA eavesdrop on domestic phones calls isn’t that big of a deal on top of all that. But there was a time when it would have been.
It’s all just kind of depressing. But hey, it’s the holiday season, so how about a quick chorus from one of our favorite Christmas songs to cheer us up:
He knows when you are sleeping
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows when you’ve bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!
According to Bill O’Reilly on the Fox “News” Channel “secular progressives” are waging a “War on Christmas.” As a devout secular progressive myself I’m a bit disturbed to know that not only are we at war, but the other side is using Santa as a secret weapon.
Bill has been rallying the troops by whining about businesses saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” I really don’t have a problem with anyone saying “Merry Christmas,” or any other civil greeting for that matter. (The other day, as I entered a department store, a bell ringer refreshingly called out “Good morning!”) But to be offended because someone, or a business, chooses another salutation seems a bit, well, obsessive. There certainly are countries in the world with regimes that insist on rigorous conformity to a certain religious or political dogma. But has the US become one of them?
In our house the religious preference is “none of the above.” That doesn’t mean we are against holidays. The more the merrier. There are plenty to choose from—Kwanza, Hanukkah, Festivus…. We celebrate the winter solstice, which is Dec. 21st. The main idea behind winter solstice is that on this, the longest night of the year, we can look forward to more daylight in the days ahead. That is something I can enthusiastically celebrate.
As a holiday, it isn’t nearly as popular as it once was in the old agrarian societies. For us it is mostly an excuse for a party. We get together with a group of friends, most of them secular progressives, and do our best to eat, drink and be merry—not so unlike most Christmas parties.
It is no coincidence that winter solstice nearly coincides with Christmas. Early Christians co-opted the Roman Saturnalia, which honored the agricultural god, Saturn. The festival lasted a week, and ended on the winter solstice, which was December 25 on the Julian Calendar in use at the time. The Romans greeted each other with “Io Saturnalia.” (“Io” is pronounced “Yo.” It is hard to say the greeting without sounding like a homeboy.) The Christmas tree was also pagan in origin, and pre-dates Christianity. I’m not sure when the shop-till-you-drop tradition began.
It’s all good, as far as I am concerned. But the “War on Christmas” talk disturbs me. Plainly it is more of a war on anything that isn’t Christmas. It’s all part a bigger conflict of course, driven primarily by a growing intolerance, led by radical clerics of the Christian Right. We’ve got our own American Taliban.
There well may be a war, but right now I am tired of thinking about it. It is the longest night of the year. I am ready for a party, and a celebration of the return of brighter days.