Archive for the 'Christmas' Category

23
Dec
08

Merry Christmas, or whatever

Yeah, I know, I said I wouldn’t post until after the first of the year, but this is important to me, so here you go…

Recently, a woman came into my store asking for some help picking out cigars for her husband, which she informed me would be part of his Christmas present.  She was a pleasant, educated woman in her thirties, with red hair and freckles.  When it came time to pay, I noticed the name on her credit card was “O’Brien”.  Feeling that I was on safe ground here, I wished the woman “Merry Christmas” as I handed her credit card back to her.

From the look she gave me, you would have thought I’d told her to go fuck herself.

What is wrong with people nowadays?  Yes, I’m all in favor of cultural sensitivity. There is a time and a place for “Happy Holidays”.   Had this woman not been so obviously Irish, (or had not informed me that the cigars were a CHRISTMAS present) I might have retreated to the safety of that vapid phrase.

But when did “Merry Christmas” become the semantic equivalent of an insult?

Sometimes I think it’s just laziness.  By saying “Happy Holidays”, people give themselves a cheap way out.  After all, taking the time to find out which holiday the person actually celebrates, and then wishing them the appropriate compliments of the season, only takes a modicum of time and effort, and yet even this seems to much trouble in our increasingly impersonal, desensitized world.

And by the same token, what is there to get so uptight about, anyway?  If a Jew wished me “Happy Hanukkah”, I know I’m not going to get all bent out of shape over it.  I would simply take it in the friendly spirit in which it was intended and wish him “Happy Hanukkah” in return.

I do not know if the man known as Jesus of Nazareth was divine. I do not know if he performed miracles. I do not know if he was resurrected from the dead.

And I’m not sure I even care.

What I do know is that he preached a message of love, tolerance, peace, and forgiveness at a time when his people were looking for a leader who would overthrow the Romans and return Israel to its former glory. I know he was spurned by the religious establishment of his day.  And I know that he really, really, pissed off the government. Like so many who came after him, he was murdered because he would not back down from saying things he felt needed to be said, even to the point of surrendering his own life in the process.

Imagine what the world would be like if people really did live their lives the way Jesus of Nazareth extolled us to: love your neighbor, forgive your enemies, judge not lest you be judged.

If one can grasp those ideas, then one has truly grasped the very real meaning of Christmas. And so, whatever your beliefs, please allow me to wish you a very Merry Christmas.

-Stephen P. Smith

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25
Dec
07

The REAL meaning of Christmas

Much has been made, and with some justification, of the tensions that have historically existed between Christians and Jews. But this morning I read the following article by Boston Herald columnist Joe Fitzgerald. It is as moving a story as you will ever read. I need comment no further; the significance of this story speaks for itself. Here is the column in its entirety.

-Smith
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was a time of bloody conflict, not unlike the times we live in now, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was especially heavy-hearted because of the crippling wounds sustained by the oldest of his five children, Charles, as Americans battled one another in a Civil War.

So on Christmas morning, 1864, four months before Lee surrendered to Grant on the steps of the Appomattox Court House, this Massachusetts poet began to pen the lines of what would become a transcendent song of Christmas, the favorite of them all at this address.

“I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY, THEIR OLD FAMILIAR CAROLS PLAY;

“AND WILD AND SWEET THE WORDS REPEAT OF PEACE ON EARTH, GOODWILL TO MEN.”

For generations to come it would capture the sentiments of those whose hearts were aching in what was assumed to be a season of joy.

Of all the stories recorded here in the many years this column has existed, none captured Longfellow’s musings more than what happened to the Markovitz family and what a neighbor named Keeling did about it.

The Keelings lived on a quiet suburban street where all the homes were illuminated with Christmas decorations, except for the Markovitz home, which displayed an illuminated menorah.

Around 3 in the morning Judy Markovitz was awakened by a shattering sound.

“My husband and I ran downstairs and saw that our window had been broken and the menorah was on the floor. The frame was shattered, too; they must have used a bat. Whoever did it had to squeeze behind bushes to reach it.”

More than blind hatred, it was a cruelly personal assault.

“Both of my parents were in the camps at Auschwitz,” Judy explained. “My husband’s mother was there also. My mother now lives with us. All of her family died there. There are things we don’t talk about, but I know older people like her have a need to feel safe.”

“AND IN DESPAIR I BOWED MY HEAD: `THERE IS NO PEACE ON EARTH,’ I SAID.

“FOR HATE IS STRONG AND MOCKS THE SONG OF PEACE ON EARTH, GOODWILL TO MEN.”

Lisa Keeling awoke to see Martin Markovitz nailing plywood over his broken window frame before packing his family into its car and driving off.Heartsick, she began calling neighbors with an idea.

“We’re Catholics,” she later explained, “but I know that menorah represents a miracle by our God before our faith was known as Christianity. I know of the king who told the Jews they couldn’t practice their religion.

“When they reclaimed Jerusalem and saw the temple had been desecrated, they wanted to reconsecrate it, but found only a tiny bit of oil, enough for a night.

“They decided to use it anyway and it burned for eight nights. That was a miracle from the same God we worship, and why anyone would take a symbol of His love and use it for hatred, I just don’t understand.”

It took many calls, many hours, but Keeling and her neighbors, scurrying from store to store, were successful.

When the Markovitz family returned that night, there wasn’t a Christmas decoration to be seen; instead, every home was graced by an illuminated menorah.

“At first, I was confused,” Judy said. “Then I had tears in my eyes. They even bought one for us.”

In personifying the Judeo-Christian foundation upon which this republic was founded, those neighbors reminded the haters and everyone else that the God who made the oil last is the God of the manger, too.

“THEN PEALED THE BELLS MORE LOUD AND DEEP: `GOD IS NOT DEAD, NOR DOTH HE SLEEP.’

“THE WRONG SHALL FAIL, THE RIGHT PREVAIL, WITH PEACE ON EARTH, GOODWILL TO MEN.”

Indeed. Merry Christmas.

25
Dec
07

Merry Christmas from your friendly tobacconists

Here are two bloggers who know how to keep Christmas well. The handsome one in the green shirt is Mike Murphy, author of Smoke and Mirrors. The intelligent looking one on the left is your humble scribe.

Michael shares my love of the traditional: fountain pens, leather backed volumes, pipes, and pocket watches enjoy a special place in his heart just as they do in mine, and there is something very Dickensian about working at an old tobacconist’s, where the sights, and especially the smells, can still transport you to another century.

Merry Christmas to all!

-Smith

24
Dec
07

…and god bless us, every one?

We live in a time when even saying “Merry Christmas” to a stranger might get you a dirty look. How did this come to pass?

Yes, I’m all in favor of cultural sensitivity. There is a time and a place for “Happy Holidays”. But when did “Merry Christmas” become the semantic equivalent of an insult?

Yes, it’s true that Christmas in our time has been cheapened, commercialized, and degraded. Yes, it’s true that there are those who do not believe Jesus Christ was divine. And yes, it’s true that Christians can sometimes be insufferable in their zeal.

There are some who say that I suffer from a “mental disorder” for believing in God, and that I am “deluded” for participating in a false and commercial holiday such as Christmas. To them, and to all those who would criticize me for not only celebrating Christmas but for believing it to still be important and relevant, I would say this:

I do not know if the man known as Jesus of Nazareth was divine. I do not know if he performed miracles. I do not know if he was resurrected from the dead.

And I’m not sure I even care.

What I do know is that he preached a message of love, tolerance, peace, and forgiveness at a time when his people were looking for a leader who would overthrow the Romans and return Israel to its former glory. I know he was spurned by the religious establishment of his day. And I know that he really, really, pissed off the government. Like so many who came after him, he was murdered because he would not back down from saying things he felt needed to be said, even to the point of surrendering his own life in the process.

Ultimately, it matters not what one believes regarding the Divine. The fact is that all of us, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist, and all the rest of the human race are stuck together on this little rock we call Earth. Imagine what the world would be like if people really did live their lives the way Jesus of Nazareth extolled us to: love your neighbor, forgive your enemies, judge not lest you be judged.

If one can grasp those ideas, then one has truly grasped the very real meaning of Christmas. And so, whatever your beliefs, please allow me to wish you a very Merry Christmas.

-Stephen P. Smith

14
Dec
07

I shall keep my good humour…

I am one of those old fashioned souls who still loves the Christmas season. I love the lights. I love the music (Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, mind you, not the rubbish that passes for Christmas music nowadays). I love the way my childhood memories come back to me every year, Christmas presents from the past.

I still love watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”.

Now there are some people to whom Christmas is simply an annoyance, and I understand how they feel. Christmas has become cheapened and commercialized, to be sure, but I suppose that’s the price we pay for living in a capitalist society. It is hectic, it is frustrating, it is expensive. It is a pain in the ass at times, I agree.

To those who have difficulty finding joy in this season, I would offer these words:

In an early scene in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, Scrooge’s nephew Fred Holywell chides his uncle for sneering at Christmas, saying, “I have always thought of Christmas…as a good time…when men open up their shuttered hearts to one another.”

Later, in a more dramatic scene, Marley’s ghost indignantly answers Scrooge’s comment that he was always a “good man of business”:  “Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business! Mercy, charity, benevolence, forbearance, were all my business! The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the vast, comprehensive ocean of my business!”

To me, the real “meaning of Christmas” is that we, as members of the same human race despite our differences, can all “make mankind our business“, in large ways and small. A friendly smile to that harried clerk at the cash register can brighten that person’s day. Perhaps, if you happen to be one the long suffering souls who works behind that cash register, a friendly word to a customer can make the difference between a good day and bad one, for you and for them. Or maybe it can take the form of an encouraging word to a co-worker who’s having a bad day. Or maybe holding back an angry word to a family member, even if you really want to strangle them. Perhaps it’s helping a senior citizen struggling with their holiday packages, or a lost child crying in the store looking for its mother

I am nominally a Catholic, but really just nominally. When it comes to contemplating the divine, one person’s religious belief is usually as valid as another’s. I do not know if Jesus of Nazareth was really the Son of God, as many believe. But I happen to know that at least some of what Jesus, divine or not, is reported to have said makes as much sense in our time as it did in his. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Forgive your enemies”, and (my personal favorite) “Judge not lest ye be judged”. Whether or not you believe in the divinity of Jesus, these are good words to live by, and it would be a much better world if everyone did live by them, regardless of their stated religion (or lack thereof). When you get right down to it, these aren‘t necessarily religious beliefs at all. They are simply a blueprint for living in harmony with the rest of the human race.

Those who have been reading this blog will know that I have engaged in some spritited debates with some who do not believe in any god at all.  I have enjoyed these debates, and by participating in them I have been given much to think about.  But one thing that has not changed is my very real belief that the real meaning of Christmas is that human beings can, when they put their minds to it, be genuinely decent to one another. And if we can remember to do that at this time of the year, perhaps we can even try to “make mankind our business” throughout the year.

And so, like the irrepressible Fred Holywell, “I shall keep my good humour, and wish you a Merry Christmas.”

–Smith

10
Dec
07

My Favorite Christmas Carol

For reasons which frankly elude me this blog seems to have more readers than it did a year ago, and since it’s my mission in life to make sure that everyone sees this wonderful movie, I am reposting this review, with some minor revisions.

You could stage a version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with sock puppets and I would probably watch it. Ever since I was a child, this has been one of my favorite stories. Perhaps it’s the idea that there is good in everyone, and therefore no one is beyond redemption, that appeals to me, but for whatever reason I never miss an opportunity to watch one of the many screen adaptations of this timeless classic when they’re on TV as they inevitably are this time of year.

The International Movie Database (IMDB.com, and one of my favorite sites, by the way) lists no less than 25 different versions of “A Christmas Carol“, and while I can’t claim to have seen them all, I’ve certainly seen quite a few. I have watched Alistair Sim, Reginald Owen, Patrick Stewart, Mr. Magoo, and even Rowan Atkinson (as Ebenezer Blackadder in one of the stranger twists on this story) all bring credit to the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.  But my favorite version of all time is the one made in 1984 featuring the incomparable George C. Scott as Scrooge.

This will probably be on sometime this month, but if you miss it, you owe it to yourself to buy or rent this DVD. This is, in my opinion, simply the very best version of this story ever filmed. It is a dark version, to be sure, but the incomparable acting, not only from Scott but from the supporting cast, make this a version you simply have to see, no matter how many times you’ve seen other versions of “A Christmas Carol”.

What makes this version really stand out is the somber gravitas that the entire cast bring to their respective roles. Lines we’ve heard dozens of times in the past take on a whole new intensity, and each character becomes more real and believable in the hands of this wonderful ensemble.

George C. Scott was nominated for an Emmy in 1985 for this role. It is to his everlasting credit that rather than sleepwalking through this oft-portrayed role of Scrooge, he instead gave it a fresh interpretation that was, in my opinion, one of his finest performances ever. He wisely did not attempt a British accent, instead delivering his lines in that famous gravelly voice. His Scrooge is not merely a cranky old man (as he is so often portrayed), but rather a man who harbors a profound rage against the world. As he is visited in turn by each of the Three Spirits, we understand how this rage took root, grew, and ultimately strangled his soul.

As he is forced to review his life, we see him alternately softening, and then relapsing again into unrepentant obstinacy. And in the great dramatic scene when he, kneeling and weeping at his own grave, begs for mercy as he attempts to convince the third spirit of his repentance and desire to alter his life, we see a man who has been utterly broken and brought to his knees literally and figuratively. Scott has made Scrooge utterly believable and painfully human.

Impressive as Scott’s performance is, the ensemble of supporting actors contributes significantly the this version’s dark beauty. Fred Holywell, Scrooge’s nephew, is an excellent example of this. Often portrayed as an affable buffoon, here he is played by Roger Rees with an emotional intensity missing from earlier portrayals. When he implores Scrooge, “I ask nothing of you. I want nothing from you. Why can’t we be friends?”, we see in his face not only his frustration, but his pain at Scrooge’s self-imposed separation from his only living relative. It is a moving performance, and one of the movie’s most dramatic scenes.

Even more magnificent is the performance given by the wonderful English actor Frank Finlay as Scrooge’s late partner, Jacob Marley. In most versions of this tale, the scene with Marley tends to be a bit of a low point in the film, simply because it’s difficult to portray a dead man convincingly, and the results are usually just plain silly (ooooh, look, it‘s a scary ghost…….not!)

In this version, it is perhaps the most riveting scene in the whole movie. Marley’s entrance, as the locks on Scrooge’s door fly open of their own accord and the sound of chains rattling echo throughout the house, is wonderfully creepy. But Finlay’s Marley is no ethereal spirit. He is a tortured, despairing soul, inspiring both horror and pity. Marley may be a ghost, but his rage and regret over a life wasted on the pursuit of wealth, and his despair at his realization that his sins are now beyond redress, are still very human. As portrayed by Finlay, we have no problem believing that even the flinty Scrooge would be shaken by this nightmarish apparition. Finlay really steals the scene here, no mean feat when you’re sharing the screen with George C. Scott.

And so it continues, as one remarkable performance after another makes it seem like you’re experiencing this story for the first time. Edward Woodward (remember him from “The Equalizer”?) is by turns both jovial and menacing as the Ghost of Christmas Present. When he delivers the famous line, “it may well be that in the sight of Heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child” he is no longer a jolly Santa Claus surrogate, but has become an avenging angel who gives Scrooge a much needed verbal spanking.

Susannah York is a wonderfully tart tongued Mrs. Cratchit, and David Warner brings marvelous depth to the long suffering Bob Cratchit, a man who goes through life bearing the triple crosses of poverty, a sick child, and an insufferable boss. His face alternately shows his cheerful courage, and also, at times, his weariness, in the face of intolerable circumstances. Later, in the scene in which Scrooge is shown by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come the Cratchit family after the death of Tiny Tim, Warner’s performance will move you to tears.

One final note should be made about the musical device used in this movie to unite certain themes. Composer Nicolas Bicat uses a variation of the Wagnerian “leitmotif”, whereby a musical theme becomes associated with a certain character. Here Bicat uses two themes to unite groups of characters. The first, a plaintive theme consisting of two falling phrases, is first heard when Jacob Marley enters Scrooge’s room. This is particularly effective, for instead of the “scary” music one might expect to hear at the entrance of a ghost, what we hear instead is a sad, lonely theme played by a single cello. This unexpectedly tender music underscores the utter tragedy of Marley’s condition.

This theme appears several times in the movie during scenes when Scrooge is forced to reflect on his life, uniting him with Marley, and undergoes a dramatic transformation at Scrooge’s graveside scene, where it becomes powerful and dramatic as it is blasted out by a full orchestra. Finally, in the scene where Scrooge “awakens” from his visit from the third spirit, this theme appears in an altered form, coming full circle as it is again played by the solo cello. Now it somehow sounds hopeful, and just as the theme has changed, we realize that Scrooge, too, has changed.

The other leitmotif is heard whenever Fred, or his mother Fan, Scrooge’s dead sister, are in the scene. It is a gently skipping theme which, while seemingly happy on the surface, still has a streak of sadness in it. We hear it in the background as Scrooge reminisces about his late sister, or muses over how much like her Fred looks. By uniting these characters it helps make Scrooge more human.

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I love this movie, and make it a point to watch the DVD several times during the month of December. It is my sincere hope that you will, too.

–Smith

20
Dec
06

I shall keep my good humour…..

I am one of those old fashioned souls who still loves the Christmas season. I love the lights. I love the music (Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, mind you, not the rubbish that passes for Christmas music nowadays). I love the way my childhood memories come back to me every year, Christmas presents from the past.

I love the way my twelve year old stepson gets all excited whenever we go out on one of our Christmas traditions. It might be going to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”, or maybe riding out to Attleboro to see the lights at LaSallette shrine, or it might be something as simple as taking the long way home so we can see all the Christmas lights that decorate the surrounding area, or watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” together. He has a ball, and so do I.

Now there are some people to whom Christmas is simply an annoyance, and I can understand how they feel. This time of year has become cheapened and commercialized, to be sure, but I suppose that’s the price we pay for living in a capitalist society. It is hectic, it is frustrating, it is expensive. It is a pain in the ass at times, I agree.

To those who have difficulty finding joy in this season, I would offer these words:

In an early scene in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, Scrooge’s nephew Fred Holywell chides his uncle for sneering at Christmas, saying, “I have always thought of Christmas…as a good time…when men open up their shuttered hearts to one another.” Later, in a more dramatic scene, Marley’s ghost indignantly answers Scrooge’s comment that he was always a “good man of business”, exclaiming, “Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business! Mercy, charity, benevolence, forbearance, were all my business! The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the vast, comprehensive ocean of my business!”

There are so many ways we, as members of the same human race despite our differences, can “make mankind our business“. A friendly smile to that harried clerk at the cash register can brighten that person’s day. Perhaps, if you happen to be one the long suffering souls who works behind that cash register, a friendly word to a customer can make the difference between a good day and bad one, for you and for them. Or maybe it can take the form of an encouraging word to a co-worker who’s having a bad day. Or maybe holding back an angry word to a family member, even if you really want to strangle them. Perhaps it’s helping a senior citizen struggling with their holiday packages, or a lost child crying in the store looking for its mother

I am nominally a Catholic, but really just nominally. When it comes to contemplating the divine, one person’s religious belief is usually as valid as another’s. I do not know if Jesus of Nazareth was really the Son of God, as many believe. But I happen to know that at least some of what Jesus, divine or not, is reported to have said makes as much sense in our time as it did in his. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Forgive your enemies”, and (my personal favorite) “Judge not lest ye be judged”. Whether or not you believe in the divinity of Jesus, these are good words to live by, and it would be a much better world if everyone did live by them, regardless of their stated religion (or lack thereof). When you get right down to it, these aren‘t necessarily religious beliefs at all. They are simply a blueprint for living in harmony with the rest of the human race.

To me the real meaning of Christmas is that human beings can, when they put their minds to it, be genuinely decent to one another. And if we can remember to do that at this time of the year, perhaps we can even try to “make mankind our business” throughout the year.

And so, like the irrepressible Fred Holywell, “I shall keep my good humour, and wish you a Merry Christmas.”

–Smith




taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs and lighting with it the long cherry-wood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood" ~ Dr. John H. Watson ************************
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