Monthly Archives: November 2010

Mr. D and the “War on Christmas”: A Response to Ed O’Donnell’s 11/25 NY Daily News Column

Around mid-December, a memo circulates around my school that could be seen as a broadside in the ever-resurgent “War on Christmas.”

Once you get past the logistical minutia about cleaning up rooms, timetables for parties and whatnot, a curious sentence pops up, to the effect of

“Under no circumstances are children to be removed from parties due to behavior.  Even if you do not celebrate it, these children are entitled to Christmas celebrations.”

Not holidays, but CHRISTMAS celebrations.  One can’t be too sure if this is intentional or not.  However, the message was loud and clear: keep your skepticism, doubt and alternative beliefs at the door.  In this community, it is Christmas—and
ONL Y Christmas, not Chanukah or even Kwanzaa—that matters.

I thought about this as I read a recent Daily News column by Ed O’Donnell, associate professor of history at Holy Cross.  In his piece, O’Donnell finds a new appreciation for the much-maligned phrase “Happy Holidays.”  Speaking as a church-going Christian himself, O’Donnell claims that Happy Holidays “embodies both a fundamental American value and, strange as it may sound, one of Christmas’ core religious ideals.”

It demonstrates the spirit of American inclusiveness, as it is free to interpretation by any faith, and also focuses on inclusivity’s Christian message—a message clouded by “a grotesque exhibition of materialist excess,” in O’Donnell’s words.

Some disclosure is in order. I’ve met Professor O’Donnell a number of times through lectures, workshops and grant programs.  Heck, I even piloted one of my curriculum units for him.  O’Donnell is a first-rate historian, a magnificent writer (I recommend his book Ship Ablaze, about the 1904 sinking of the General Slocum) and one of the finest lecturers I’ve ever met.

Even better—and take my word for it—Ed is a stand-up fellow, a really nice guy.

That said, I do take issue with O’Donnell in this particular survey of the “War on Christmas.” Two points to consider:

(1) His exalting of “Happy Holidays” as a triumph of American inclusivity over religious bigotry fails to take into account Christmas’ own status as a persecuted holiday in the early history of our republic; and

(2) Though it is perhaps unintentional, O’Donnell’s appreciation for “Happy Holidays” might be construed as creating a new orthodoxy, pulling down one golden calf in place of another.

The first point is, in my humble opinion, an egregious omission on O’Donnell’s part.   Of course, he is correct in mentioning our country’s history of violence over religion, via the anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon movements of the mid-19th century.  Yet Christmas did not have an easy road to acceptance: often just as treacherous as the Mormon trek towards the salt flats of Utah.

Since the Reformation, Protestant groups saw Christmas as one of the prime targets for assault in their war against the Roman Catholic Church.  The pomp and pageantry of Christmas was reviled as a papist extravagance bearing the “marks of the beast.”

This anti-Christmas attitude was superimposed on the New World.  England’s Puritan government had severely curtailed the holiday in 1647 and banned it outright in 1652.  Plymouth abolished Christmas, as did Massachusetts Bay in 1659—with a huge 50 shilling fine for non-compliance.  In Of Plimoth Plantation, William Bradford recalls the Christmas of 1621, which was a regular work day at the Separatist colony:

“On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called [the settlers] out to work as was usual. However, the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it [a] matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them.” ~ William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation (1647)

Even after the bans were lifted in the late 1600s, Christmas was rarely celebrated outside of immigrant—mostly German—communities in New York, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, as well as the Anglican gentry of Virginia.   Massachusetts and the rest of New England kept to the old superstitions and prejudices of the holiday.  Christmas, in the Puritan view, was vain, extravagant, Papist, elitist, and royalist.

In fact, a major victory in the American Revolution would not have been possible if Christmas were celebrated more widely in the colonies. The 1776 Christmas victory over the Hessians at Trenton would have turned out differently if both sides—and not just the German mercenaries—were hung over after holiday celebrations.

It wasn’t until 1870—after the Revolution, western expansion, immigration waves, industrialization, and a bloody Civil War—that Christmas finally became a federal holiday, thereby shaking off the vestiges of Puritan intolerance.

To then bury the name “Christmas” under the verbal veneer of “Happy Holidays” can be seen as intolerant as well—intolerant of the arduous road Christmas took to gain acceptance in the United States over fear and superstition.

This leads me to my second point.  I’m in full agreement that the conservative blowhards who push “Keep Christ in Christmas” while turning their heads at its crass commercialism deserve a sound comeuppance.  Though my views tend towards the conservative side, I’m no holy roller—I’m less of a churchgoer than Professor O’Donnell, who goes weekly.  The right has more important things to worry about than labels and names on the best time of year.

That said, the secular left is not getting off easy.  O’Donnell notes that “Happy Holidays” embodies a uniquely American virtue: “respect for each and every citizen’s right to their own religious beliefs (or nonbeliefs). “  Does this also include the right to not say “Happy Holidays”?  Or are those who adhere to their particular beliefs in exclusion to others subject to their own shunning by a secular establishment?

I’m not picking on O’Donnell per se, since I understand his intentions with the piece: to express an appreciation for an unpopular phrase of the season.  Yet this sentiment of inclusiveness can lead many to construe it as the focus for a new standard of exclusiveness.  The “Happy Holidays” crowd, in their zeal to include everyone and respect all, may in fact be disrespecting and persecuting those who see in their individual holidays a source of identity and cohesion—EVEN IF their celebrations may seem exclusive to others.

Does this mean that the “War on Christmas” is legitimate?  Not really; Christmas is not going away anytime soon.  Yet whenever a phrase like “Happy Holidays” is touted as supreme or better than something else, it tends to create an aura of authority—an aura that inherently excludes those who disagree.

George Orwell famously said that “freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” This, in many ways more so than inclusivity and respect, is the true republican virtue of American society. Sometime this season, I will hear someone tell me “Happy Holidays.”  I may not like it.  I may feel like cracking a two-by-four over the bastard’s head.  Yet I have to respect his right to say it—and conversely, that SOB has to respect my right to tell them “Merry Christmas” if I feel like it.

So this holiday season, say “Happy Holidays,” “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Chanukah,” “Joyous Kwanzaa,” or whatever you feel like.

Just don’t try to shame someone for mistaking you for a believer and slipping a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Chanukah.” If you don’t know what that can lead to, re-read George Orwell’s magnum opus to refresh your memory.

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This Day in History 11/29: The 1781 Zong Massacre

Print of the crew of the Zong throwing sick Africans overboard (1781)

Movements can often be sparked by the most inane and ordinary of circumstances.

In the case of abolition, one could argue that it all began with an insurance fraud case.

On November 29, 1781, the Zong, a slave ship carrying Africans to Jamaica, had a problem.  Two months before, in their zeal for profits, the crew of the Zong stuffed the hold of the ship with more Africans than it could carry.  By November, malnutrition and disease had taken the lives of seven crew members and almost 60 enslaved Africans.

Luke Collingwood, captain of the Zong, now made what he considered the best decision to stem the losses for his bosses in Liverpool.  If he continued sailing, and delivered a pile of corpses to the Kingston docks, the owners had no redress.  If, however, the sick Africans were lost at sea, then the shipowners’ insurance would cover the loss.  Under the “jettison” clause, enslaved persons were considered cargo, and their loss would be covered at £30 per head.

So on November 29, Collingwood did the “logical” thing: he ordered 54 sick Africans dumped overboard.  Another 42 perished the next day, and 26 the day after that.  10 Africans voluntarily flung themselves overboard, in an act of defiance against the captain’s decision.  In all, 122 Africans were thrown overboard.

Yet when the ship owners filed their claim with the insurance company, things went downhill.  The insurers disputed the claims of the captain and the owners–largely on the testimony of James Kelsall, First Mate on the Zong.  According to the insurance claim, the Africans were thrown overboard “for the safety of the ship,” as there wasn’t enough water for the cargo and crew to survive the rest of the voyage.  But Kelsall–who expressed doubts early on to Collingwood about the scheme–testified that there was plenty of water for the remaining leg of the journey.  Indeed, when the Zong reached Jamaica on the 22nd of December, there was 422 gallons of drinking water in the hold.

The case went to court, and the court ruled in favor of Collingwood and the owners.  During the appeals process, an ex-slave and author, Olaudah Equiano, brought the case–soon to be known as the “Zong Massacre”–to the attention of Granville Sharp, one of Britain’s leading early abolitionists.  Sharp immediately became involved in the prosecution of the appeal, even though eminent jurists such as John Lee, Soliciter General for England and Wales, dismissed the affair stating “the case was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.” This time, the court ruled that the ship owners were not eligible for insurance since the water in the hold proved that the cargo was mismanaged.

Sharp and his colleagues tried to press murder charges against Collingwood and the owners, but to no avail.  The Solicitor General, John Lee, stated that:

“What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgement of an experienced well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.”

Lee hoped the matter would rest with his decision.  Instead it unleashed a firestorm.

Within a few years of the Zong Massacre, abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and James Ramsay issued pamphlets and essays condemning the conditions of the slave trade.  Together with Sharp and Equiano, they would approach a young member of Parliament from Yorkshire, William Wilberforce, to take up the cause of abolition.

Beginning in 1784, Wilberforce would lead a 50-year struggle in Parliament to abolish slavery in the British Empire.  The efforts of abolitionists such as these led to the 1807 law abolishing the slave trade.  26 years later, the British Parliament outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire.  The British abolition movement inspired similar movements worldwide–including a burgeoning anti-slavery movement across the Atlantic that would lead to civil war and eventual emancipation.

And to think…it was all sparked by insurance fraud.

For more information about the Zong Massacre, here are some helpful sites:

Information about the slave ship Zong (1781)

Lesson Plan about the Zong case

Gloucestershire, UK County Council website about Granville Sharp and the Zong Massacre

British National Archives catalog of documents relating to the Zong affair

A Jamaican perspective on the Zong incident

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Videos for the Classroom: “Jerky Turkey” (1945)

The days before a holiday tend to be perfect fodder for videos, at least for killing time.  Yet today’s video combines two things I love: Thanksgiving and the war years in America.

Perhaps the most unsung genius in American animation was Tex Avery.  Starting in Warner Brothers in the 1930s, he moved cartoons away from the sappy, childlike airs of Walt Disney into the mature, sophisticated humor of adults.  He introduced characters like Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, characters with real foibles and charm (and just as thoroughly marketable as Mickey Mouse) as well as fast-paced, rapid-fire dialogue and gags that played to the fears and stresses of adult life.

Avery’s greatest achievements occurred when he moved to MGM in the 1940s.  Through the forties and fifties, Avery produced some of the most groundbreaking, sophisticated and hilarious cartoon shorts in history.  His innovative use of language, sight gags, and modern sensibility created a body of work that still leaves people in stitches–more so adults than children.

Since it is Thanksgiving, the Neighborhood is presenting Tex Avery’s 1945 classic “Jerky Turkey.” In this comic send-up of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621, an unnamed Pilgrim attempts to shoot a wisecracking turkey that bears an uncanny resemblance to Jimmy Durante.

“Jerky Turkey” is packed with discussion points for the social studies classroom.  World War II, and Franksgiving, are deeply referenced throughout the film.  The Mayflower (complete with a gas ration stamp), for example, is shown built by wartime supplier Henry Kaiser and accompanied by a US Naval Squadron.  Plymouth is divided between Democrats and  Republicans, a nod to the Thanksgiving debacle of years past.  Ration lines for cigarettes, billboards warning against unnecessary travel–even the obligatory offensive Native American caricature is included.

(This particular showing is the full version, which has a quite offensive use of the term “Half-breed” that is edited out of TBS and Cartoon Network showings.)

Besides being a hilarious film, “Jerky Turkey” shows how Hollywood used the harsh realities of war in a humorous way, especially during the holidays.  Enjoy!

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The Story of “Franksgiving”; or When Bad Things Happen to Good Holidays

We can always count on the federal government to come up with insane solutions to our problems.

Budget deficit? Tighten belts on all forms of spending except defense, which gets a blank check to fund whatever piece-of-crap technology they want (provided the appropriate Congressman gets his cut).

Farm prices too low? Dole out generous checks to farmers for doing nothing—just make sure to give them a fancy name like “subsidy” instead of “sit-on-your-ass check.”

Terrorist threat? Defy historical expectations and start not one, but TWO land wars in Asia, because that worked out so well for Alexander, Napoleon, and Hitler.

In 1939, America again resorted to a hare-brained experiment to resolve a national crisis: an experiment with a holiday. For three years, Thanksgiving would be the center of a political and economic experiment that split families, upended governments and drove political debate far in excess of its results.

That solution was “Franksgiving”, one of the greatest blunders of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency.

By 1939, the nation had gone through two economic downturns. The first, of course, was the 1929 stock market crash that would trigger the Great Depression. From 1933 to 1937, Americans pinned their hopes on the slew of government programs created by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. For a while, at least, things were looking up. Banks had stabilized, unemployment bottomed out, businesses were growing again. By all indicators, the economy was back to what it was prior to the 1929 crash.

Then the bottom fell out.

By 1937, things were going so well that his advisors suggested that Roosevelt start to cut back on some of the programs—an incredible case of bad timing. The massive cutbacks in the Works Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration coincided with a sharp economic downturn in the summer of 1937. The reasons for the “Roosevelt Recession” are still hotly debated. What’s certain is that during the 13 months of the recession, unemployment, production, and spending sunk to 1933 levels: the low point of the Depression.

Roosevelt tried everything to revive the economy. A new wave of anti-trust cases opened up, led by Thurman Arnold at the Department of Justice. Crop loans, crop insurance against natural disasters as well as farm subsidies were pushed through Congress in February 1938. In April, a massive spending bill rolled back the cuts made the previous year—to the tune of $5 billion.

Nothing worked as the administration hoped. To make matters worse, Lew Hahn and Harry Hopkins took a look at the 1939 calendar and shat in their pants.

Hahn, the general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, noticed an unfortunate accident in the holiday shopping season. Since the Civil War, the Thanksgiving holiday (NOT an official holiday yet) was customarily declared by the President for the last Thursday in November. In 1939, November had 5 Thursdays, so that Thanksgiving would fall on November 30th, leaving only 20 days for the holiday shopping season. Hahn immediately notified Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins, one the New Deal “masterminds”, and they both made a mad dash for the President.

In Roosevelt’s mind, moving Thanksgiving made logical sense. It was never a national holiday fixed into law, after all: each President since Lincoln had simply followed Abe’s lead and declared the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving. Moving the holiday was his prerogative, and nothing less than the future of the New Deal was at stake.

Besides, the American people won’t mind changing the date of a day that to most is simply a massive gorgefest, right?

Franklin Delano, how wrong you were.

In two separate decrees, on August 31 and October 31, 1939, Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving would be moved up one week earlier for 1939 and 1940. In his proclamations, he reminded the American people of the non-official nature of the holiday, its history as a presidential custom, and the economic need for a longer shopping season.

America was having none of it. For three years, the United States was a divided nation every November.

Since Roosevelt’s decrees used the “moral authority” of the President, they had no legal enforcement. It was up to the individual states to adopt the new date as law, along with the new allotment of holiday time for state and municipal employees. The then-48 states in the Union split almost perfectly along party lines. 23 states, along with the District of Columbia, voted to switch to the new date. 22 states, especially the then-Republican stronghold of New England, decided to keep the original date. Three states (Mississippi, Colorado and Texas) split the difference, and made both dates holidays.

Even before adoption by the state’s, the plan aroused nationwide opposition. Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s GOP opponent in the 1936 election, stated that his declaration to move Thanksgiving was

“another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt’s] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out… instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”

Strong words, and this from a MODERATE Republican. Today, Landon would be bosom buds with Nancy Pelosi.

The change upset the lives of millions of Americans. Flight schedules, train reservations, and hotel accommodations all had to be readjusted to the new date. Printers, especially calendar manufacturers, went ballistic since their entire runs were now obsolete. College football programs, which depended on the Thanksgiving game for their season finales, now had to abruptly adjust their schedules: most conferences forbad games played after Thanksgiving. Colleges, schools and institutes make a frantic change in their vacation plans. Some students left school on one Thanksgiving and came home to nothing, since their home state kept the other date.

The dates even acquired names in popular culture. The earlier date was called “Democratic Thanksgiving” and the traditional date became “Republican Thanksgiving.” It was easy to tell the neighbor’s political leanings through the collective aroma of turkeys on one week or the next.

The earlier date was soon given a name befitting a monstrous bureaucratic decision. Atlantic City mayor Thomas Taggert, clearly noting the culprit in all this, derisively dubbed the earlier date “Franksgiving” after its unfortunate founder.

Nationally, even though more Democrats than Republicans approved the change, fully 62% of the American people disapproved of the date—and they made their voices heard for three years.

Thousands of letters poured into the White House, mostly with negative feedback on Roosevelt’s decision. Sometimes the letters are downright heartbreaking. Consider Eleanor Blydenburgh, a student from Connecticut attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn:

“Our directors announced that our school vacation would begin on the twenty-third of November and last until the twenty-sixth because New York, being your home state, is abiding by your decision. However, where I come from, Connecticut, they’ll be observing it on the thirtieth of November as usual. Really, this situation makes my heart ache because I love our Thanksgiving Holidays as much if not a bit more than our Christmas Holidays.”

Most of the letters were mean gripes about the inconvenience of the change. One particular letter, from Shelby Bennett in West Virginia, gets kudos from the Neighborhood for its oozing snarkiness:

“Mr. President:

I see by the paper this morning where you want to change Thanksgiving Day to November 23 of which I heartily approve. Thanks.

Now, there are some things that I would like done and would appreciate your approval:

1. Have Sunday changed to Wednesday;
2. Have Monday’s to be Christmas;
3. Have it strictly against the Will of God to work on Tuesday;
4. Have Thursday to be Pay Day with time and one-half for overtime;
5. Require everyone to take Friday and Saturday off for a fishing trip down the Potomac.”

For anyone familiar with the Potomac in the late 1930s, that last one should’ve been treated like a death threat.

Yet the greatest pox upon the Franksgiving experiment came in a Commerce Department survey on May 20, 1941. It found that the change in Thanksgiving caused no significant impact on holiday sales. The experiment was a complete failure.

The administration, seeing more important priorities on the horizon (priorities named Hitler and Tojo), decided to quietly push through a joint resolution through Congress, and signed on December 26, 1941. It stated that Thanksgiving was designated an official holiday to be observed on the fourth November of every calendar year. From 1942 to 1956, each of the states adopted the new standard, albeit haphazardly. Texas lollygagged until the end, probably to give their football teams one more weekend on the gridiron.

So what did we learn from “Franksgiving”?

Roosevelt’ s holiday experiment was well within his rights. It was completely legal, since the holiday was only enacted through a presidential proclamation. Furthermore, at least on paper, there was a logical reason to it: more time to shop could possibly stimulate the economy.
Yet having the legal authority to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you ought to do it. Barack Obama has the legal right to punch in the launch codes into the nuclear football and send our ICBMs into central Asia, but he’s not fool enough to do something like that.

Like a nuclear attack, messing with a holiday has extensive collateral damage, though not as bad as vaporized relatives and crippling nuclear cancers. America was so used to the old holiday that its own institutions adjusted to a day that, in reality, could’ve been changed at will. Roosevelt’s good intentions caused three years of chaos, from the train station to the college campus and to the football field.

Franksgiving would never get us out of the Depression: World War II did. It took long, bloody conflicts on two continents to realize that certain things shouldn’t be monkeyed with.

It was more important to be thankful than to worry about the day when we could be thankful.

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Videos for the Classroom: National Geographic Presents Thanksgiving Unstuffed

It’s that time again, when the classrooms fill with Pilgrim hats, feathers in the hair and massive pageants celebrating the “first” Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621.

Last year, the Neighborhood spent a series debunking the holidays, starting with Thanksgiving.  This year, we’re taking a lighter approach to the holidays.  National Geographic produced a fun half-hour program, Thanksgiving Unstuffed, which combines history, culture, and science to explore the holiday in most depth.  I found the beginning bit about cooking a turkey most interesting–the science of why the breast always dries out, no matter how much gravy you drown it in.

Have fun with this in your classrooms.  Next up will be a piece on Franklin Roosevelt’s controversial tinkering with Thanksgiving, the infamous “Franksgiving.” Stay tuned.

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A Small Salute on Veterans’ Day

“And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.” Henry V, Act IV, Scene III

It isn’t much, but I hope it helps.

Here’s to the “happy few,” the band of brothers and sisters who served, and continue to serve, in defense of our liberty, our democracy, our people.

Thank you, from the grateful citizens in Mr. D’s Neighborhood.

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Video for Parents: Tips on how to Prepare for a Parent-Teacher Conference

Like right here in the Neighborhood, many teachers and parents are heading to their first parent/teacher conference.  Teachers are preparing frantically to have all your child’s information on hand.  However, many parents often leave the conference even more bewildered than when they came in.

As much as teachers prepare for these meetings, parents should be equally ready to face the acheivements and challenges your child has experienced thus far.

I stumbled upon a great instructional video from The K5, an elementary education blog.  In this video, parents can learn how to prepare for the best–and worst–that can happen at the conference.  It takes away much of the stress if both teacher and parent are on the same page.

Please pass this on to all of your parents and teachers.  Now where did I leave that stack of report cards…?

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