December 18

A couple of Christmas cards from the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. Note that in the 1943 card he refers to the holiday by its name “Julfest” but in the next year he uses the usual German name for Christmas “Weihnachten”. The graphic in the 1944 card is the “Julleuchter”, a candle holder with Nazi symbols, often made in concentration camps.

December 2

Advent does not begin with a fixed date because the period can begin anywhere from November 27 to December 3. Consequently there is no one common custom to kick off the season. In Honduras there is a masked dancer called the Warini or Christmas Herald who goes door to door accompanied by singers and drummers to announce the season. And in Twente in Holland long wooden horns, carved out of saplings are sounded over a well to produce a deep foghorn like tone. In Oldenzaal trumpeters blow in Advent from the four corners of a medieval tower. Moravian churches will make the occasion by the erection of their famous multi-pointed stars.

Almost everywhere there is the compulsion to clean the house.  In fifteenth century Florence a religious revival led by the monk Savonarola resulted in the famous “Bonfire of the Vanities”, a public burning of luxuries that were deemed to keep the minds of believers off of God and salvation. A similar spectacle occurs every year at the beginning of the Christmas season in Guatemala. On December 7 (also the day to celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary) Guatemalans haul out of their homes the things they think they don’t need anymore and set them on fire in a ceremony called “The Burning of the Evil” — with their homes thus purged of unnecessary encumbrances their souls can prepare for the coming of Christmas. In Trinidad and Tobago the house must be given a thorough cleaning and decorated; a portion of the Christmas budget always goes to buying something new for the house at this time of year. New curtains are hung, windows are washed, furniture is recovered, long-delayed repairs are made, a new piece of linoleum is laid and the paint brush is busy. In northern Europe Advent is also a time to tend to the graves of the family dead as well as sprucing up the house. In Moravian settlements in Labrador a common expression or question heard in December is “Is you ready yet?” This means basically, “Do you have your house thoroughly cleaned?”

Advent

For such a momentous occasion as the birth of the baby-god Jesus, one might think that the first Christians would be quick to celebrate the event. Christmas is the second-highest festival on the Christian calendar and the most widely-celebrated holy day in history, but the fact is that it was an after-thought to the early church. The first generations of believers concentrated on the death and resurrection of Jesus and lived in profound expectation of his imminent return. What need was there to make a fuss over his humble origins when he would soon return again in glory to judge the living and the dead and to usher in a new heaven and a new earth?

As the years went by, and Christ seemed to be tarrying, the circumstances of his birth attracted more interest. Pagan critics of the new religion, such as Celsus, made mock of the claims of a virgin birth and asserted that Jesus was the illegitimate product of an adulterous union. Certain 2nd-century Christians, influenced by Greek Gnosticism, were skeptical of the idea of a god dwelling in human flesh – this was a repellent notion to the philosophers; the very purpose of the soul was not to become trapped in a body but to escape its earthly prison of meat and bone. These criticisms prompted the second-century Church to emphasize the truth of the nativity stories told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke and even to add to them in pious fictions such as The Protoevangelium of James which invented details about the youth of Mary and introduced the character of Salome, a midwife, to the events in Bethlehem.

By the year 200 Christian writers had begun to speculate about when the birth of Jesus had taken place and numerous dates were bandied about. This does not mean that Christians were seeking to know the date of the birth of Jesus in order to celebrate it. The theologian Origen declared that only pagan rulers had their birthdays trumpeted and, indeed, King Herod Antipas had given birthdays a bad name in the Christian community when he had used the occasion of his to order the execution of John the Baptist. Despite such a view, believers were growing fonder of recounting the story of the birth of Jesus. In Rome, where Christians gathered to worship in the funeral caves outside the city, they decorated a wall with a picture of the Nativity scene. The catacomb of St Priscilla bears an image of three Magi advancing toward the seated Virgin and child while a man standing beside her (probably meant to represent an Old Testament prophet) points to the guiding star in the heavens. Second and third-century pseudo-gospels such as The Revelation of the Magi were particularly interested in the appearance of the wise men who, guided by this miraculous star, became the first Gentiles to worship the Christ Child.

With the accession of the emperor Constantine in 312, Christianity became a legal religion, free to marks its holy days publicly, and the celebration of the Nativity soon was celebrated joyfully. During the 300s and 400s Christmas grew in importance on the church calendar as music, drama and liturgy were added in spectacular fashion. And then it occurred to someone – we know not who or where – that Christmas deserved a period of preparation such as Easter had with Lent. By the 500s there seems to have been a formally recognized fast beginning in mid-November on St Martin’s Day, a custom starting first in the Frankish church and then spreading in the West; other restrictions include a ban on matrimony, feasting  and games. In Rome itself the Advent period, as it was now known, named for the Latin “coming”,  was shorter, less penitential and more joyful and by the high Middle Ages the contrary tendencies had merged – the season had become shortened to a four-week fast with Lenten-type behaviour required.  These restrictions, however, were abolished in the twentieth century and the season is now one of reflection and spiritual preparation.

For liturgical churches of the West it marks the beginning of the Christian year. It is reckoned as a period of four Sundays beginning with the one closest to St Andrew’s Day on November 30. The faithful are to use this time to prepare themselves worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s coming into the world as the incarnate God of love and also to make themselves ready for His final coming as judge, at death and at the end of the world. In church services, there are glorious hymns and lessons that point us to the prophecies and promises of coming redemption and the importance of heeding the injunction “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” 

November 30

November 30 is Saint Andrew’s Day. Andrew was a fisherman, the brother of Simon Peter and a follower of John the Baptist. He recognized Jesus as the Messiah and was called by the Lord to be an apostle. Andrew appears a number of times in Gospels, such as when Jesus discusses the end of the world in Mark 13 and at the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John 6.

Legend says that after the death of Jesus Andrew travelled widely, spreading the faith to Asia Minor, the Caucasus, what is now Ukraine and Russia, Byzantium and the Balkans. The churches in Constantinople and Georgia thus claim an apostolic founder. In Greece he was martyred on an X-shaped cross which became his symbol. The saltire or St Andrew’s cross is on the flag of Scotland, which claims him as a patron saint, and on the naval flag of Russia, where he is also a patron. Because Andrew was the first disciple called by Jesus, his feast day heralds the start of the Christian calendar.

November 30 is also the birthday of Winston Churchill and Mark Twain, and the anniversary of the death of Oscar Wilde.

For Winston Spencer Churchill I have nothing but praise. The greatest Briton of his era (and of all time according to a BBC poll which placed Princess Diana third, far ahead of Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare) he saved civilization at the cost of the British Empire. He assumed office as the Allied position in the west was collapsing and the French government and army were too intent on speed-reading their German phrase books to defend their country. But herein lies a salutary lesson for those who think that the events of 1940 prove that Gauls are, by nature, cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Antony Beevor’s monumental history Berlin: The Downfall, 1945 notes that in the final few days of World War II, when Hitler lay dead and the survivors of the Nazi hierarchy were scuttling like rats out of the ruins of Berlin, the last Axis defenders in the city were Frenchmen. These remnants of the SS Charlemagne Division fought on in the wreckage of the Third Reich until they were overrun by the Red Army.

Mark Twain is little appreciated outside of the United States and for good reason. Next to Walt Whitman he is the most insufferable of American writers and next to Herman Melville the most unreadable.

There was a lot that was insufferable about Oscar Wilde too. He continually betrayed a loving wife and found furtive pleasure on the bodies of under-age servant boys and rancid young aristocrats. He made almost an entire career of far-too-artfully polished apothegms (‘All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his.’) and a smirking inversion of received truths (‘As for the virtuous poor, one can pity them, of course, but one cannot possibly admire them.’) He brought his sad end upon himself, but for the sake of his children’s stories, Oscar Wilde will be forgiven much. Requiescat in pace.

November 10

In these days when journalism is in so much disrepute and disrespect, it is useful to remember an earlier time when journalists might behave well. From Chambers’ Book of Days:

A remarkable instance was afforded, a few years ago, of the power of an English newspaper, and its appreciation by the commercial men of Europe. It is known to most readers at the present day, that the proprietors and editors of the daily papers make strenuous exertions to obtain the earliest possible information of events likely to interest the public, and take pride in insuring for this information all available accuracy and fulness; but it is not equally well known how large is the cost incurred by so doing. None but wealthy proprietors could venture so much, for an object, whose importance and interest may be limited to a single day’s issue of the paper.

In 1841, Mr. O’Reilly, the Times correspondent at Paris, received secret information of an enormous fraud that was said to be in course of perpetration on the continent. There were fourteen persons—English, French, and Italian—concerned, headed by a French baron, who possessed great talent, great knowledge of the continental world, and a most polished exterior. His plan was one by which European bankers would have been robbed of at least a million sterling; the conspirators having reaped about £10,000, when they were discovered. The grand coup was to have been this—to prepare a number of forged letters of credit, to present them simultaneously at the houses of all the chief bankers in Europe, and to divide the plunder at once. How Mr. O’Reilly obtained his information, is one of the secrets of newspaper management; but as he knew that the chief conspirator was a man who would not scruple to send a pistol-shot into any one who frustrated him, he wisely determined to date his letter to the Times from Brussels instead of Paris, to give a false scent. This precaution, it is believed, saved his life. The letter appeared in the Times on 26th May. It produced a profound sensation, for it revealed to the commercial world a conspiracy of startling magnitude.

One of the parties implicated, a partner in an English house at Florence, applied to the Times for the name of its informant; but the proprietors resolved to bear all the consequences. Hence the famous action, Bogle v. Lawson, brought against the printer of the Times for libel, the proprietors, of course, being the parties who bore the brunt of the matter. As the article appeared on 26th May, and as the trial did not come on till 16thAugust, there was ample time to collect evidence. The Times made immense exertions, and spent a large sum of money, in unravelling the conspiracy throughout. The verdict was virtually an acquittal, but under such circumstances that each party had to pay his own costs.

The signal service thus rendered to the commercial world, the undaunted manner in which the Times had carried through the whole matter from beginning to end, and the liberal way in which many thousands of pounds had been spent in so doing, attracted much public attention. A meeting was called, and a subscription commenced, to defray the cost of the trial, as a testimonial to the proprietors. This money was nobly declined in a few dignified and grateful words; and then the committee determined to perpetuate the memory of the transaction in another way. They had in their hands £2700, which had been subscribed by 38 public companies, 64 members of the city corporation, 58 London bankers, 120 London merchants and manufacturers, 116 county bankers and merchants, and 21 foreign bankers and merchants. In November, the committee made public their mode of appropriating this sum: namely, £1000 for a ‘Times Scholarship’ at Oxford, for boys in Christ’s Hospital; £1000 for a similar scholarship at Cambridge, for boys of the city of London School; and the remainder of the money for four tablets, to bear suitable inscriptions—one to be put up at the Royal Exchange, one at Christ’s Hospital, one at the City of London School, and one at the Times printing-office.

November 6

I think it’s time for some more wisdom from dead white guys. 

If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.

– Theodore Roosevelt

The parable of Pythagoras is dark, but true; Cor ne edito; “Eat not the heart.” Certainly if a man would give it a hard phrase, those that lack friends to open themselves unto are cannibals of their own hearts. But one thing is most admirable (wherewith I will conclude this first fruit of friendship), which is, that this communicating of a man’s self to his friend, works two contrary effects; for it redoubleth joys, and cutteth griefs in halves. For there is no man, that imparteth his joys to his friend, but he joyeth the more; and no man that imparteth his griefs to his friend, but he grieveth the less.

– Francis Bacon

The condition and characteristic of an uninstructed person is this: he never expects from himself profit, or advantage, nor harm, but from externals.

The condition of a philosopher is this: he expects all advantage and all harm from himself. The signs of one who is making progress are these: he censures no man, he praises no man, he says nothing about himself as if he were somebody or knew something. When he is impeded or hindered, he blames himself. If a man praises him he ridicules the praiser to himself and if a man censures him, he makes no defence. He removes desires from himself, and transfers aversion to those things which are contrary to nature. He employs a moderate attitude towards everything; whether he is considered fooling or ignorant he cares not.  

In a word, he watches himself as if he were an enemy and lying in an ambush. 

— Marcus Aurelius

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure… The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

– C.S. Lewis

 

November 1

1972 Death of Ezra Pound

Ezra Weston Loomis Pound was born in 1885 in Idaho but grew up in Pennsylvania. As a university student he was insolent and lazy but he benefited from wide reading. He launched himself into the world as a poet and critic, finding patrons in the USA and London, making influential connections.
 
He was a pioneer and prophet of the Imagist mode, privileging the concrete object and minimalism. Pound was instrumental in helping the careers of T.s. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway but he was also in talented in the art of making enemies.
 
Like many intellectuals of the 1920s he felt that the old world was in need of revolution and he fell under the spell of Italian-style fascism. Pound espoused an anti-capitalist economic vision of “social credit” which despised usury. This led the poet into a virulent anti-semitism which he never abandoned and which drew him closer, first to Benito Mussolini, and then to Adolf Hitler. He spent the years of World War II in Italy making pro-fascist broadcasts and inveighing agains the Jews.
 
After the war, Pound was arrested and tried for treason. Other who had done what he had (like Lord Haw-Haw) were executed but the literary world rallied round him and fought for his release. The US government compromised and had him declared insane and confined to a mental hospital. He was released in 1958 having been declared incurable and thus in no need of further treatment. He spent most of the rest of his life living in Italy, repenting of both his earlier poetry and his antisemitism.
Pound was clearly a major force in 20th century literature but much of his poetry was obscurantist rubbish. Nonetheless there are gems amid the dross, and I include two here: the beginning of the Norse-flavoured “The Seafarer” and his Li Po imitation, “The River-Merchant’s Wife”.
 
The Seafarer
 
May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
 
The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chōkan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
 
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
 
At sixteen you departed
You went into far Ku-tō-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
 
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Chō-fū-Sa.
 
 

October 22

Time for some more wisdom from the ancients or, at least, dead white men.

John Adams Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right… and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

Edmund Burke To tax and to please, no more than to love and to be wise, is not given to men.

Joseph Conrad The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement—but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims.

Joseph Henshaw One doth but breakfast here, another dines, he that liveth longest doth but sup; we must all go to bed in another world.