Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.

Posted in History and Politics on December 12th, 2013 by byronkho

St. Nicholas was a 4th century saint who was known for giving gifts and alms in secret. While the modern Santa Claus is known for giving less practical gifts, St. Nicholas was primarily (as the legends have it) devoted to caring for the hungry and making up for the wrongdoing of others with his giftgiving. His most famous legend is probably the one in which he encourages sailors to unload a sizeable tonnage of wheat to help combat a famine, and prevents them from getting in trouble by somehow multiplying the wheat left onboard so as to not get the sailors in trouble for theft. His followers would celebrate his saints’ day by giving out baskets of food to the needy and gifts to children. For practical considerations, the food distribution was done on one day only: December 6. However, gifts to the kids were done at virtually any time during these festivals and celebrations. The fact that he had enormous following within Catholic, high Protestant and Orthodox communities across Europe meant that St. Nick was almost ubiquitous as a gift-giving character.

St. Nicholas came to America via the Dutch in a roundabout way. The Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, built in 1213, was dedicated to St. Nicholas in 1306 by the Bishop of Utrecht. It remained Roman Catholic until the “Alteratie” in 1578. The war with the Spanish Catholics had just been won, and so the Dutch were free to convert to whatever religion they wanted. They did – and the Oude Kerk became Calvinist. As Protestants – and as Calvinists – the Dutch were obligated to honor God through work. Work they did, starting up merchant companies and organizing trade routes throughout the world. Though they started to become immensely profitable, the Calvinists had not dropped the Medieval socialist mentality that argued that wealth was somehow wrong if others didn’t benefit; thus, the Dutch turned out to be embarrassed that they were making money! As St. Nick was beneficent towards the poor, the Calvinists had no need to take St. Nicholas down as a role model at the Oude Kerk, and he continued to be celebrated though he was no longer venerated as a saint. The Dutch version, Sinterklaas, was more or less a non-religious moral guide that could be embedded with his own folklore, but was not to be worshipped. This was something that translated easily to America.

In 1804, the New York Historical Society was founded and its members chose St. Nick to be the society’s patron saint. A later member, Washington Irving, soon began to claim that Sinterklaas, or Sinter Claes, was introduced to New Amsterdam in 1626 by Dutch settlers. This was not out of the question: those settlers were Protestant, and may have brought the St. Nick tradition with them. However, this claim cannot be proven (yet). Irving only got away with it by including it in a survey of New Amsterdam Dutch traditions that he published in 1809 as “A History of New York” under the pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker. This setup for the Americanization of the Santa Claus myth was part of a broader effort by Irving and other important New York literati to solemnize the tumultuous ways that New Yorkers celebrated Christmas. Instead of a benign love for one another, the period was rife with muggings of the rich (to give to the poor, one would assume) and intermittent violent class and race riots in and around the holidays. By bringing in the St. Nicholas tradition one way or another, these influential citizens sought to shame the populace into behaving by creating, molding and popularizing the myth of a father figure who rewarded you if you were good, and punished you if you were bad.

It is no accident that Clement Moore was to take credit for “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the famous Christmas poem published anonymously in a New York paper in 1823. Moore was a good friend of Irving’s and derived much of his source material for the poem from “A History of New York.” With the poem’s continual reprints in New York media and Christmas Day becoming increasingly popular versus New Year’s Day as the centerpoint family holiday of the season, the myth gained much ground. (It was probably easier to get people to be less rowdy on some other day – New Year’s Day is STILL a hot mess the world over.)

Our modern visual conception of Santa is based on the work of a professional political cartoonist named Thomas Nast, who spent his career fighting the corrupt New York politicians of Tammany Hall, supporting the rights of minorities (American Indians, Chinese Americans and black Americans, but certainly not Irish Americans), condemning slavery and drawing the images that still remain today as the symbols of the Republican and Democratic parties (the party of dumb heavies vs. the party of braying asses). Despite his often admirable political stances, many of his illustrations of Chinese and black Americans tended to be racist stereotypes and caricatures (“John Chinaman”), not atypical of other print illustrators of the time and certainly not of political cartoonists in general – whose job it was to caricature all of their subjects in the name of advancing their beliefs.

As a New Yorker growing up in that time, it would have been impossible for Nast to not have heard about Sinter Claes/Santa Claus. What he did was to finally provide a popular artistic rendering of written details and descriptions that were already largely out in the public imagination. His work was published in Harper’s Weekly, which was then a hugely influential publication. Nast based his Santa Claus largely off of descriptions in Moore’s poem, but also took material from elsewhere. Santa’s statelessness and permanent homesteading in the North Pole (soon to be Canadian) was based on George Webster’s 1869 poem “Santa Claus and his Works,” illustrated by Nast.

“I told you his home was up north by the Pole:
In a palace of ice lives this happy old soul…”
- George Webster

Somewhat ironically, Nast’s gluttonous Santa Claus is tangentially involved with a religious fight between Puritans and non-Puritans in England during the 17th century. The “first” version of Santa Claus (that wasn’t Saint Nicholas) seems to be as Lord Christmas, a character in a 15th century carol that encouraged everyone to eat, drink and “be right merry.” This image only caught on during the early 17th century, when a larger community began to adopt the idea of a jolly old man who was the sponsor of traditional Christmas-time celebrations. When a political fight began developing between Royalists, who were pro-Christmas celebrations, and puritans, who wanted the banning of all public celebrations as they were examples of gluttony and other sinful behaviors, Lord Christmas was molded into a symbolic character that would be more appreciable to the population. Lord Christmas became Father Christmas, an old fellow who was both wise and kind and whose “cherry cheeks appeared through his thin milk white locks, like (b)lushing Roses vail’d with snow white Tiffany,” according to 1680s pamphleteer Josiah King. Additionally, to appeal to conservative-minded folk who weren’t quite on the end of the puritan spectrum, he tended to be drawn as skinny, given to good cheer but not to excess. More liberal publications would draw him as fat (and jolly), but this was not the common conception.

Many of the Puritans who disdained Christmas celebrations ended up settling America; they may have rolled over in their graves when popular American society began celebrating Christmas wholesale and adopting Nast’s (and Irving’s and Moore’s and etc.) version of Santa Claus. To underline the success of the American Santa Claus myth: once this version became popular, England’s Father Christmas began to borrow traits wholesale from Santa Claus.

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Posted in Opinion on December 11th, 2013 by byronkho

So this happened today in Fort Worth, Texas. Embellishments aside… the plain facts of the story are true.

Rather than spend twenty years in prison, 16-year old Ethan Couch received what was possibly the lightest sentence ever given to someone who killed 4 people during a night of drunken driving: 10 years of probation at a rest facility that would cost $450,000 a year. Couch’s attorneys successfully argued that his parents, and not him, were responsible for his actions that fateful night.

Since Ethan was a product of wealth and was allowed to do whatever he wanted – including driving cars and drinking booze since 13 – it was immediately apparent to the state district judge that this boy did not deserve to spend his days rotting away in jail and instead deserved a country club concierge doctor retreat in sunny California to while away his teen years.

In fact, that 10 years of probation might actually be too many, and it could be argued that the unusually harsh sentence – which includes no jail time – was a concession to the victims’ families. Dr. Dick Miller, testifying on Couch’s behalf, noted that Couch could be “salvaged” with 2 years of Emporio Armani velvet glove treatment and Ferrari races in the Southern California desert with “no contact with his parents” and easy access to blow and hookers. It is not apparent if the term will be lessened to 2 years at this time.

Dr. Dick Miller went on to say that Couch suffered from “affluenza,” a condition in which having never learned there were consequences to one’s behavior… Couch did not know there were consequences to his behavior. Upon returning home, Dr. Dick Miller learned to his chagrin that he had confused “psychopathy” with the real “affluenza,” a term used by leading psychologists to refer to the increased unhappiness, emotional distress and anxiety that result from an abnormal fixation on the pursuit and conquest of money. To combat his own growing case of affluenza, Dr. Dick Miller prescribed himself physical therapy: swimming lengths in the enormous gold coin-filled swimming pool addition on his Austin ranch, provided to him in thankful adoration by the Couch family.

Meanwhile, teens from poor families caught robbing the local grocery store and/or jaywalking continue to receive sentences of 10 to 20 years in juvenile prison facilities, where they are expected to receive the generously offered cut-rate poor people mental health counseling in dank sunless basement treatment rooms with plenty of oddly tight restraints, generic-brand 25% efficacy not-quite Prozac and carefully placed electrodes. Plus a bucket of water and rags for the face.

Word of the day: AFFLUENZA. Both definitions.

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Jeff Buckley and Dido’s Lament.

Posted in Music on December 11th, 2013 by byronkho

On July 1, 1995, Jeff Buckley – who made the ethereal and utterly definitive cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah – played a set with classical musicians Catherine Edwards, Ian Belton and Philip Sheppard. Their voice, piano, violin and cello quartet had been put together as part of the Meltdown Festival by that year’s curator, Elvis Costello. It’s a strange performance, one that is almost completely unrehearsed; indeed, Buckley barely made it to the short – and only – runthru directly before the show was to start at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Up to that point, many didn’t know that he had any sort of classical background, and for him to attempt the piece that he was to do… well, it must have seemed like madness.

Dido and Aeneas was an opera written by English Baroque composer Henry Purcell in or around 1688, and its most famous aria is “When I am laid in Earth,” known more commonly as “Dido’s Lament.” The role of Dido was typically sung by a high mezzo-soprano but on that day, Buckley was to fill Dido’s shoes in a dramatically high falsetto. He would come achingly close to breaking during the course of the number and withal bring a heightened sense of desperation, passion and authenticity to the aria. This was Buckley’s MO: constantly attempting to reset familiar tunes, resdiscovering or creating anew the lust, the sorrow, the heartbreak, the joy, the loss, the bitterness, the complexities, that had to exist somewhere in those familiar notes and words and lines.

Dido’s time on earth finishes with one last request: “Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.” Buckley died, in an accidental drowning, less than 2 years after singing these words. He was only 30.

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The Importance of Alma Reville.

Posted in History and Politics on December 10th, 2013 by byronkho

Alma Reville preceded her husband, Alfred Hitchcock, in the London movie business by 4 years.

“When they went to America in 1939, the difference in the Hollywood studio system – which gave Hitchcock less independence – meant that her role was no longer a professional one, and I imagine that must have been hard for her. But she was still incredibly influential: he always wanted her on set for the first week of filming, and it was Alma – ever the sharp editor – who famously noticed Janet Leigh blink while she lay as a ‘corpse’ in the shower. They re-cut the scene and it went on to be one of film’s most iconic moments.

In 1979, when Hitchcock was finally awarded the Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute, his acceptance speech named only four people: a film editor; a script writer; the mother of his daughter; and ‘as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen’. All of them were Alma Reville.”

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