Merry Christmas

hollyI really like Christmas, a wonderful secular (and spiritual) celebration originating in pagan solstice rituals and a minor Christian holiday (so minor that the Puritans proscribed it), elaborated to its present status mostly in the 19th century.

What I like about it, in no particular order, is

  • taking off a week or so from regular work for a shared special time
  • public celebrations and performances
  • all the music, from BWV 248 to Mariah Carey and even Richie Valens
  • peace on earth and good will to mankind
  • being out and about with your neighbors, shopping or just being there
  • giving kids (or grownups) presents that make their eyes light up
  • singing together in groups
  • overspending on charity, because it’s part of the whole idea, and because of the happy accident that most people’s fiscal year (for deductions) ends at almost the same time.
  • all the food from all the traditions; stollen, panettone, bûche de Noël, egg nog…bring it on!
  • Christmas trees, a unique home-made folk-art convention with wonderful variations
  • gathering families qua families to cook indulgent food and pig out together, and have friends over to enjoy each other
  • seasons, and the miracle that the days will get longer again

I even like the goofy paradoxes and associations it’s acquired, like celebrating an event that took place under palms and olive trees with all sorts of conifer/snowy landscape imagery, and the wonderful fact that the most popular American Christmas song was written by a Jewish refugee from pogroms orchestrated by soi-disant Christians who had the completely wrong idea about their faith (Isadore/Irving Beilin/Baline/Berlin).  I like it that the star in the east was actually in the west for the Oriental kings who followed it.  I love the animals in creches.

I don’t like the commercialization, or the ghastly house-decorating one-up-manship that breaks out on the occasional suburban street, or the curdled pietism among some of my fellow Jews that denies them participation in a year-end festival that is for everyone. No, you’re not a bad Jew if you take your kids to Nutcracker! and there’s nothing sectarian in A Christmas Carol, or even Santa Claus and his reindeer.  I forgive all of that, and I wish everyone more Christmas spirit.

I have no problem that practicing Christians today make a big deal out of its particular theological significance for them; Christmas is big, it embraces multitudes.  But I wish the more narrow-minded among them were more sharing and less narrow-minded, and insisted less that if it isn’t strictly Christian it’s damaged for them and disrespected; Jesus is a prophet in Islam, for Pete’s sake! Christmas is a non-rival good and has big network externalities: the more people that get into it, the more of it there is for you. Again, I forgive all of that, and I wish everyone more Christmas spirit.

Merry Christmas, everyone; Christian Christmas, seasonal Christmas, community Christmas, whatever: it has something for everyone. Enjoy it.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

7 thoughts on “Merry Christmas”

  1. Cotton Mather, him said: “Can you in your Conscience think, that our Holy Savior is honoured,” he wrote, “by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Revelling; by a Mass fit for none but a Saturn, or a Bacchus, or the Night of a Mahometan Ramadam?”

    Well, choosing between you and Cotton: you're my fave!

    1. Well, Cotton, that's more or less what he was accused of. Plus collaborators and hookers.

  2. And the same to you and yours [although we soon may be seeing palm and olive trees along Lake Michigan]!

  3. Of course, you have these two dramatically contrasting nativity narratives: Matthew's which takes place in a setting of violence and danger, and Luke's which takes place in a setting of tranquility and safety. Matthew's gospel has the three magi and King Herod's slaughter of the innocents, where Joseph has to go to Egypt to escape the danger. In Luke, it is so safe that the parents of baby Jesus can go up to Jerusalem to be presented at the temple. Not sure how the three "kings" story got started, but Herod's ruthlessness in pursuit of power tells you exactly what Matthew thinks of kings. So it was actually the three magicians, not the three kings (otherwise how could they have smoked a rubber cigar?)

  4. Two more reasons to like Christmas.
    – Nativity scenes. Luke's romanticised account has spun off much magnificent art, from Fra Angelico to Georges de la Tour. But even a kitsch chocolate Nativity is a social celebration of childbirth, the everyday miracle of new human life. You do not need to believe in the Incarnation to welcome this reminder.
    – Lights. Cheap LEDs have supported a proliferation of civic and commercial displays, and driven down their energy use. These are conspicuous consumption, but the right kind: longer-lasting fireworks.

    1. And the lovely thing about LED Christmas lights is, you can just leave them on, without worry about fire. They don't create enough heat to be a risk. Our Christmas tree stays lit 24/7 until New Year's day.

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