Merry Happy Whatever

I grew up in the 1950’s in a very small town in Upstate New York. Everyone I knew was white, except for one black family, whose father was (as I recall) a lawyer. After I was grown and gone, a Chinese-American family appeared, but I never knew them.

There were a few Jewish families, and an even smaller number of Catholics, but in general it was a very WASP-y place.

Christmas was, of course, the high point of the year for kids, except for the Jewish kids. We felt sorry for them, really. Sixty years later, I recognize that they certainly felt left out, and perhaps somewhat alien and disrespected, but we didn’t understand that then. The concept of marginalization hadn’t yet appeared. Christmas was the norm, as was being white and Protestant.

My mother, who was a considerate and forward-looking soul, taught us two things about celebrating Christmas. First, we should not say “Merry Christmas” to the Jewish kids, but rather “Happy Holidays”, so as not to be offensive. Second, religious Christmas cards were vulgar and should be avoided, since not everyone believes the same thing. They were, in fact, “Catholic”, which was a 1950’s WASP synonym for vulgar. Our nascent multiculturalism was imperfect.

Public schools all had Christmas programs or pageants. Most of the plays were Christmas-themed but secular, but musical programs always included religious Christmas carols. Christmas decorations in commercial areas leaned heavily toward Santas, elves, and reindeer, but even department stores occasionally had Nativity scenes in windows or angels hovering over aisles. So far from there being a war on Christmas, it was more that Christmas was staging a war on everything else. We thought nothing of this, naturally; it was the norm.

A lot of the overt religious things are gone from our public Christmas season now, and we are well rid of them. The thoughtless assumption that everyone is Christian is beginning to disappear from our cultural norms as our culture has become more varied. And it should disappear, no matter how much the Neanderthal right wails about the (non-existent) war on Christmas. I’m even uncomfortable with the continued huge display of secular Christmas themes, though I recognize the commercial motives for this. I also think this may be slightly mitigated by increasing (but still minor) public attention to other traditions’ holidays, like Hanukkah and Diwali. Maybe recognizing major holidays in non-Christian traditions makes it OK to recognize major Christian holidays too. I’m not sure.

However that is, one thing that irks me every Christmas is the caterwauling about “the war on Christmas”. When I was a child, and well past that time, the religious holiday of one religion dominated our commercial and cultural discourse, and that can only be wrong. There is no “war on Christmas”; there is only a belated and still fractional recognition that Christianity is only one of half a dozen major world religions, and that America is not and never was intended to be a “Christian nation”.




The Big Bad Wolf

After Trump huffed and puffed and blew down first the straw house of the Republican primaries and then the slightly stronger stick house of the general election, we have to wonder if we have a brick house that will finally thwart him.

Theoretically, that brick house should be the Electoral College. If there is any purpose at all for the institution, it should be to ensure that someone like Donald Trump cannot become President.

I hope the Electors — or at least enough of the Republican Electors — understand that they have an opportunity that generally only presents itself to characters like Captain America or the Fantastic Four. They have the opportunity with a single act to restore hope to at least two-thirds of the American public, to save American freedom, and quite possibly to save the world. All they have to do is elect someone other than Donald Trump. It doesn’t much matter who it is — even the odious Pence or the repellent Ted Cruz would be improvements — but they have to elect someone. If they take the half-measure of failing to decide and throwing the election into the House of Representatives, it won’t help. The House, led by the Coward-in-Chief Paul Ryan, would almost certainly elect Trump in that case.

But the Electors aren’t going to save us, of course. The Electoral College is not going to be the brick house. In forty-eight hours or so, we’ll hear that Trump has been elected.

At that point, our only remaining hope is that the Constitutional limits on Presidential power combined with a few good souls among the Republicans in the Congress can with the help of activists and a vigilant press construct a house Trump can’t blow down. We have to hope this, and work to make it true.


Yersinia Pestis, and Other Plagues

In late 1346, the Genoese trading settlement at Caffa on the Black Sea was besieged by Mongol Tartars seeking to oust the Genoese from the town. The Tartars brought war with them, but also disease; Central Asia had been suffering from a plague epidemic for several years before.

By April, 1347, the majority of besiegers and townspeople were dead of either battle or illness. The remaining Genoese abandoned Caffa and fled westward to Constantinople, to Messina in Sicily, to Genoa itself, and to French Mediterranean ports. When the Genoese galleys arrived in the Italian and French ports, they carried dead and diseased passengers, and rats. The passengers carried the wildly contagious pneumonic form of the bubonic plague. The rats carried fleas, who in turn carried the bacterium yersinia pestis, the organism responsible for bubonic plague. By late 1347, the plague had spread throughout Italy; by January, 1348, it had reached France, Spain, Portugal, and England. Later that year, it reached Germany and the Low Countries.

By the end of 1350, something between one third and one half of the population of Western Europe was dead, including half of the population of Paris and as much as two-thirds of the populations of London, Florence, Hamburg, and Bremen. Fully 20 percent of the roughly 170,000 villages and towns that had existed in Germany before 1348 vanished completely in the three years of the Great Mortality, the Black Death. The European world was changed utterly, to an extent that even two much-later world wars couldn’t match.

Medieval people understood more about the mechanism of disease than we sometimes assume today. They understood the idea of contagion, that people who were exposed to people who were sick could get sick themselves. Having no understanding of bacteria, they still understood that something unseen — perhaps the breath, perhaps something else — could pass disease from one person to another. Some people, notably the Moors in Spain and perhaps Guy de Chauliac, physician to Pope Clement VI in Avignon, had some inkling that hygiene could have an impact on the spread of the plague, though they didn’t know why. Some people tried to avoid spices and other goods that might have been on Genoese ships, believing that those goods might somehow “store” the plague. Many people understood that people who had had the plague and somehow recovered were unlikely to get it again.

Of course, their understanding was incomplete. They didn’t understand the roles of yersinia pestis, or of rats or the fleas they carried. Most of all, though, they had no tools with which to fight the plague, beyond time and prayers. They attempted to retard its advance by banning ships and travelers from plague areas, and by burning huge fires in the hope that the smoke would stop the plague. But nothing worked; the plague continued to move through Europe. They had no way to make it stop.

By the time the plague reached France in 1348, a conspiracy theory — fake news, if you will — had arisen. The theory offered people the gift of believing that they could control the plague, and the hope that they could, in fact, make it stop. The idea was that the plague was caused by the Jews, either through poisoning the wells or through the application of witchcraft.

Everyone knew, at least in their inner hearts, that this was a lie. It was widely understood that the plague arrived on ships from Central Asia, and that it was spread at least in part by contact with the sick. But the complex truth didn’t offer the easy way out provided by the simple lie, and murders of Jews began. The first massacre was in Toulon, France, in April, 1348, and the anti-Jewish movement spread as fast as the plague through the rest of Western Europe, first to Portugal and then to Germany, Switzerland, and the Low Countries.

In 1348, Pope Clement VI, inspired by charity, common sense and his physician Guy de Chauliac, issued two papal bulls stating forcefully that the Jews were not responsible for the plague, saying that those who blamed the Jews “had been seduced by that liar, the devil.” But the bulls had little effect; even the threat of damnation could not overcome that most powerful of human ideas, the idea that if we can get rid of those people who are different from us, our troubles will be over.

By mid-1349, over 500 Jewish communities had been destroyed. Huge numbers of Jews were stoned to death, lynched, or burned at the stake, with notable massacres in Aragon, Flanders, Strasbourg, and many other places. In January, 1349, the entire Jewish population of Basel was burned; in March of the same year, the people of the city of Erfurt killed every Jew residing there. On a single day in August, 1349, the 6,000-member Jewish community in Mainz, the largest Jewish center in Europe, was eradicated. Jews in some communities killed themselves to escape the persecution; others fled east to Poland, where King Casimir III offered them sanctuary.  By 1350, there were virtually no Jews remaining in the Low Countries or in most of Germany. From that point forward, the majority of European Jews — 70% or more — resided east of Germany, primarily in Poland. The effect of the plague conspiracy theory had shifted the center of Ashkenazi Jewish culture from Western Europe (primarily Germany) to the east.

For six hundred years after the Great Mortality, Europe’s Jews survived and sometimes prospered, through purges and czarist pogroms in the east and the Inquisition and subtler actions in the west. By 1939, there were 9.5 million Jews in Europe, about 55 percent of the world’s Jewish population of around 17 million. Of the European Jews, roughly two-thirds, six million or so, lived east of Germany, 3.5 million in Poland alone.

We know what happened then: the Greatest German Liar convinced his people that “Jewish Bolshevists” were intent on destroying Aryan culture, thus creating a new edition of if we can get rid of those people who are different from us, our troubles will be over. By 1945, six million European Jews had been murdered. Almost all of Poland’s 3.5 million Jews were lost; after the war, it was estimated that perhaps 120,000 — about four per cent — were still alive. Today, 70 years after the Holocaust, the Jewish population of the world has reached about 14 million, or just over 80 per cent of what it was in 1939. Fewer than 20 per cent of these live in Europe.

The history of European Jewry is to a large extent the history of if we can get rid of those people who are different from us, our troubles will be over. The Jews are not alone in this, of course; this is also the history of Europe’s Roma population and to some extent of America’s Native Americans, to name just two groups. Apparently we cannot learn, still today, that leaders and movements who arrive with the message if we can get rid of those people who are different from us, our troubles will be over are always lying, and will never bring us anything good. Every world religion I know anything about contains parables and stories designed to counter this idea. St. Luke gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan, and there are many others. But they haven’t been able to put a dent in this most powerful, seductive lie.

I find myself thinking of Pope Clement and his warning to 14th-century Europeans that they had been “seduced by that liar, the devil.” But he couldn’t convince his people then. No one has convinced us yet.


For those who would like to know more about the Great Mortality of 1348 – 1351, I recommend the book The Great Mortality, by John Kelly (Harper Collins, 2005). For more information about the Nazi Holocaust, I’d suggest starting with the web site of Yad Vashem.