Friday, November 30, 2007

An embarrassing moment, with worse disaster averted!

The fifth-graders in our catechism class were having a hard time remembering our names, and I realized that was because we'd never really written them out. So a few weeks ago I printed our names on the whiteboard: "Mrs. Julie --------" (the teacher), and "Miss Rachel Gray" (I'm her helper). It wasn't until I had neatly finished this task that I realized I was writing not with a dry erase marker, but with a permanent sharpie.

You know that sinking feeling of impending horror that comes when you realize you've just done some incredibly dumb thing that's going to be very hard to fix? I tried to ignore it. But half an hour later, Julie attempted to erase the board and our names insisted on staying put in all their colorful glory. She was surprised but went on teaching. I stood to the side and reflected that we were in the very same classroom that Fr. Ed uses for his class on the Ignatian exercises. I go to that class and I know most of the people in it. And they know me. I envisioned us all gathering there, bright and early on Sunday morning, and finding a whiteboard proclaiming in red marker: "Miss Rachel Gray!" I had to get the names off before then. Alcohol would help, but I didn't have any on hand. As the class broke into groups for a project, I was making desperate plans to drive the hour plus to work and bring some ethanol back to church...

Then I reflected that if you have dried, set nail polish on your nail, and you paint over it with a fresh wet layer and immediately wipe the nail with a paper towel, both layers of polish come off. Weird but true: the top layer liquifies the one underneath. It was worth trying, so I grabbed a genuine dry erase marker and traced over our sharpied names. And then they erased! Cleverness cancels out stupidity! :)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Apocrypha Apocrypha Apocrypha

I've kept this to myself for a year, but now I must speak.

There are seven books of the Old Testament (as well as some bits and pieces in a few other books) that aren't in Protestant Bibles because they were kicked out in the 1500's as the Protestant denominations formed. At the same time Catholics started referring to those parts of the Bible as the "deuterocanonical books". Deuterocanonical means "second canon", which is a bit misleading. The phrase also sounds dorky, has eight syllables and is a pain to say.

Protestants have their own name for the disputed sections: they call them the Apocrypha. That name means "hidden things". It's shorter, it's got punchy consonants and it sounds really, really cool. Pop culture knows this. There's a rock band called Apocrypha, a sort of new age folk Hungarian musical album named Apocrypha, an episode of Law and Order named Apocrypha and an episode of the X-Files named Apocrypha. Do you know any X-Files episodes named The Deuterocanonical Books? Yeah, I didn't think so. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before some celebrity baby gets named Apocrypha Paltrow.

I'm Catholic now and I can't let my side down. But I wish we'd ditch our term and steal the Protestants' instead. It's just so much more fun to say!

Apocrypha. ;)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Janitors make my head tingle

More than ten years ago I was sitting on a bed in my new dorm room in my first year at Caltech. (Hey! I see you doing that math in your head! Stop that!) I had an open book on my lap and an apple in my hand. The door behind me was open and Rosie, our friendly custodian from Guatemala, was moving down the hall cleaning all the rooms.

She came into mine and started scrubbing the sink. I bit into my apple, and a rush of tingly feeling swept through my head. It was very pleasant, but odd. The apple was sweet and crunchy; I looked at it with suspicion. Had it fermented? Was my fruit alcoholic? Eagerly I took another bite. The tingling continued.

Eventually it faded, and I never did find another apple with that same wonderful effect. But most curious to relate, I did feel that effect whenever Rosie came in to clean the room! I soon theorized that one of her cleaning solutions was causing it, and I used to inhale deeply as soon as she arrived. I told no one what I was experiencing.

Four years later I landed a job in the cytogenetics department of a cancer hospital. A young man from Africa used to come through at the end of every day to empty our trash. He wasn't pulling any cart of cleaning chemicals with him-- just a big trash barrel. Yet whenever he swept by me, that same headrush would start up. I was oddly pleased, the first time it happened, to realize that my days of getting all tingly in the presence of a custodian were not over after all. I figured there must be some chemical scent clinging to his clothes and setting me off

Now I'm in a developmental biology lab, and the janitor, a middle-aged east Asian man, comes through once a day. He brings his big trash can and nothing else. And yes-- he makes my head tingle.

At this point I'm wondering if there really is a mysterious cleaning chemical out there that's so potent just a whiff of it sets me off. Maybe I've just developed a very odd psychosomatic reaction to custodians. At least it's a pleasant one!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness' sake!

Spot the logical flaw in those lyrics? If you're being good because Santa will know if you're not, then you're not being good just for the sake of goodness, now are you?

Okay, so I could never write anything that catchy. I can still critique it!

Here's Calvin's take on it all.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Pop culture: always narrowminded.

The last post leads to this thought:

All sorts of things used to be considered immoral and aren't any more. There are plenty of books and plays and especially movies that celebrate brave young people who dare to challenge the stifling, uncompassionate, narrow-minded rules of society. I think of Age of Innocence, Vera Drake, The Apartment, People Will Talk, and anything about Oscar Wilde. But those stories are all set at least fifty years in the past. They have to be; it's hard to manufacture such a storyline today. Who'd care if a rich woman fell in love with a poor man? Who'd care if lovers engaged in an affair without getting married? Who'd be shocked if a woman was pregnant out of wedlock? Now, I imagine, people think we're nearly free of the tyranny of the old rules. It's still fun to celebrate knocking them down, but it's an exercise in nostalgia.

Except that, when you look at it, the worldview presented to us by popular culture today is extremely restrictive in its own way. And it's in Hollywood, that cheerleader of destroying outmoded morality, where that worldview is in strictest force.

Seen any movies recently where the lead character falls into bed with someone and this is presented as a bad choice? (When it's not a spy with a sexy double agent?) Any movies set in the present that show an attractive and well-adjusted adult who remains a virgin though presented with opportunities not to be? Any movies with a character who is both intelligent and deeply religious, in such a way that he is actually influenced by his religion and doesn't just wear it like an aesthetically pleasing charm? Any movies that show a person who's attracted to the same sex, who manages with great effort and therapy and prayer to change his or her orientation to straight, and is very happy to have done so? Any movies that show a man trying desperately to convince his girlfriend not to have an abortion and feeling shattered when she does anyway?

All these things happen in real life, but you wouldn't know it from the movies. You may say that movies avoid these scenarios because they want to avoid controversy. But I think it's clear that there are plenty of movie makers who embrace controversy, as long as it offends the right people. Offend the wrong people, the liberal powers-that-be in Hollywood, and that movie's not likely to get made.

The older I get, the more curmudgeonly I feel about pop culture. :)

I'd love to hear about movies that break those trends, if anyone knows of some!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

An appalling roommate law

A real estate question-and-answer column in the LA Times offers this information to a woman looking to advertise for a roommate: "The Fair Housing Act... makes it illegal for newspapers to publish an ad that indicates your preference for someone of a specific race, religion, national origin, disability, gender or familial status."

I can't quite believe I read that right.

This isn't a landlord looking for tenants. This is a woman looking for a roommate. And she's not allowed to advertise a preference for who she wants to live with?

Even if she wanted to advertise specifically for a green-polka-dotted neo-Nazi genius Branch Davidian divorced psychopath, it should not be the state's business to force her to consider any others! What happened to right of association? (Of course a newspaper may choose not to run such an ad based on its own policies; that's a different matter.)

But what's most unbelievable is that she can't express a preference for gender. Her ad must be open to men as well as women. Never mind that any modest woman would be deeply uncomfortable living with a man who's a complete stranger. Never mind that two unmarried people of the opposite sex living together is something that was once universally considered to be flat immoral. (Amazing to think, only about fifty years ago the practice was even outlawed in many places.) Of course it still violates the moral standards of a great many people. But that's just too bad-- the state now forces you to be open to it. Mustn't be biased.

Of course if she wants a female roommate she can politely decline any men who might answer the ad. But think of the needless trouble and stress this puts her through (and the waste of time for the men). It's all courtesy of lawmakers who surely were not in the fix of needing roommates themselves. I bet they felt very good about their open-minded tolerance as they voted to force others through these difficult hoops.

Well, that was a somewhat unenlightening rant, but I wanted to get it off my chest.

Friday, November 23, 2007

What's wrong with this paragraph?

From the novel Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown:

Now the girl in front looked furious. "You're implying Christianity is just some kind of ... repackaged sun worship!"

"Not at all. Christianity did not borrow only from sun worship. The ritual of Christian canonization is taken from the ancient 'god-making' rite of Euhemerus. The practice of 'god-eating' -- that is, Holy Communion -- was borrowed from the Aztecs. Even the concept of Christ dying for our sins is arguably not exclusively Christian; the self-sacrifice of a young man to absolve the sins of his people appears in the earliest tradition of the Quetzalcoatl."

There's something very specifically and obviously ridiculous here. Spot it, my smart friends! I myself was reading so quickly and uncritically that I didn't notice!

Peter T. Chattaway has the answer.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving message

On this day when our entire nation gathers to give thanks, I would just like to say...

You're welcome. :)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A surprising reflection

It was about 12:40 PM on a bright Sunday afternoon when I pulled into one of the last free parking spots at St. Peter Chanel for the traditional Latin Mass. I spent a minute in the car putting on a mantilla (a friend gave me the tip of sewing it to a headband; easier and more reliable than bobby pins). I swung my bag over my shoulder, put on my big bug-eye sunglasses, and started to step out toward the church. Then I caught my reflection in the tinted window of an SUV. And I looked like someone. I couldn't quite say who, but it was a certain look I'd often seen before and never dreamed of sporting myself.

Now, a few weeks later, I have figured it out. The reflection in the SUV window was that of Jackie Kennedy. Yes! Except for the fact that she was a glamorous brunette beauty and I am not, I looked just like her!

I tried to find a picture of exactly what I mean, but these will have to do. This illustrates the sunglasses, this illustrates the mantilla, this illustrates the odd things you can buy from Franklin Mint, and this illustrates that Paris Hilton likes the look too.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Dead Sea Scrolls, Part 3

One part of the exhibit that arrested my attention was the timeline of all the various world religions. It was introduced with a little blurb printed on the wall which explained condescendingly that peoples throughout history have been shaped by the religious beliefs of their regions, but "today for the first time we can ask: 'What do I believe?'" Seriously. That might not be an exact quote, but it's very close. The exhibit clearly indicated that only in these modern times have humans had freedom of thought.

Of course, even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows that people in Jesus' day, both Jews and Gentiles, were plenty capable of evaluating religious claims for themselves and accepting or rejecting them as they chose, regardless of what others around them did. And the exhibit's own timeline provided another example: Plato, who questioned the existence of the Greek gods. Even without historical examples, it's pretty clear from human nature that individuals, though greatly shaped by their culture and by the information available to them, still draw their own conclusions in their own minds. To suggest that people of the past weren't able consciously to examine their beliefs is profoundly stupid.

I'm interested in that kind of stupidity. I'm sure whoever put the exhibit together for the museum was very highly qualified in terms of educational and career credentials. A PhD in history or religion, no doubt. Perhaps well-known in his field-- I'm sure you'd need to be a scholarly heavyweight to get to write material for a major exhibition in a major museum. And yet this person, whose raw intelligence may well outstrip my own, made an unbelievably moronic statement which nobody corrected. How could this happen? The only explanation I can think of is that it happened the way certain embarrassing blunders in the news media have happened: when everyone involved on a project is biased the same way, mistakes that flatter that bias don't always get caught.

It's true all right that people are profoundly influenced by the culture around them and thus can miss wider truths. I wonder if the class of modern-day intellectuals who seem to staff most museums realizes that this applies as much to them and their rarefied culture as to any other in history.

"Today, for the first time, people can ask, 'What do I believe?'" Just unbelievable. It takes a very highly educated person to be that dumb.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Dead Sea Scrolls, part two

I expected the San Diego Natural History Museum to offer a thoroughly secular presentation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it met my expectations. :) The exhibit did make the point that the scrolls of Biblical books found at Qumran were more than a thousand years older than the previous oldest-known Hebrew copies of those books, and the Scrolls' agreement with the newer copies showed the accuracy of scribes' copywork over time.

One manuscript was all in an old style of Hebrew text except for four dots • • • • that appeared often throughout the text. This, I learned, represented the name of God. Not only would devout Hebrews not pronounce the sacred name of YHWH aloud, but apparently they sometimes wouldn't even write the letters. (I've seen Jews on the Internet today write "G-d" instead of "God" for the same reason.) Other scrolls were written in the familiar square-ish Hebrew letters, very similar to modern Hebrew (at least to my untrained eye), but any time the name YHWH came up it was written in a much older form of script called paleo-Hebrew. This of course made the name of God leap out from the page. I leaned close to these scrolls, fogging the display case with my breath, to trace the lines with my eyes and find all the places God's name graced the text. I could envision an ancient Jewish scribe carefully copying the letters, perhaps meditating on the passage as he inscribed it, deeply engaged in his sacred task as would be the Christian monks hundreds of years later.

(As a side note, I always thought it was incredibly sad that Christian troops in one of the Crusades, who were supposed to be retaking Jerusalem from the Muslims, found time to attack Jewish synagogues and tore up or burned the copies of the Torah they found there. Not only was that a terrible failure of charity, but they were desecrating their own Bible!)

Most translations of the Old Testament use the name "Lord" to translate two different Hebrew words: Adoni and YHWH. The first is a generic title that could be used for a human person of authority as well as for God. The second is the proper name of God, the name he gave to Moses. In order to distinguish between the two words, Bibles will usually print "Lord" for Adoni and LORD for YHWH. Thus you get a verse like this: "O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!" The word LORD jumps out at you-- just like it does in the Hebrew originals. I always figured that printing LORD in all caps was nothing but a way to deal with a shortage of English words to correspond to all the Hebrew names. But perhaps the translators were also trying to translate the visual distinctiveness of the name of God, inspired by those ancient Hebrew scribes.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Spoken by my boss when I walked into his office today:

"Geez, you got thin!"

He didn't sound like he was trying to be complimentary, but this spontaneous exclamation from a crusty old guy was a most gratifying compliment. :)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Two Missions and the Dead Sea Scrolls

What a fabulous day I've had. After morning prayer and Mass at my church I gathered with three friends and one of our priests who to our delight had been willing to join us on his day off. We drove down to San Juan Capistrano to check out the mission, then drove to the San Diego Natural History Museum to take in the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, then went straight to the Mission Basilica of San Diego de Alcala and explored that, then stayed for evening Mass in the mission church, then had dinner and went home. I doubt I'll find time to type all I thought of the three sites, so let this sum it up: it was interesting!

The company was as much a part of the fun as were the destinations. We prayed the Angelus at noon, and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy at 3 PM, and midday and evening prayer as the sun was setting, and the Rosary in the car both driving there and driving back, and were just generally very Catholic all day (except perhaps towards the end of the drive home when we three girls in the back seat became very tired and hence a bit silly...) It was just like a one-day pilgrimage.

The San Diego mission turned out to be my favorite part of the trip. San Juan Capistrano was crowded with kids on school trips and volunteers and other visitors, but at the San Diego mission we were almost the only ones there. We wandered around in the twilight just absorbing the history of the place. As with all the grand old churches I saw in Mexico, I found it both thrilling and comforting to be at a site that has great significance in the Catholic past and at the same time is still a living parish. (Boy, if that kind of thing inspires me I really ought to go to Rome.) There was a new chapel on the grounds that housed a fabulous old altar and throne and choir stalls, all from the 1300's, carved of wood and brightly decorated. There's adoration in that chapel every month. Father told us the choir stalls are like the ones they use in the Carthusian monastery where he spent a few years; there's another example of something being really old and also current. In the last light of day we went to the beautiful garden in the central courtyard and settled down to pray the Hours. ("BYOB," someone said as we left the car. I had to think about it before I realized that meant "Bring your own breviary.") I've done morning prayer often enough but never midday and evening prayer; the readings are altered to suit the time of day so it was interesting to find a different tone in the Office than I'm used to.

Now I'm exhausted, but you know, it's a good tired.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

How to catch a husband

I found this advice to single women in an old book. It's from 1936 or before:

"Men, as a rule, are much less willing to marry than are women. Therefore, since most marriages are brought about by the young woman, when you meet a good man whom you think you would like to marry, go about the business of tactfully, intelligently, and virtuously interesting him and, after you are sure he is the man for you, subtly persuade him to believe that he wants to marry you and with chaste and charming womanly wiles get him to propose to you. Don't wait for the young man to take all the steps. Employ the approved and maidenly arts by which the interest of a man is won. Make the natural and quite proper overtures to marriage."

I find I have two quite different responses:

1) This would've been a great deal more interesting had the author troubled to enumerate the "charming womanly wiles" and "approved and maidenly arts" to which she referred.

2) Honestly, if the man has to be subtly persuaded to believe he wants to marry me, I might rather let him off the hook.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Do I dare cut my own hair?

All this time I've been paying professionals to trim my hair every few months, and now I find there are lots of pages on the Internet about cutting your own. In particular, you're supposed to be able to get a decent layered style if you just gather all your hair on the very top of your head, twist it around, and trim off the end with haircutting scissors. The model pictured here does a lot hair product commercials, and she declares that she always cuts her own hair using that very method. If it's good enough for a hair model...

My hair grows slowly and I trim it reluctantly, only when the ends are clearly getting uneven. My dream is to have it long, but every time I have it trimmed I run the risk of encountering a hairstylist who lacks sympathy for this goal. She wants my hair looking neat and even, and she can hardly resist cutting off two and a half inches when I ask for one.

I'm pretty sure I can go scissors-happy myself just as well, and for less money and time! Next time I need a trim, I'm trying it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


I always wondered what that French oath meant; it sounds like it means "sacred blue". Turns out, that's just what it does mean. It's a reference to Mary, who's so often depicted wearing blue.

When I was confirmed my sponsor gave me a little icon of Mary and Jesus, very similar to this picture here, in which the Blessed Mother is dressed in royal scarlet red. That's how she was commonly shown in icons in the East in the early centuries of Christianity. So how did blue come to be her color? Apparently, it happened because in medieval times, the way to get a good rich blue pigment for paintings was to crush up the semiprecious gemstone lapis lazuli. Naturally that was very expensive, and so blue came to be associated with the most sacred subjects.

I illustrate with this miniature from a cool manuscript I found today. Eve on the right feeds the forbidden fruit the serpent gives her to her children, causing their death, while Mary on the left feeds them the Eucharist, the body of her Son, giving them eternal life. (Meanwhile, Adam just looks out of it.)

Addendum: I can't resist adding this picture too, since it's such a good example of the sparing use of blue except for Mary, and since it's just a rockin' awesome painting of Pentecost. This was painted by Jean Restout in France in 1732. It's fun to look at the different reactions of the disciples: some prayerful, some apprehensive, some terrified and doing their best to run. :) Mary is the calmest and happiest of all, but then, she's been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit before.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Liturgy of the Hours

Today, as on any other morning at St. Peter Chanel, the Liturgy of the Hours began at 7:25 AM. The priests began gathering with the laypeople in the back of the church a few minutes before that. I studied the "Saint Joseph Guide for the Liturgy of the Hours", which offered the following cryptic instructions for today:

10. Sat. St. Leo the Great, Po & D (Mem) (1548)
From Com of Pas 1748 or D 1777
OOR 1067, Rd 495 & 1549, Pr 1551
MP from Com, Ps 1072, Ant & Pr 1551; DP 1076
EP I (of Sunday) 1081, Ant & Pr 500; NP 1233

Theoretically, this gave me all I needed to know to find the right place in my breviary at all times.

So we kicked off as usual with the Invitatory on page 613.
Then over to page 1777 for the antiphon.
Psalm 95 is always on page 613.
For the antiphon after each strophe we flipped back to page 1777.
The hymn was taken from the Common of Doctors of the Church on page 1784.
Psalmody came from the Psalter, Saturday of Week III, page 1067.
The first reading and its responsory were found on page 495.
The second reading and its responsory came from the Proper of Saints on page 1549.
Morning Prayer started in the Psalter on page 1072.
The reading came from the Common of Doctors of the Church, on page 1783.
The antiphon came from the Proper of Saints, page 1551.
The Canticle of Zechariah is always found on page 620
We flipped back to page 1551 for the antiphon at the end.
Intercessions came from the Common of Pastors on page 1765
The Prayer was in the Proper of Saints, page 1551.
And at last we snapped our breviaries shut. The whole thing took about twenty-five minutes and a mere twenty or so page flips.

When I was learning how to pray the Hours, I found pages of instructions on the Internet brightly telling me how easy it is, how effortlessly I'd be reciting the Liturgy in very short order. It's all been much simplified since Vatican II, they assured me. Now laypeople can join in, no problem.

It may be true that the Liturgy of the Hours has been greatly simplified, and we do indeed have lots of laypeople joining in. But I'm here to tell you that it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, easy!

As a side note, today we were commemorating a man who was made Pope, and after his death was declared a Saint, and given the title "the Great", and made a Doctor of the Church. Doctor Pope Saint Leo the Great. His mother must be so proud. :)

Friday, November 09, 2007

Fun nun story

I heard this from a friend who volunteers for the Missionaries of Charity. The MCs wear white saris, and over their saris are blue-striped veils that cover the head, gather on the shoulder, and sweep around the whole body down to the ankles-- see here, here, and here. I haven't quite ascertained the exact shape of these things. Putting them on seems slightly complicated, but the sisters told my friend that they do it quickly, in the dark, every morning.

But one day a couple of them needed to see a doctor. My friend took them in her car, and ended up in the exam room with them, where they had to take off the veils and put them back on afterwards. And they got all confused. It was light in the room and they could see what they were doing, which really threw them off!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

"Overweight" people live longer

According to this article. It says that if you divide people into four categories-- underweight, normal weight, overweight and obese-- the overweight people have the longest lives. At least, I assume that's what the article means; what it actually says is that overweight people "have a lower death rate." I wouldn't wish to impugn the accuracy of the scientific reporting of the New York Times, but I'm pretty sure the death rate is holding steady at 100% for all groups. :)

But anyway, if overweight people really live longer, we obviously need to redefine the category!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Fires, part 3

I've mentioned the friends of our family who own a house up in Lake Arrowhead right where the recent fires were burning. I fully expected the house to be burned down, but it was spared along with the immediate neighborhood, thanks be to God. Hundreds of houses in that town did burn, though, including many within walking distance of our friends' house. The area must be quite burnt out-- all those homes with their priceless memories destroyed....

My parents have gone to visit with our friends for a night, and my mom thought she'd bring a hostess gift. So what do you suppose she bought them? A candle. Yes, you read that right-- Mom got them something that burns.

When she realized what she'd done, she figured she might as well play it to the hilt. So I printed out a picture for her of some firefighters desperately keeping back a huge blaze from a lovely home, and Mom wrote "Happy Housewarming!" on the picture and taped it to the candle.

We're a tactless people. :)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Yes sir, yes sir, five bags full!

(From Baa Baa Black Sheep, just in case you thought I was going crazy.)

It was with great satisfaction and not a little ruthlessness that I began a few days ago to yank books off my shelves and pile them into bags. My big double case was overstuffed with every book I've bought or been given from childhood on, and most them, in all likelihood, I will never find time to read again. Ditto for all the movies and TV episodes I taped so carefully on VHS in years past.

So out with the collection of Star Trek books (I saved a few sentimental favorites). Out with all the war books (except everything on prisoners of war in WWII; that's an arcane interest of mine that fills a whole shelf by itself). Out with all the erudite classics I bought for high school and college classes-- I'm glad I was forced to read them once, but if I ever want them again that's what the library is for. And out with the videos of nearly every playoff game the Spurs were in from 2002 to 2005. (Did I really tape Spurs vs Suns, Round One of four postseason rounds, Game Three of a seven-game series, from 2003, complete with postgame interviews, and with commercials carefully edited out, on the theory that one day I'd need to see it again? I guess I did.)

Somehow I couldn't part with any of my Walter Farley or John R. Tunis books. They were the joy of my childhood and I went to such effort to amass them. I still remember the thrill of finding the last two Tunis books I wanted at the legendary Powell's when my parents took me there one summer.

And needless to say, nothing C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien ever touched was thrown away, except for some books of which I had multiple copies. But even with those exceptions I was able to fill five big grocery paper bags full of books to be donated. I thought of selling them on eBay but the average profit margin there would be about $1.50 per book, not nearly enough to compensate me for the time spent listing and shipping them.

As for the videos, they're filling up an entire garbage can. (They're not stacked very efficiently in there, but still!)

Feels good to rid myself of possessions!

Monday, November 05, 2007

The date of Christmas

Okay, another Christmas post. My treasured anti-Christmas pamphlet says that the Catholics purposely set their feast on the same day as a Roman pagan festival. I grew up believing this myself (though I thought of the culprits as "the early Christians", not "the Catholics"). And I always thought, "So what?" If the pagans had a feast of joy and celebration and light on one of the darkest nights of winter, who wouldn't want to appropriate that? Why not steal their thunder, take their nifty feast, and celebrate our God instead? All's fair in love and feastdays.

But recently I looked into the date of Christmas, and apparently it was originally celebrated on many different dates in different places, and nobody saw fit to preserve a record of why any of those dates were used. There doesn't seem to be a shred of direct historical evidence that December 25th was chosen to upstage Natalis Invicti. It looks like the rumor of this started with some post hoc ergo prompter hoc reasoning, and the story was so plausible it stuck. It might be true, but it's a theory rather than a fact.

Anyway, I assume the pagans had a lot of feast days and so did the Christians. It'd be odd if some of them didn't overlap. Did you know that if you have 23 people in a room, the odds are mathematically in favor of two of them sharing a birthday? But that's another post.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Banning Christmas

The incident related in the last post was not the first time I ever heard of people wanting to outlaw Christmas. It has a long pedigree, as I first learned from an excellent summer school history teacher, Dr. Fisher. He told his surprised American History class that he considered himself a Puritan, like the pilgrims who settled our country, and he enjoyed relating to us a story that took place at Plymouth Plantation in 1627. I'll quote it from Governor William Bradford's Of Plimouth Plantation (he sometimes refers to himself in third person):

And herewith I shall end this year. Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth than of weight. On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used. But most of this new company [adventurers who had arrived on a later ship] excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar [a sort of javelin throwing], and some at stool-ball [a game something like cricket] and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least not openly.

Dr. Fisher informed us that stool-ball is very similar to baseball and so baseball in America goes way back. :) For our Puritan forefathers, getting rid of Christmas was part of "purifying" Christian doctrine and practice from Catholic influence. They didn't believe in ornaments and ritual in churches and got rid of statues, musical organs, genuflecting, vestments, crosses, and the like. I grew up in a Congregational church, a denomination that descended from the Puritans. The walls of our church buildings were all white and clean, except that the children's Sunday School rooms had plenty of bright decorations, and the high school youth group's room had one poster of the names of God that our wonderful youth pastor had put up. To my surprise, a group leader told me that this poster was somewhat illicit, as our walls were supposed to be bare. At the time I didn't understand the policy; now I wonder if it had anything to do with our denominational history.

Getting back to Christmas, in 1644 the Puritans in England's Parliament passed an act forbidding it. "The day was to be a fast and a market day; shops were compelled to be open; plum puddings and mince pies condemned as heathen." So this wasn't just a fringe idea in one small American settlement! The colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut also outlawed Christmas at one point.

I conclude that when the ACLU kicks up a fuss every year about Christmas celebrations, they're only fighting for the preservation of our Puritan heritage. :)

Saturday, November 03, 2007

I'll be sure to wear the mantilla to my next Christ Mass ;)

Not long ago I was looking to buy another mantilla for church. It's been years since Catholic women were all required to wear veils or hats at Mass, but a number of them still do and I found plenty of places to get mantillas online. Eventually I settled on buying one from a woman who lives on a farm somewhere and makes clothes to order. One can tell from her site that she's a happy, convinced, fundamentalist Christian.  Her order form offered the option of requesting some free literature, and I, intrigued, said yes.

So my order arrived yesterday, accompanied by a whole stack of booklets, pamphlets, a magazine and even a small book, all on various Christian subjects. The stack was neatly tied with a lavender ribbon, and right on top was a little gem of a pamphlet entitled: My Lord Has Not Told Me To Do It: The Christian and "Christmas". This tract argued earnestly that Christmas is of pagan origin and should not be observed. I was immediately arrested by the third paragraph:

As for the word "Christ-mass," we prefer not even to take it on our lips. Think of associating the title of our blessed Lord with the abominable, Romanized, heathen mass! The modification with the Greek initial (Xmas) is preferable to us, for it at least leaves the precious name of our Savior out of the shameful affair.

And this:

As to its origin, Xmas was originally a Roman heathen celebration of the birthday of the sun god. It was taken over by the Catholics, with such changes as suited their abominable idolatry. And then the Protestant daughters followed the "Mother of Harlots" (Rev. 17:5), and modified it a little more till they think they are now honoring the Lord by its observance.

Now that's customer service!