Monday, December 01, 2008

Assassination Holiday and the War on Xmas

by AF

I. Assassination Holiday

In her fun, fact-filled 2005 travelogue, Assassination Vacation, the always delightful Sarah Vowell shares her road trip experiences through a variegated landscape of American sites and communities connected to the deaths of three of our four presidents who were murdered while in office. She had set out to investigate a number of often obscure historical anomalies and previously known but unexplored circumstances surrounding - and sometimes tying together - the separate fates of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley.

At a packed-house promotional appearance for the book - where I was lucky enough to have a prime seat - the author answered a question about her rationale for choosing to exclude from her book anything about JFK, our only other martyred president after those three. "Oh, it's been done to death," she deadpanned. But this was just her witty and concise lead-in to a well reasoned off-the-cuff explication of how she limited her scope of interest for this book. Like anything else that passes her droll lips, this held the entire audience rapt, hanging on every word.

What I took away from all she said, beyond how wonderfully she said it, was a basic understanding of her wanting to avoid having to sort out all the "urban legend" sensationalism from the stuff that constitutes actual folklore in the traditional sense. The assassinations she writes about long predate the concept of "urban legend."

For those of us still around and lucid after having survived that nearly half-century old national trauma, Vowell also feels that her distinctive humorous perspective on the subject might just be a little, uh... "too soon?"

November 22 marks another anniversary of the day modern history took that traumatic turn. Up until the numbers 9 and 11 came to be the presumed reference for any suggestion of a "National Day of Remembrance," it was Kennedy's assassination that we all flashed back on as the incident seared into our collective living memory. We never thought we would ever get past that. And we didn't until we were able to witness an even more spectacular earth-shaking blow to our national psyche after 38 years of technological advances brought live coverage of it through the magic of hi-def TV.

This recent reassignment of our deepest psychic dread, marked off on the calendar to be relived each year, must provide a measure relief to people like my friend Jim, who has a birthday coming up on November 22. Since he was born in the decade before JFK's assassination he grew up with the misfortune of having to celebrate every birthday on our annual day of mourning. I can only imagine what kind of reaction others may have had if his response to the question of what he was doing when
IT happened were, "opening presents, eating cake, blowing out candles, singing happy songs..."

My birthday comes months later. When the original IT happened I was 10 going on 11 myself and my memories of the day involve sitting in my boring 3rd (?) grade class when some now forgotten nun came barreling through the door in tears and just told us all to leave. "Go home, children. Leave!"

Sister Mary Whatsherface didn't try to explain anything to us kids. I guess she didn't have it in her because of that whole Kennedy/Catholic thing. But of course we kids were ecstatic to be cut loose! The whole lot of us ripped out of the building yelping and screeching like a bunch of third graders. We had no idea we wouldn't be going back for a week or more. Walking home through a neighborhood of adults all zombie-like in shock, hearing them talk and sob, I pretty much pieced together that everybody on the planet was totally bummed out. By the time I got to the front door of the house where my family was already gathered it was clear that no one was going to tolerate anything but resolute sadness out of me, even if I didn't fully understand what had happened.

For more than a week there was nothing for a kid to do but keep your mouth shut and just stay put. So I glued myself to the floor in front of the black & white TV set watching the live wall-to-wall coverage of the somber carryings on.

I sat silent through most it, eyes totally glazed over by the time they finally marched the rat fink villain Lee Harvey Oswald out in front of the cameras - boo! hiss! I remember how someone held high the rifle he supposedly used to kill our president Catholic - a fuzzy jagged image floating in the upper part of the TV screen. It only later occurred to me what an odd touch that was in a perp walk.

The alleged murder weapon hovering so prominently above the huddled bunch of wrinkly suits scurrying along that hallway reminded me of the floats in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which we would normally be looking forward to watching live from New York at that time any other year. But then, naturally, all hell broke lose and the jittery camera zoomed in on Oswald's grimacing grey face as he clutched his stomach while the suits hastily grabbed at the fat guy in a white jacket who had suddenly appeared from the side of he TV screen.

The crisp air cracked with my screechy little voice yelling "Mom! Mah-ahmmm!!!!!! Somebody just shot Oswald!!"

This thing was far from over. It was clear then: we would not be watching any coverage of the Thanksgiving parade that year.

II. Xmas Wars

'Tis the season!
Every year around this time those wacky right-wingers start putting their dukes up to defend the "right" side in one of their favorite imaginary wars: the one on Christmas. All it takes is for someone to say "Happy Holidays!" to get them snarling. The Riff Blog at Mother Jones e-mag posted an article on
"Attack of the Atheists" about how the opposition is striking back. Predictably, it generated a good deal of spittle and defensive flack from either side. I put my own two cents into the folderol as follows...

Not to add to their fanatical bellicose fantasies but I have a suggestion to those who imagine there is some kind of "war" on Christmas. If Christians really want to de-secularize and de-commercialize it, why don't they just move "their" Christmas to a more appropriate time of year other than the arbitrary day they celebrate the birth of Jesus? The real day he was born is hotly debated but universally recognized by scholars as certainly not December 25.

I have no personal stake in Xmas as a religious holiday -no more than I have in anything else religious. But I LOVE the "Commercial" aspects of it.

If people were honest about it - especially the Christians among us - they would have to admit a similar kind of fondness for the non-religious nature of this time of year too. Come on, people: this is the time that commerce comes alive in our cities, towns and malls! It's fun! It's kitschy! It's good for business and for most of us it brings back happy childhood memories better than anything else ever does.

I was raised Catholic but got over all that a long time ago. I never put up lights or a tree or send cards - none of that. But I do appreciate how so many people get themselves into a happy festive mood that stretches out over two months time. But I'm sure 99.9% aren't thinking any holy thoughts till they get ready to fulfill their religious obligation for one hour on that one day if they can find the time. Once that's out of the way they go back to being total heathens and continue to have fun. There is nothing wrong with that. If you say it to me I'll say "Merry Christmas" right back at ya! I don't care. It's the same as when I answer "God bless you" back when someone says it to me. Doesn't mean a thing to me but it seems to make them feel good.

Self-righteous hypocrites who invented the lie of a "War on Christmas" only get all bent out of shape over people who don't buy into their religion but still find joy in this highly commercial time of year. Christians don't own the season. I think they just feel guilty for enjoying the "commercialization" of it - not to mention those pagan trappings of tree-decoration, etc. - more than they enjoy whatever their religion may have to do with it.

Happy Holidays Heathens!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A little bit on both:
the only attempted presidential assassination that I recall was Reagan's. I was 13 and under my mother's liberal teachings (my father voted for RR). I had not a little glee when he had been shot.

As to the war on Christmaas, I can only quote Freud when asked about his opinion on America: I regret it ever having been discovered.

I'm a Jew. All that Christmas crap starts immediately after Halloween, now. All the awful songs (there are fewer than 5 good modern Christmas songs).

Just remember- if Jesus was a Jew, that means Mary was one, too.