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J.P. Morgan as a young man in his own words - "The Public Be Damned."

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

BATTLE OF THE CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY

I guess it is a primeval struggle destined to continue until judgment day, whenever the hell that will be. The day after Christmas 2007 two rival gangs got into a dispute over turf and started to rumble. Somebody called the cops, who managed to separate the combatants, The Jets (AKA the Greek Orthodox Priests), and the Sharks (AKA the Armenian Apostolic Priests). They were battling inside the Church of the Nativity of the Prince of Peace in Bethlehem, Palestinian Territories, which was originally divided between them by an 1852 “firman” from Abdulmecit I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and Caliph of the Muslim World, because…well, because the Sultan was weak and because Louis Napoleon III was a pompous political hack, who believed that he was “entitled” to rule, chosen by God to fix, first France, and then rest of the world. In his rise to power Louis shamelessly played one political faction off another, abolished democracy, seized the throne, started the Crimean War, invaded Algeria and Vietnam (both of which came back to haunt France a century later) and was finally goaded into the 1870 Franco-Prussian War which resulted in the humiliating defeat of France, the creation of Germany, his own over throw and death. This guy was the George Bush of 19th century France.
*
Louis Napoleon was elected to a ten year term as the first President of the Second Republic of France in December of 1848, and he immediately started plotting to follow in his uncle’s imperial boot prints. By early in 1852 Louis had helped restore the Vatican’s independence in Rome (which pleased Catholic voters), but he had also insisted that the new Papal government be drawn up along “liberal” lines, to placate liberal French voters. But the Catholic Church never likes to be lectured about liberal policies. In an attempt to placate now angry Catholic voters Louis suggested that since (five years earlier, in 1847) some scoundrel had stolen the Silver Star marking the site of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Church of the Nativity was no longer “safe” and control should be handed over to the Catholic Church for protection. Catholic voters thought this was a fine idea.
*
And, oddly, so did Muslim Abdulmecit I, who controlled the Holy Land. The Sultan was looking for allies to back up his inevitable confrontation with Russia. But he didn’t want a start the fight prematurely by spitting in the Czar’s eye. So he invented a policy to make Louis happy and hopefully keep the Czar happy as well. His edict officially handing over the keys to the Church of the Nativity required the Vatican to maintain the church “in statu quo res errant”, or, “as it was before”, meaning the Catholics kept the keys but the Eastern Orthodox and the Armenian Apostolic churches kept the building. And besides, they already had their own keys. It was the invention of the phrase “status quo”. And it is why, of the 15 lamps that illuminate the replacement silver star now imbedded in the church floor, six belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, five to the Armenian Apostolic church and four to the Romans.
*
The only fly in the Sultan’s brilliant compromise was that protecting all Christian holy sites in the Ottoman Empire had been the responsibility of the Eastern Orthodox Church, including “the birth place of Jesus Christ…” as confirmed in 1516 by “Mohammed the Conqueror”. And the supreme authority of that church in 1852 was the pompous and dull Czar Nicholas I. All of his life Nicholas had been told that Russia was a military superpower and protector of the true faith. And he was not about to allow a mere “politician”, least of all a trumped up “Bonaparte”, to usurp his regal authority. Nicholas demanded the keys to the Nativity be returned and when they were not he declared war on Turkey. Britain and France had treaties with Turkey, and so Louis’ gambit to impress French voters led directly to the Crimean War, and 118,000 dead; of whom 20, 000 were French, and 73,000 Russian. But how did the Armenian Apostolic Church get involved in all of this?
*
Well, after the Crusaders were driven out of the Holy Land in 1187, the Muslim rulers did not trust the Roman Catholics who now made up a majority of Bethlehem’s population –since all Muslims had been forcefully expelled. The Ottomans tried to play the Christian sects against one another. And when the Romans complained that the Orthodox owned all the profitable tourist sites the Armenians were given their own keys to the Church, and control over part of the building.
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Now ultimately, “control” requires warm bodies on the ground, and traditionally both the Orthodox and Armenian churches have recruited their warm bodies from tiny isolated villages scattered across Greece and the Balkans, where Christians (and Muslims) have been slaughtering each other for a thousand years. These naive young men suddenly find themselves living in intimate contact and sharing the most precious artifacts of their faith with heretics. Nothing in their lives has prepared them for that. And it was these devout and unsophisticated young priest who fought the free-for- all in the church on December 26th.
*
And the whole damn thing was Louis Napoleon’s fault. What a jackass.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

MY FAVORITE YEAR

I thought I might share my personal favorite items from the last year, for you.These first two came from an October column titled "You're Driving me Crazy:

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In Abbotsford, Wisconsin, 43 year old Harvey Miller decided that after a night of drinking at a local bar he was too loaded to drive his pick-up truck home. So he enlisted the help of his friend, 48 year old Ed Marzinske. And when they were pulled over by the cops Harvey argued that because he was just steering while Ed operated the gas and brake pedals, he wasn’t technically “driving” the truck. But the cops arrested both men for DUI noting that, one, they were both technically “driving” the truck, two, they were both drunk, three, neither man had a current valid license, four, this was Harvey’s third DUI arrest and Ed’s second, and five, Harvey has no legs. Well, at least they weren’t “blind drunk”.
*

You might think that the solution to the problem of HBW – humans behind the wheel – would be modern technology, but you would be wrong, considering the determination and perseverance of humans. The classic proof of this "never-say-die" and "never-say-wait-a-minute-let’s-think-about-this" tendency of humans must be the story of Paula Ceely, a 20 year old student at Birmingham Collage who in February of this year decided to visit her boyfriend in the tiny Welsh village of Hebron, Carmarthenshire. And, since she had never been there before, Paula borrowed her boyfriend's SATNav unit, which is EuroSpeak for the Global Positioning System, system.

*

Speaking of the SatNav unit Paula said later, “I just followed the directions it was giving me”, which might well be the epitaph for future generations of humans. For, as darkness and a blinding rain closed in on this night Paula dutifully followed the SatNav directions down a lonely and dark country lane, which ended at a white farm gate. At first she thought she had been directed to a dead end, but according to the SatNav this was the correct address. So Paula climbed out into the downpour, swung the gate open wide, drove through, and then stopped again and thoughtfully closed the gate behind her. Then to her surprise she noticed a second gate, so she pushed it open as well. And it was at this moment that Paula heard the approaching train.

*

It was the 8 pm passanger express headed for Swansea, going 60 mph, and Paula had just parked her car right across its tracks. She had time to think about leaping into her car and driving it to safety, but luckily before she could try the several hundred ton express train smashed into her Renault Clio, slicing off the engine block and sending the broken hulk spinning half a mile down the track as if it had been kicked by a pissed off King Kong. Paula said later, 'The crossing wasn't shown…there were no signs at all and it wasn't lit up to warn of an oncoming train.”

*

Well, true, but there six signs at the crossing, including the instructions “STOP”, and “Phone Before Crossing”, which appeared on two separate signs. But, I guess Paula was expecting her borrowed SatNav unit to scream in an alarmed voice, “Paula, what the hell are you doing? There’s a train coming! Get the hell off the tracks!”And until some human invents something that does that, we humans are going to be on our own, God help us.

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And then there was the October story of the two slefish idiot stock brokers, I called, "An Idiot For A Client":
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Hedge fund manager Stuart Sugarman was pedaling his little heart out in ‘Spin Class’ at the Equinox Gym in Upper East Side of Manhattan,(“Initiation” fee $5K, membership 5K a year). He was also grunting like Tim Allen in a testicle clamp and shouting things like “You go girl!” This pissed off stock broker Chistopher Carter who was struggling to burn off a few carbs a bike or two away (In fact, some who witnessed the following confrontation say that Sugarman was working so enthusiastically he actually bumped into Carter’s cycle). After politely asking Sugarman to “shut the fuck up” a couple of times, and being dismissed by Mr. Sugarman,who alledgedly said “This is spin class; Grow up”, Mr. Carter then dismounted his bike and violently shoved Mr. Sugarman and his bike into the wall; thus proving the admonition to “grow up” was not taken seriously by either of these idiots.

*

Stock Broker Mr. Carter then returned to his pedaling, and so did Hedge Fund Manager Mr. Sugarman - for another 45 minutes, but presumably with his big fat mouth shut this time. It was not until a few minutes after class that Mr. Sugarman says he started to feel neck pain. He then called for an ambulance (on his own cell phone). Should I think it odd that the gym, filled with trainers, did not offer to help or place the call for him? In any case, during his two week stay at Lenox Hill Hospital (during which time he allegedly required a 3 hour operation on his spine) Mr. Sugarman was informed (by phone) that his gym membership had been cancelled. Insult to injury, I guess.

*

Mr. Sugarman’s lawyer (ah, you knew he had one!) came out swinging, calling the assault a case of “spin rage”, and Mr. Carter’s lawyer (and you knew he had one, too) called the press conference by Mr. Sugarman's lawyer an attempt to build a civil suit. The New York Post headlined the story, “Gym Victim Is Wheely Angry”, along with a picture of Sugarman in wheel chair and a neck brace, as if he was made up for a remake of “The Fortune Cookie”. But the Manhattan D.A. would only charge Carter with a misdemeanor assault, and I predict that in hte end at least one of these idiots is going to end up suing his own lawyer.

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And finally, my personal favorite from this past year - the column, "A Little Drink Between Friends".

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I would say there was little mystery about what first attracted 58 year old alcoholic Michael Warner to 42 year old bartender Tammy Jean Warner. But call it kismet or addiction attraction; who are we to question whether these two middle aged gin soaked Texans truly loved each other when they married in October of 2002? Still, a grand jury had no doubt that 16 monts later Tammy Jean bought two bottles of sherry with malice aforethought and intent to murder Michael. Tammy Jean could assure the police that, as the French might say, “Les l’evres qui touchent le liquior, ne toucheront jamais le mein”, or, as they translate it down in South Texas, “Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine”.

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It was on the morning of May 21st,, 2004 that the 911 call to the Lake Jackson paramedics came in. What they found was Michael Warner, in bed and dead as a drunk. An autopsy would reveal that he had died from an alcohol over-dose, with a blood alcohol level of 0.47, six times the legal limit to drive in Texas. And within a week a judge had ruled that Michael had died intestate, meaning he had left no will. So his machine shop and his new quarter of a million dollar life insurance policy, to a total value of $317,691.00, went to his widow, Tammy Jean Warner. Was it motive enough for murder?

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Michael had a daughter from a previous marriage and she had seen her father's will barely a month before his death. But now it had vanished. She told Lake Jackson detective Robert Turner that her father had ulcers and an acid reflex condition, which would have made saying “bottoms up” very difficult for him. True, the toxicology screen was pretty conclusive, but the fatal levels were so high they also puzzled Detective Turner. Why didn’t Michael pass out before he reached that lethal limit? How, Detective Turner wondered, could such a sick man ingest that much alcohol? Turner made the decision to seek a court order to exhume Michael’s body and do a second autopsy.

*

What they found blew the door right off the wine celler. Michael’s large intestines were badly inflamed and it was the opinion of the coroner that Michael was the victim of a deadly enema overdose. Detective Turner was shocked. This case gave a new meaning to the term, “high colonic”. Up until this moment, Detective Turner must have thought that "Sherry Enema" was a porn star, not a homicidal device. He admitted, “I heard of this kind of thing in Mortuary school in 1970, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard of someone actually doing it”. It was a development that raised a number of questions, not the least of which was what the hell kind of training is Lake Jackson giving their police detectives?

*

The story Tammy Jean was now telling only made things murkier. She swore under oath that she had destroyed the ‘missing’ will a month before Michael’s death, at his request. And she insisted she had not bought the two bottles of sherry; she had only accompanied Michael when he bought them. And Tammy Jean swore, “There’s no way I could have gave(sp) my husband that enema, no way.” However, she now added, Michael was addicted to them. “His mother used to give him enemas all the time, and he started to depend on them. He did coffee enemas, he did Castile soap, Ivory soap…He had enema recipes." And his mother's obsession allowed Micheal to bypass his acid reflex.

*

The Grand Jury didn't like the smell of her story. In May of 2005 they indicted Tammy Jean on a charge of Criminal Negligence and "Attempt to defraud" by destroying her husband’s will. Detective Turner contended that “She knew that if he continued to absorb alcohol…it would kill him. We are going to prove that she gave him the sherry and that she knew he wasn’t supposed to have any, and that it could be detrimental to his health, and she gave it to him anyway.” If convicted Tammy Jean faced up to 2 years in jail and a $50,000 fine. Pending trial she was was released on $30,000 bail.

*

But now the prosecution had second thoughts. As Brazoria County D.A. Jeri Yenne, saw things, “It is as if I were dying of lung cancer and you bought me cigarettes”, which was a fair analogy if you considered constipation the equivalent of a cough. Six times the trial date approached and each time the trial was postponed. At first Tammy Jean insisted she had not administered the fatal flushing, but eventually she bent under the weight of evidence. Still, she always maintained it had been a consensual colonic. “He’d open the clamp and take in want he wants, how much he wanted, and then he’d close the clamp and lay there until he wanted more and then he’d open his clamp back up.”

*

When Michael said “pucker up” was Tammy Jean motivated to consult a divorce attorney or a plumber? Did they ever invite friends over for a few drinks? These were questions that would never be answered. Clearly prosecutors felt that Tammy Jean’s version of events had an unpleasant air about it, but they could never find proof that the missing "will" had ever been signed or executed or even existed. And in the end, on August 31st of 2007, the D.A. pulled the plug. All charges against Tammy Jean Warner were dropped

*

The relieved widow described her late husband to the Houston Chronicle this way; "That's the way he went out and I'm sure that's the way he wanted to go out, because he loved his enemas." Or, as Alphonse Allas put it, “Mourir, c'est partir un peu” (To leave is to die a little, but to die is to leave way too much).

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HAVE A VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR!


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Friday, December 21, 2007

MERRY CHRISTMAS

I wanted to be the first to tell you that they are moving Santa’s workshop. Maybe this is a good idea because what with global warming, pretty soon his North Pole Workshop is going to need pontoons and look like something out of “WaterWorld”. Who ever thought Kevin Costner might be the Santa Clause for the 21st century? “And his web feet shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jellyfish!” But I suspect the move is mostly just a marketing ploy to justify an inflation of corporate profits…somehow. It seems a Swedish logistics company, Sweco, took a practical look at Santa’s distribution routes and decided that the traditional distribution center needed to relocate to Kyrgyz, in central Asia (also called Kyrgyzstan), the easier to reach all the good little boys and girls. And after a little research I can tell you that Kyrgyz is pronounced just like its spelled and I think Santa is going to be very happy there. And at least he won’t have to grow webbed feet!
*
Kevin, er, I meant Santa, certainly faces a daunting task each year. Out of the 6 billion people in this world most are not Christian (as if religion limited the celebration of Christmas!) and many who are, are Eastern Orthodox. Their Father Christmas doesn’t have to make deliveries until January 5th. But with about 173 million families professing to be Protestant or Catholic that means about 667 million children are waiting for a visit from the old fat man on Christmas Eve. And with an average of 3.5 children per household, Santa must make 189 million stops in the brief 31 hours of darkness available on our spinning planet. (All figures by Joel Potischman and Bruce Handy.) That means he has to visit 1,398 homes each second, with only about 715 micro-seconds for each delivery. His eight tiny reindeer have to maintain an average flight speed of about 2,000 miles per second while carrying half a billion tons of presents. So practically speaking Santa needs every rotten and naughty little kid he can find to allow him to skip enough houses to make his appointed rounds for the “nice” kids he is required to visit. Not that I’m trying to encourage bad behavior in children. But every additional rotten little brat could be saving us from Kevin Costner for Christmas!
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Lord knows the little bastards in Tyler, Texas, are doing their part. These Grinches stole a 42 foot tall 250 pound inflated Snowman from the Dixon Farms tree lot on South Loop 323. Frosty cost about $10,000 and lot owner, Royce Wisenbaker, has offered a $1,000 reward for his safe return. Still, two weeks later there is no sign of the missing "Frosty" and the list of suspects remains very long. Royce (the cheapskate) admits, “We’re on our third balloon because of vandalism.” And a local high school graduate confessed to plotting against Frosty in the past. “I don’t know why we were against it,...but we were like, ‘the snowman must die’.” But now that Frosty is gone, the ex-student insists “…it’s just heartbreaking”.
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The Rotary Club in the village of Helesowen, England has provided a Christmas treat for needy local kids for the past 20 years by selling children a ride on Santa’s Sleigh, pulled by a Land Rover at 5 mph. Money raised by the rides was used to buy presents for needy children in the village. It spread the spirit of the season and encouraged joy to the world so obvious something had to be done. Thank goodness some of Santa’s helpers at an insurance company stepped in to rectify the situation. They ruled that 20 years without a serious injury was just an invitation for disaster, and repeatedly jacked up the insurance rates for Santa’s sleigh ride until it was grounded. Then last year some trouble makers decided to give Santa a seat belt, and the insurance company was forced to drop the rates to about $400 dollars. So this year Santa’s underwriting elves decided that a seat belt for Santa was such a good idea that there ought to be a seat restraint for each and every needy child…while they were sitting in the parked trailer where Santa handed out their gifts, and jacked up the insurance rates accordingly. And that was finally the end of the deadly Santa sleigh rides from hell and the end of the charity as well. Whined one local do-gooder, “It beggars belief this has been stopped. For some we are the only people they see at Christmas.” I would say that there was somebody in England who was unclear on the concept of Santa.
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Meanwhile, cops in the tiny Polish village of Ploty would like to speak to Santa. On November 6 a man matching his physical description and dress walked into a grocery, greeted the clerk with a “Merry Feast of St. Nicholas” and pulled a gun. He then cleaned out the cash drawer of several thousand zlotys before placing a finger aside of his nose and with a nod of his head disappearing into the night. The clerk says the robber might have been wearing a mask but police would still like to know if Kevin Costner can account for his whereabouts that afternoon.
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And in Winter Park Florida, a verbal holiday road confrontation inspired the Santa in 25 year old Mark Lankford to drive his car through the Christmas display on the front yard of Douglas Sheldon’s house. Douglas and his wife Maria then went over to Mr. Lankford’s home to complain and after opening the front door Mr. Lankford opened fire. Douglas was hit in the arm and abdomen. Maria complained, “So there were words with us, big deal. They brought a gun and they shot my husband, bottom line.” “They” brought a gun? I thought Maria and Douglas went to the Langford home? Which means Mr. Langford didn’t have to “bring” anything. Perhaps the Sheldons should have just called the cops. Douglas is in stable condition and Mathew Lankford is now in jail facing attempted murder charges. Both families should be receiving their “thank you” notes from a relieved Santa very soon.
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Authorities are still looking for the Santa’s Little Helper in Ottawa, Canada. Whoever it was managed to insert graphic sexual insults into about ten letters supposedly written by Santa in reply to children requests for presents. The program, which the Canadian Post has been sponsoring for a quarter of a century, is on hold in the Ottawa area while cops try to figure out which little bastard out of the 11,000 volunteers stepped up and took one on the chin for Santa.
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Lance Word, 18, from Slidell, Louisiana, was walking home at about 8:30pm on a recent Saturday night when he spotted a happy, cheerful holiday decoration taunting him from the front lawn at 404 Rosa Street. Captured by the true spirit of Christmas, Lance threw himself on the six foot tall Frosty the Snowman, and pummeled him to the ground, popping one of his seams in the process. The residents called the cops and Lance was arrested and charged with criminal damage to property valued at under $500. The damage consisted of a tear on Frosty’s left foot. The cops described Lance as “…a good kid who was very apologetic,” and yet,… he assaulted a hero from a children’s song. That ought to make Santa’s run through Louisiana a little easier this year.
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According to The Brownsville Herald it was “…weeks before Christmas, and all through the town, neighbors were complaining of lawn decorations stolen and ripped down.” And then at 4:30 AM last Friday cops in Mission, Texas responded to a call of “suspicious noises” and pulled over a white Mitsubishi. From the car stepped a single female, 18 year old Sabrina Maria Ochoa, and two males, 17 year old Andres Guaracha and 19 year old Ismael Garcia. In the trunk police found inflated snow globes, lighted reindeer and Santa Clause statues. The three master criminals quickly admitted it was all stolen.
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While Sabrina drove the “get-away” car, Andres, dressed in blue jeans, a tube top, wearing a blond wig, eye liner, lipstick and high heels, and Ismael, (boy did his parents misname him!) who was also wearing makeup, a long flowing black wig and four inch heels, scampered across the lawns, grabbing 12 decorations valued at between $25 and $250 each and stuffing them into the car’s trunk. They said they intended to sell the stolen lighted good cheer, but offered no explanation as to why they did not chose to wear more discrete attire, like perhaps some tennis shoes. Still, they may not have been seasonal, but they certainly were festive. And clearly Santa will not have to stop at their houses this year.
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Santa may pretty much skip over the Philippine archipelago as well after helpful Manila authorities officially banned the singing of Christmas Carols, at least those sung by poor children and orphans who block traffic until they are paid for their songs. An official insisted he was not against Christmas. “What we are against”, he said, “are those who dart across thoroughfares knocking on vehicle windows to beg for alms since this is a sure fire way to get maimed or killed”. He added that begging by caroling door-to-door still has the official stamp of approval. Thank God, for that. But St. Nick will not be getting any help in Essen, Germany. Last week security guards there detained a man they found sleeping on the street outside a department store, dressed in the flowing robes and Middle Eastern headdress of the. “… three kings from orient are”. It seems the 53 year old homeless man stole the outfits from a life size nativity scene in a public square because he was cold. He was arrested anyway, but not charged, since, as a police spokesman explained, “I don’t think the kings would have objected”. The homeless man was held until his identity could be established (and he could get a warm meal in his belly) and then released. Poor Santa will have to make almost every stop in Essen.
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Danbury, Connecticut, however, holds at least one bright spot for the overworked man in red. Little 33 year old Sanrama Lamy will find her stocking empty, except for a summons to appear in court on January 3 for sexually assaulting Santa. It seems Sandrama limped up to Santa (she was on crutches), at a Danbury mall, plopped down on the jolly old man’s lap and “made her wishes known”. Unfortunately the 65 year old Mr. Clause was not amused because some of the younger children waiting in line behind Sandrama were getting educated, if not about Christmas; which is why Santa filed the complaint. Well, done, Sandrama! I don’t know many women, already limping, who would have risked jail time just to help the dreams of millions of good little boys and girls come true.
*
But it likely will not be enough to sidetrack the corporate plans to renovate Christmas. So on Christmas day 2007 a team of climbers will ascend one of the many unnamed peaks in Kyrgyz (90% of the country is mountains over 20,000 feet) and officially declare it to be “Santa Clause Mountain.” It sounds like a crass publicity ploy, but Kyrgyz officially became an independent nation in 1991, on December 25th. And the population is almost entirely Muslim.
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That is what I would call Christmas irony.
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Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!
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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

HO, HO, HO, MERRY SATURN!

I have been pondering the story of the “First Christmas”. There was the famous stable (which was evidently filled with constipated animals as there was no poop to desecrate the sanctified event) and there was Mary (who was giving birth without labor pains or bleeding since female bleeding was a notorious Jewish anathema) and there was Joseph who seems to have been regulated to the waiting room. That, presumably, left the baby Jesus to gum through his own umbilical cord since there was no midwife mentioned in the Holy Scriptures. But there was a choir of angles on high singing at the top of their lungs, but heard only by the heavenly host, who were closely attending to every minute detail. But that opens up the core conundrum of Jesus. Was he the son of Mary and Joseph who suffers and struggles to be born and to avoid death and yet eventually dies, as do all men? Or was he the son of God who was just slumming here on Earth until daddy called him home? And what if the rabbi from Nazareth had won over the Pharisees? Then God’s plan of a death on the cross would have been screwed and Joshua Ben Joseph would have been a famous Jewish rabbi and there never would have been a “Christ”. But we would still have had a Christmas. We just would have called it something else.
*
It is not a coincidence that in the Northern Hemisphere the winter solstice, when the “sol stands still” (December 21 or 22), roughly coincides with the celebration of the birth of Christ, Mithras, Osiris, Apollo, Baal, Dionysus, Horus, Helios and the feast of Saturnalia. In fact, like the American “Presidents’ Day” Monday holiday scheme, the multi-deity Romans referred to December 25th simply as “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”, to avoid insulting any of the cults and “mystery religions” that peppered the capital of the world, each holding their own celebration of the birthday of the one true god. And there must have been a Roman rabble rouser or two preaching against the “War on Saturnalia” or similar such horse manure.
*
But all this religious fervor is concentrated at this season simply because the earth is tilted off its true axis by 23 ½ degrees, which causes the length of daylight to vary over the course of each orbit around the sun. With no theory of gravity or elliptical orbits the ancients had to explain why the days always got shorter and then got longer again. And so something magical must happen on the longest night of the year, else the nights would just keep getting longer. The birth of a god on this night must have seemed an obvious explanation, at least more obvious than claiming the world had a 23 ½ degree axial tilt.
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To many in the 3rd century CE that obvious magical event, attended to by Magi priests, was the birth of Mithra. He was traditionally depicted in his subterranean temples in the act of slaying a bull, assisted by other creatures drawn from the Zodiac. By slaying Taurus, the constellation visible directly above Orion the hunter in the Northern skies from mid-winter into March, Mithra thus provided a logical reason why the cold and dark of winter would begin to recede. With “proof” visible in the sky, it was a hard argument for the Christians to counter. Their tale of three Magi attending the birth of the Christ thus showed that even devout followers of Mithras had been spontaneously converted to the true faith.
*
But the one thing we know from Christianity’s own record of their messiah is that he could not have been born in December. In Luke 2:8 the New Testament says that the night of Christ’s birth, “…there were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night”. But by November any shepherd with two neurons to rub together would pen up their flocks in doors over the cold 14 hour nights, to protect them and keep them fed and warm. A real Jesus might have been conceived under the sign of Taurus, but if so he was probably born in late summer or fall. So why later insist that the birth of Christ had happened in December?
*
The answer is competition. Competition forced Christianity to first move the location of Christ’s birth to the city of King David, Bethlehem, allowing them to imply that Jesus was of royal Jewish blood, and then to drop the restriction of circumcision to allow pagans to easily convert directly into the new faith. Competition for converts encouraged the Christian adoption of the popular belief that Mithra would forgive all sins and, after death, grant eternal life. And it was competition that inspired Christianity’s compromise with the most joyous and attractive celebration of the “pagan” year: Saturnalia.
*
The god Saturn was the grandfather in both the Roman and the Greek Pantheons. It was his temple that held the Roman treasury. But by 50 CE Seneca the Younger could write, “It is now December, when the greatest part of the city is a bustle….everywhere you hear the sounds of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business…” By then, what had started under the Republic as a single day of respect for the old man on December 17th, had gradually grown into a more than a week, described by Catullus as “…the best of days”, marked by gift exchanges (saturnalia et sigillaricia), parties, family gatherings, special holiday clothing complete with a peaked cap, feasts with holiday treats and public religious spectacles. And a special holiday greeting was adopted; “Ho, praise to Saturn!” which would later reappear as St. Nicolas’s merry greeting, “Ho, ho ho.”
*
Saturn is interesting for Christians for a couple of other reasons. First, as a younger god he seems to have had a lot in common with the vengeful, jealous figure described in the Old Testament. Age mellowed him. And second, of course, is the original day of rest devoted to him, Saturday. But there is also the astrological symbol for Saturn, a combination of a scythe (he was the god of farmers and the harvest) and the female symbol (he was also the god of fertility). Put those two together and you get something that looks like a cross with a tail on it, something the Kabbalists and Gnostics found very meaningful.
*
But then those guys found meaning in everything.
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