Podcast Episode 4: Appropriating India

I discuss the concept of cultural appropriation and its ideological implications, particularly within the context of India and the West.


Impermanence and the imperceptible

The idea of progress never rested mainly on the promise of an ideal society—at least not in its Anglo-American version. Historians have exaggerated the utopian component in progressive ideology. The modern conception of history is utopian only in its assumption that modern history has no foreseeable conclusion. We take our cue from science, at once the source of our material achievements and the model of cumulative, self-perpetuating inquiry, which guarantees its continuation precisely by its willingness to submit every advance to the risk of supersession.

That nothing is certain except the imminent obsolescence of all our certainties—our scientific theories, our technology, our artistic styles and schools, our philosophies, our political ideals, our fashions—naturally gives rise to the sense of impermanence that has been celebrated or deplored as the very essence of the modern outlook, the sense that "all that is solid melts into air," in the often quoted remark by Marx and Engels. What is less often remarked is that impermanence appears to assure a certain continuity in its own right when conceived as an extension of the self-correcting procedures of scientific discovery, which allow the scientific enterprise as a whole to flourish in spite of the constant revision of particular findings. A social order founded on science, with its unnerving but exhilarating expansion of our intellectual horizons, seems to have achieved a kind of immortality undreamed of by earlier civilizations.

Whatever else we can say about the future, it appears that we can safely take for granted its sophisticated contempt for the rudimentary quality of our present ways. We can imagine that our civilization might blow itself up—and the prospect of its suicide has a certain illicit appeal, since at least it satisfies the starved sense of an ending—but we cannot imagine that it might die a natural death, like the great civilizations of the past. That civilizations pass through a life cycle analogous to the biological rhythm of birth, maturity, old age, and death now strikes us as another discredited superstition, like the immortality of the soul. Only science, we suppose, is immortal; and although the unlikelihood of its melting away can be experienced even more intensely, perhaps, as a curse than as a blessing, the apparently irreversible character of its historical development defines the modern sense of time and makes it unnecessary to raise the question that haunted our predecessors: how should nations conduct themselves under sentence of death?
—Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven
That sense of impermanence hasn't at all abated, of course. Indeed, if anything it is more keenly felt than ever. News media, fed by social media, are ever ready to outdo yesterday with the latest trend, the newest product, the most current means of distracting oneself from the hollowing out of the space in our hearts for long-term commitments. Fiction retreats from the slippery present into settings which are either historical or entirely fictional. I'm the only person I know without a smartphone. Perhaps most crucially, we seem more comfortable with this constant flux than ever before.

Now when the great civilizations of old declined and fell, material gains did not reset to zero—even if, for the most part, the historical record did. After the collapse of the Mediterranean civilizations of the Bronze Age, only Egypt and Mesopotamia were left standing. But the rest of the Mediterranean did not revert to the Stone Age. Likewise, after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Italy, Gaul, and Britain did not revert to the Bronze Age. Thus technological advancement is cumulative even between civilizations, at least to a degree. There are major setbacks when trade networks and political centers collapse, urban areas are depopulated, and social capital is dispersed—but not to such an extent that the "fresh race coming from a lower level", as Henry George put it in Progress and Poverty, have to start from scratch. Even so, the transition wasn't smooth. As George noted:
Over and over again, art has declined, learning sunk, power waned, population became sparse, until the people who had built great temples and mighty cities, turned rivers and pierced mountains, cultivated the earth like a garden and introduced the utmost refinement into the minute affairs of life . . . lost even the memory of what their ancestors had done, and regarded the surviving fragments of their grandeur as the work of . . . the mighty race before the flood.
But hasn't such a great forgetting already happened? Don't we already regard the work of our ancestors as the work of people we hardly know anything about, if we regard it at all? Yet here we are, typing messages with our thumbs and driving horseless carriages on paved roads (though not at the same time, of course, if we have any concern for our safety). But a civilization is more than its material comforts and its technical processes. We may know more in the technical or mechanical sense than anyone did in ages past—but in terms of cultural memory we may be increasingly inferior.

So not only is our civilization unique in its confidence, but in another way as well: the decline of memory that one would expect to accompany the decline of civilization has, in our case, preceded it. And in previous cases of such decline, there has always been a glimmer of what came before that remains, at the very least, in the oral tradition of a freshly illiterate people. We are more literate than ever, and have the memories of our ancestors unprecedentedly accessible in writing, and yet even when we read them it is as though we are getting a picture not of ourselves but of a curious people to whom we have but a chance relation. L.P. Hartley's phrase comes to mind: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

It has become a commonplace among those who have defected from the established Left and Right that we give insufficient consideration to the lessons of the past. But I'm going to suggest something different, if not contrary: that we have insufficient cultural technology by which to experience and interpret the present, and that simply reading about the past, or attempting to relive a particular period in the past, are inadequate or even counterproductive means of redeveloping such technology.

In other words, I want to accentuate that cultural memory doesn't just come in the form of recollections of the historical past but also in recollections of everywhen—stories which "never happened, but always are", in the words of Sallustius. Such are the old myths. And as we hinted earlier, sometimes stories about the past become stories about everywhen, as in the case of the Trojan War. What could have been understood—and is often understood today—as a mere recounting of historical claims, or as a fanciful legend told for entertainment's sake, became a body of lessons about morality and the soul. The Iliad teaches us about the wages of war; the Odyssey about the journey of the soul back to its origin.

Such stories relate the Many back to the One. Without them, our experience of the world is desemioticized; we lack a kind of knowledge which is irreducible to matters of physical or historical fact. This is what I mean by "insufficient cultural technology". Narrative is not merely something we impose upon the world; it is integral to our very experience of the world. In the words of Bruce Charlton, "Man knows perceptible reality via his perception—the senses of vision, hearing, smell touch and taste . . . and Man knows the imperceptible reality via the faculty of Imagination". In the quoted post, Charlton excerpts one of the essays in Jeremy Naydler's The Future of the Ancient World:
The cosmic being who presided over Ra's diurnal voyage across the sky was the heavenly goddess Nut. It was she who gave birth to Ra each morning, and who received him into herself again in the evening.

Each evening, when the sun god Ra entered her interior realm, he entered the secret and wholly invisible world that the Egyptians called the Dwat [usually spelled Duat]. The Dwat was conceived as being on the other side of the stars that we see when we look up at night. The stars were imagined as being on the flesh of the goddess Nut, and the Dwat was in some sense behind or within the world of which the stars demarcated the outermost boundary.

All creatures were believed to return to the Dwat at the end of their lives, and were born from it again, just as the sun God was born from the Dwat each morning.

Knowledge of the interior world of the Dwat was considered by the Egyptians to be the most important, most profound knowledge, for people living on Earth to acquire. The Dwat was not only the realm of the dead, but the realm of the gods and spirits, and furthermore the realm from which all living things emerge. All life issues from the Dwat.

To know this mysterious interior world was to become truly wise, because then one would know both sides of existence—the invisible along with the visible.

The Egyptians lived with an awareness of a dimension of reality that is best described by the term 'Imaginal'. It is a nonphysical yet objective reality that we become aware of through the human faculty of Imagination.
By means of narratives such as this one regarding Ra, Nut, and the Dwat, the Egyptians were able to convey to each other notions about themselves and the world that it would take much less parsimonious language to express today. Concrete facts, ontological propositions, and moral truisms could all be referred to by means of the same language-game (to use Wittgenstein's term); they were integrated, in other words. By contrast, we today are not simply capable of using, but generally require, distinct vocabularies in order to talk about such things. We deny or ignore that there is an imperceptible reality linking them, and accordingly we are starved of stories by which that reality can be known, let alone discussed.

Now that isn't to say there are absolutely no such stories in the collective mind, conscious or unconscious, of the West. We still have our old myths, however neglected or shallowly understood they may be. And whenever we derive a moral principle from an account of history, or whenever we craft an allegory on the spot to explain some aspect of the world, we are engaging the function of Imagination and thereby grasping, however feebly, at that reality which lies beyond the senses.

But in order to derive truly timeless lessons from history, we must accept the applicability of such lessons in the first place. As long as we remain convinced that our civilization cannot die a natural death, there will be as much of a barrier between ourselves and our posterity as between ourselves and our ancestors. And should that death occur while we remain high on hubris, those who will eventually pick up the mantle will have less savory things to remember us by than they will if we choose instead to humble ourselves before the forces that created us.

Modernity may furnish an entire vocabulary by which its predecessors can be denigrated or disregarded, but the reverse is just as true. We have only to consult the stories they've left us to find a potent indictment of modernity:
"Now," quod he thoo, "cast up thyn ye.
Se yonder, loo, the Galaxie,
Which men clepeth the Milky Wey
For hit ys whit (and somme, parfey,
Kallen hyt Watlynge Strete),
That ones was ybrent with hete,
Whan the sonnes sone the rede,
That highte Pheton, wolde lede
Algate hys fader carte, and gye.
The carte-hors gonne wel espye
That he koude no governaunce,
And gonne for to lepe and launce,
And beren hym now up, now doun,
Til that he sey the Scorpioun,
Which that in heven a sygne is yit.
And he for ferde loste hys wyt
Of that, and let the reynes gon
Of his hors; and they anoon
Gonne up to mounte and doun descende,
Til bothe the eyr and erthe brende,
Til Jupiter, loo, atte laste,
Hym slow, and fro the carte caste.
Loo, ys it not a gret myschaunce
To lete a fool han governaunce
Of thing that he can not demeyne?"
Gustave Moreau, Phaethon


Album Review: Hush—Unexist

New York City's Hush offer a crushing mass of sludge with Unexist; C. Cure's low cry pours out over the slow churn of J. Cozza and J. Andrews' eight- and seven-string guitars much as one might imagine the lament of a single trunk over an elephant graveyard. C. Baird Buchanan on bass and R. Strainer on drums fill out the rhythm section for a sound that is perhaps as much like a giant desolate machine as like a giant despondent animal.

It was by utter chance that I came across Hush, but I sure am glad I did. While looking for Quantic's "Infinite Regression" on YouTube, I found Hush's "Infinite Recursion". Somehow I knew from the album art alone that the music would be heavy and that I would probably enjoy it—and that I did. So I gave Unexist a listen in its entirety.

The album begins with "Solus", a track that could almost fit within an early Misery Signals or August Burns Red record—almost, because the unrelenting slowness of the instrumentation (including the vocals) is unmistakable. Here a pattern is introduced that will become familiar as the album progresses: glimmering higher notes on a seven-string guitar dance atop the aching lows of an eight-stringer and a five-string bass. The next two tracks, "Eater of All Things" and "We Left Like Birds", do more to establish the album's sound; the former makes notable use of string-bending with octave chords, which imparts an almost West Asian or Indian flavor.

"Infinite Recursion" is my own favorite track, though I may be biased, having listened to it several times before putting on the whole album. It suits its position well as the middle track of seven, offering a bit of relief from the dark, crushing quality of the songs surrounding it with an opening progression that reminds one of Pelican. The song then builds up to resemble the others, and following it is "Waves of Exultation", which begins with a distinctly faster beat and gives the drums and bass priority early on.

Track six, "Rest/Nonexistence", is the most meditative, being the longest (at 10:28) as well as being instrumental until later on. The droning higher notes earlier in the track recall bells, ringing out against the now-familiar lows; this lasts a few minutes, and then the song progresses to take on a heavier sound and include vocals. Then comes "Splendor", a great closing track that starts out loud and then strips down and rebuilds on a winding riff played at multiple octaves for a sort of layering effect, stoking anticipation not only for the addition of vocals as the riff repeats but for the band's next release.

The band also get extra points for their distinctive CD packaging: black or white cloth fastened with twine and a single nail. Perhaps the one major quality the album lacks is versatility on Cure's part; if he had explored his range a bit more and more dynamically layered himself over the instrumentation, the listening experience would have been even more enjoyable. Overall this is a well-assembled album, highly recommended for fans of Isis, Neurosis, and the like. You may wish to listen in the dark for added effect.


Podcast Episode 3: The Aftershock of Monotheism

Jonathan Kelly and I discuss the lingering effects of monotheism on Western thinking, the resemblance of modern progressivism to Christianity, the importance of Christmas, and how one might go about cultivating a reverence for the divine in a modern context.


The Scarlet Veil

The man raised his glass at the height of the feast;
His eyelids grew heavy as he looked to the east.
He knocked back his wine, every drop to keep,
and laid his head down to a full-bellied sleep.
He awoke to such a sight as he knew not what to think,
and wondered if he'd had perhaps a bit too much to drink.
For now he found himself in a place he knew not,
And all he could hear but wind was three horses' trot.

Atop each horse he saw a man in bright dress;
On this cold desert night they made the bleakness seem less.
He fancied them Indian, Egyptian, and Greek;
He wondered to himself, What is it these men seek?
They'd set out after a star, not far from the Nile;
The man followed them for what seemed not a mile.
They arrived at a tiny and nondescript town,
In the middle of the night, when all had settled down.

They went from there to a humble little stable,
Whose worn old trough this happy night was made a cradle.
A newborn child lay there, asleep without a dream;
Beside him sat his mother, her saintly eyes agleam.
The three horsemen dismounted, and reached into their cloaks,
Pulling out each a gift for this son of small-town folks:
One offered frankincense, one myrrh, and one gold.
The man asked himself what it was he did behold.
Was this young Bacchus, and Semele his mother?
So humble, yet so noble—could he well be any other?
Suddenly great Hermes appeared by his side,
And what this little scene was about, he did confide:
What he saw would hardly happen, but for a long time be believed,
And be retold by millions every year on Saturn's Eve.
For a time men would forget how they had loved the gods;
In their place would be this babe, full-grown, his body pierced by rods.

In truth, yes, this was Bacchus, but men would not use that name,
For in their eyes this new god and the old were not the same.
A veil would be placed between this figure and his nature,
Its textures to be woven with foreign nomenclature.
But men would still make merry in the happy week of Saturn;
In the absence of his name, they'd make a new one fit the pattern.
A man they'd call a saint would gain renown for charity,
And over time his cult would come to fill men's hearts with glee.
He'd eventually be pictured circling the globe,
Leaving presents under trees in Saturn's scarlet robe.

And one day men would have their new god taken from them too,
Losing sight of those great myst'ries which alone we may call true.
Commerce would by some be worshipped; by others naught but Reason;
Magistrates would rule with hate toward their peoples—treason.
But even in this time of great machines and little men,
Good cheer would spread across the world as each year neared its end.
Some would still talk joyf'lly of that star over the east,
But nonetheless give hearty thanks to the father of the feast.
They'd put aside the weight of work; they'd drink and be right merry;
This even when they paid no mind to sacred groves or reliquaries.
Perhaps this festive time, when men still put aside their toil,
Would for the seed of rev'rence prove to be a fertile soil.

A ray of hope peeped out, then, from behind the storm and hail;
After all, great Saturn, father of truth himself, does wear a veil.
The man opened his eyes now—the hall still brightly lit
and cheering faces all around—he'd hardly slept a bit.
He looked down the table, where Saturn's image sat
With its scarlet robe so festive, and thought, Fancy that:
Statius spoke the truth when he drunkenly did say
That never, ever shall age destroy so fine and holy a day.


Who is Santa Claus?

Every Christmas Eve, a jolly old fellow with a big belly and a billowing white beard hops in a sleigh with a sack full of toys and has a troupe of reindeer pull him around the world to give the toys out to children and spread good cheer. The children leave him cookies in the night, and word has it that he prefers chocolate chip. He spends the previous year tallying up whether each child has been naughty or nice, and though it's said that he gives the naughty ones a stockingful of coal, he doesn't seem to do so very often. In a broader sense he's the patron of the season, as Father Christmas, and thus whenever we give gifts or take part in merriment in accordance with Christmas tradition we are acting in the spirit of Santa Claus.

So goes the account I grew up with in North America, at least. But considering that there is nothing Biblical or ecclesiastical about this story, it's rather remarkable that late Christendom would be so fervid in celebrating it. So where did it come from? Who is this curious character we call Santa Claus or Father Christmas?

It should be noted when discussing the history of such figures that sometimes mythic images recur without an obvious direct connection on the level of historical fact. History in general is full of remarkable coïncidences, but this is especially the case when we are dealing with mnemohistory, that is, the history of things as they are remembered and not necessarily as they happened. Santa Claus is a curious example of this; as we'll see, there are certain correspondences between our modern Santa and other images revered at different times and in different places which seem to transcend any obvious historical connection.

First, though, the most obvious historical connection: St. Nicholas of Myra. In the high-church Christian tradition many miracles have been attributed to his intercession, and there are stories of miracles he is said to have worked in his own lifetime. He was known for gift-giving; he apparently had a habit of leaving coins in shows that had been left out for him, and in memory of this it became tradition in some places for children to leave their shoes out on the eve of his feast day (December 6th in the West and the 19th in the East) with a small gift in hopes of getting something in return. That we leave out stockings for small gifts today would seem to follow after this.

Perhaps the most famous legend of St. Nicholas' generosity is that of his giving of purses of gold coins to the three daughters of a poor man, so that they would have dowries and not be forced into prostitution—of especial note is that he gave these in the secret of night so as not to draw uncomfortable attention, throwing them through a window into their house, or in some variations of the tale, down the chimney. There is also a story, less historically verified, of his resurrection of three children who had been murdered by a butcher and put into a barrel to be sold as ham; accordingly he is the patron saint of children.

In the Middle Ages his was, as one would well expect, a day for gift-giving. But during the Reformation, as saints' days were deëmphasized if not rejected entirely, gift-giving was instead done on Christmas, with Martin Luther suggesting the Christ-child as the giver of gifts. It is from a German hypocorism for the Christ-child that we get one of Father Christmas' aliases in English: Christkindl became Kris Kringle. And through the Dutch Sinterklaas we get Santa Claus.

Some time before the Reformation, however, the spirit of Christmas had already been personified. A carol from the pen of one Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree in the southwest of England in the middle of the 15th century, reads as follows:
Nowell, nowell.
Who is there that singeth so, Nowell, nowell?
I am here, Sir Christèmas.
Welcome, my lord Sir Christèmas!
Welcome to all, both more and less!
Come near, come near, Nowell, nowell.

Dieu vous garde, beaux sieurs, tidings I you bring:
A maid hath borne a child full young,
Which causeth you to sing: Nowell, nowell.

Christ is now born of a pure maid;
In an ox-stall he is laid,
Wherefore sing we at abrayde: Nowell, nowell.

Buvez bien, buvez bien par toute la compagnie.
Make good cheer and be right merry,
And sing with us now joyfully: Nowell, nowell.
The respectful title of Father seems to have become more important to this "Sir Christmas" as the 16th century gave way to the 17th and Puritanism emerged as a cultural force, and especially when Puritans came to power in England (during the Commonwealth, 1649-1660) and in New England (where the public observance of Christmas was illegal until 1681 and abhorred for generations to come). The Puritans distrusted the old customs of communal feasting and wine-fueled merriment and sought their prohibition, and those in defense of Christmas tradition proffered the image of the kindly old gentleman who promoted not excessive consumption but good cheer.

A number of 17th-century satires portray this conflict. In the anonymously published Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisoning of Christmas, a lady Royalist and a town crier search for the merry father whose absence is keenly felt; John Taylor's The Complaint of Christmas laments the sight of "the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster". In Josiah King's The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas, Father Christmas is taken before a judge and jury and various virtues and vices personified, such as Mrs. Prudence, Mr. Mean-well, and Simon Servant, have their say either for or against him. His detractors accuse him of inciting lascivity and riotousness; his defenders praise his temperate virtue, peace-making and goodwill. In some cases from the early modern period onward he is invoked as a rebuke to gentry unwilling to feast the poor as per tradition, or to those shirking the seasonal injunction to generosity in general.

And of course from about the mid-19th century onward the names Santa Claus and Father Christmas are fully understood to be synonymous, and certain familiar characteristics become canon, such as the red coat, the troupe of reindeer, and the use of chimneys.

A more tenuous connection is that between Santa Claus or Sinterklaas in particular and the old Germanic god Odin. During the time that later became associated with the Nativity of Christ, the peoples whose pantheon included Odin celebrated Yule, which in Scandinavia, according to Heimskringla, involved feasting and drinking:
It was ancient custom that when sacrifice was to be made, all farmers were to come to the heathen temple and bring along with them the food they needed while the feast lasted. At this feast all were to take part of the drinking of ale.
Toasts were made on this occasion to Odin (who would grant victory), to Njörðr and Freyr (who would grant peace and a good harvest), and to the king, as well as to ancestors and departed relatives.

Now Odin has a long beard and rides his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, through the heavens; Santa, too, has a long beard and is pulled along by eight (or later, nine) reindeer, or in his Dutch form rides a horse. And Odin of course was toasted as the patron of Yule just as Santa heralds the Christmas season.

There are other parallels to be noted between Odin and Sinterklaas which are even more tenuous but are nonetheless worth mentioning. For one, compare Odin's ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who keep him informed on the goings-on in Midgard (that is, the human world), and Zwarte Piet who helps Sinterklaas much as the elves do in the North American tradition: in both cases the old bearded patron of the feast has black-faced helpers. Just as tenuous but even more endearing is the resemblance between Odin's having given the runes—that is, written language—to man and the eating of chocolate letters by Dutch children in honor of Sinterklaas. Whether or not these elements are actually historically related—which is doubtful for the most part—is hardly relevant; what's important is that, for whatever reason, the same image recurs at the same time of year.

Now let's turn to another part of pre-Christian Europe. In Rome at what is now called Christmastime, feasting and drinking were enjoyed and lords of misrule were chosen, just as Puritans would complain was happening among Britons over a thousand years later. This was Saturnalia, during which Saturn, whom we might now call Father Time, temporarily took over from his son Jove and returned men to a time of primal joy. Catullus (Poems, XIV) calls it "the best of days". Gifts were given, games of dice were played, and the whole people made merry:
During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, colorful dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted in public, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season (Martial, Epigrams, XIV.1). Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen, a role once occupied by a young Nero, who derisively commanded his younger step-brother Britannicus to sing (Tacitus, Annals, XIII.15).

Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters' clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god.
Lucian of Samosata, in his Saturnalia, records a conversation between Saturn and one of his priests, in which the god declares that while it is for his son to grant riches of gold and slaves, his own domain is that of more carefree pursuits:
Mine is a limited monarchy, you see. To begin with, it only lasts a week; that over, I am a private person, just a man in the street. Secondly, during my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.
It should be pointed out that the hat now associated with Santa bears a striking resemblance to the pileus as well as to the Phyrgian cap, which by confusion with the pileus has become a symbol of liberty in recent centuries. Also of note is that Saturn's venerated statue, made of ivory, wore a scarlet cloak (Tertullian, De testimonio animae, II). Woolen fetters around its feet were loosened during his brief yearly reign to signify his liberation. Being associated with his Greek form of Cronus, he was also honored according to "Greek rite" (ritus Graecus), with the head uncovered, rather than capite velato, that is, with the head veiled by a fold of the toga. Servius (Ad Aenaeidem, III.407) notes that since Saturn himself was depicted as veiled (involutus), it accorded with the role reversals of the season that the god would be veiled and the worshipper not. Plutarch (Quaestiones Romanae, II) says that the god is veiled because he is the father of truth (the highest truths being inherently mysterious). And it would seem oddly fitting with this spirit of reversal that St. Nicholas would save three children from being eaten, given that Cronus is said in the myths to have eaten his own children.

So we have a jolly bearded god in a red cloak who presides over the happiest time of year, during which gifts are exchanged, social norms are relaxed, and drunken feasts are enjoyed. If that isn't Father Christmas, then I know nothing of the holiday.

Again, whether or not any of this was directly passed down historically is completely immaterial; what matters is that for whatever reason, Europe and her diaspora have a recurring tendency to make the last two weeks of the year an occasion for merriment and to imagine the presiding figure over this occasion to have certain perennial characteristics.

And to return to matters of history for a moment, who better to be the human reference point for a pagan figure surviving into Christendom than he who shares his name and title with another St. Nicholas from the same region, Lycia, who as late as the mid-sixth century sacrificed seven calves for a feast in a Christian chapel? According to Gustav Anrich's Life of Nikolaos of Sion:
...the clergy of Plenios came in a procession with the congregation of the faithful, chanting and with the venerated crosses, and met the servant of God [Nikolaos] at the chapel [of St. George]. From there he went with the them with seven calves. They went into the chapel of the holy George and he sacrificed the seven calves, and the crowds gathered so that there were two hundred couches. The servant of God supplied enough to distribute a hundred measures of wine and forty measures of wheat, and everyone ate and was filled and thanked God who gave grace to his servant Nikolaos...
As Anrich notes, such an account "shows us the survival of the old sacrificial meal made over into Christian form"—a microcosm of the Christmas experience, no? And why not? As Statius (Silvae, I.6.98ff) cheered during the reign of Domitian toward the end of the first century:
Who can sing of the spectacle, the unrestrained mirth, the banqueting, the unbought feast, the lavish streams of wine? Ah! now I faint, and drunken with thy liquor drag myself at last to sleep. For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue.
And indeed, age has failed to destroy Saturnalia. It has taken on the addition of a new narrative from Christianity, and through the resultant syncretism has become merged with Yule (which remains the name of the holiday in several European countries); it has also more recently taken on massive commercial baggage. Yet underneath the accruements of the ages, so holy a day we still keep.

So who is Father Christmas? We can say assuredly that under diverse names and with various alterations of form, he has been with us a very long time. As was famously written in the New York Sun to one little Virginia who had asked whether there was a Santa Claus:
You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank GOD! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
And didn't we note something earlier about veils?

Io, Saturnalia! Happy Yule! and Merry Christmas! from graaaaaagh dot com.


Podcast Episode 2: Cheap Complexity

In this second installment, I discuss the joy of simplicity (or the simplicity of joy), how late capitalism furnishes an overabundance of choice—in regard to pornography in particular, with some anecdotes—and what might be done about it.