December 27th, 2010

krazy koati

If the traffic noise affects you like a squeaky violin

I have to further interrupt my posting plans for a rant provoked by the Futurama Holiday Special and a question overheard at a used book store. The question, from a patron to the owner, was to the effect of: ``This Kwanzaa thing, it's not a real holiday, right?'' The owner agreed, yeah, it was ``made up''.

OK. First. Where does anybody get off dismissing a holiday as ``made up''? Every single one of them was ``made up'', and a lot more recently than you imagine. A holiday's a holiday when a bunch of people decide to celebrate it. What provokes a celebration? There are a handful of causes which seem to crop up often: solstices when you're far enough from the equator to have appreciable winters; harvest seasons when you live somewhere that has identifiable harvest seasons; spring, again when you get lousy winters and really appreciate spring. There's some memorializing events, often anniversaries, exact or approximate. Some are whipped up out of a feeling that something's worth memorializing and let's pick a convenient day for it that hasn't got much else going on. These latter maybe get the brunt of the ``it's just a made-up holiday'', but I don't see Futurama devoting ten-minute sketches to the artificiality of Mother's Day.

And oh, yes, as Futurama pointed out, Kwanzaa was only invented in 1966, for us a scant 44 years ago. Mind you, there's pretty much no part of Christmas celebrations that predates the mid-Victorian era. That includes thinking of the date as a particularly special occasion. That puts every Kwanzaa celebration at only a third as old as your typical Christmas ritual (or for that matter, the proclamation of the dogma of Papal Infallibility) (there are footnotes which should be attached to that parentheses; pretend they are there). Isn't it fair to demand something prove itself a bit more before it gets accepted as part of the Real Holiday Season?

No. Ancient Tradition sets in in the Real World about as fast as it does in Internet Time. Let's put some numbers in perspective here. It's impossible to imagine December without A Charlie Brown Christmas going, right? Well, that's a whole 45 years old. If Kwanzaa is too new to be treated as a Real Tradition, either it reaches that state next year or ``...and that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown'' never did. The famous WPIX Yule Log is exactly as old as Kwanzaa. Heck, the idea of Catholic Mass being said in the language spoken by the actual Catholic population hearing the Mass is just as ancient.

And we can multiply those examples: for example, Kwanzaa (at 44) is just shy of being twice as old as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was when Kwanzaa was first celebrated (27). White Christmas was a whole 25 years old. And Kwanzaa is older than the Macy's Thankgiving Day Parade was in 1966. A Christmas Story came onto the scene when Kwanzaa was already in its sixteenth year. When Kwanzaa was first celebrated, It's A Wonderful Life had not yet fallen into the public domain and become an endlessly repeated part of December. If that earned its place as tradition by duration, Kwanzaa has it beat.

Or let's put it in broader pop-culture terms. Let's go much broader: you know how Spock goes into ``pon farr'', and has a father named Sarek? Those are ideas both newer than Kwanzaa. You know the ancient stage tradition of saying ``break a leg'' to wish good luck? Recorded citations of it are not a decade older than Kwanzaa. (Again, for footnotes: weird theatrical customs of wishing luck go back farther than that.) Kwanzaa has lasted longer than network radio original fiction broadcasting --- picture the whole span of programming from the first scratchy Amos 'n Andy to the heights of Jack Benny and Suspense to the sorry close of the final petering out Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Ma Perkins? Less time than Kwanaa's had on the pop cultural scene. [1] The United States is on its eighth President since the first Kwanzaa; surely at least some of the taint of newness is worn off by now?

[1] The lifespan of network radio fiction programming is endlessly debatable since when did it exactly start and when did it die and all that and how do you count attempted revivals. But this year the lifespans are just about even by most reasonable definitions, and within a few years Kwanzaa will unmistakably take the lead.

I agree, it's new as holidays go, not like Presidents Day, or Martin Luther King Day, or the attempt to move Veterans Day to the third week of October for some reason. But there's kids who were born after the holiday was invented who're old enough to be President, or who were born long after its invention who're old enough to have kids of their own, and for that matter having grandkids is not out of the question.

And yes, I agree, I only first noticed Kwanzaa in the mid-to-late 80s when the Asbury Park Press began running its ``What The Heck Is This Kwanzaa Thing'' articles that it's still running verbatim so the holiday looks younger than it is. But then the first Presidential Turkey Pardoning was not until 1989 and people seem content to pretend that goes back to time immemorial, or at least Harry Truman, and is somehow a hallowed yet belovedly-nonsensical tradition.

It has to meet reasonable standards of ``being observed by a goodly number of people'' and ``for a decent number of years reliably''. But I will go into what most irritates me about this:

``Nobody knows what Kwanzaa is'' is a lazy joke. It's not a joke that anyone making it has thought of themselves, it's a received stock line they got from a source they can't pin down, and which they will pass on, unimproved and un-thought about, to future listeners. It won't receive a laugh, ether, at best a modest chuckle of recognition that yes, a joke has been transmitted and successfully identified.

Similarly, ``Kwanzaa isn't a real holiday, is it?'' ``Nope, it was made up'' is a lazy conversation. It doesn't require either party think particularly or learn or consider or re-consider something. They just show up, read their lines, and go on, unchanged and unimproved by the encounter.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a lazy joke or a lazy conversation. Most conversations are lazy: the idle mutual grooming of sociable apes who are so well-tended that they don't know quite what to make of it when they discover an actual nit in the other's fur. They seek to communicate nothing more than ``I would tolerate having a real conversation with you''. We need that; we wouldn't be fully human without that.

But we can't always have lazy conversations. At some point we need to have the real conversations which our average conversation is the placeholder for. Those are the ones where we say things personal, and important, that we're a little scared other people will hear about, and we have to face hearing things that we know might scare us. It is disrespectful of any subject to be dumped forever into the lazy conversation bin. I'd like to think this takes Kwanzaa out of that lazy bin at least for a moment.

And if it doesn't, I'd at least like people to stop witlessly picking on Kwanzaa.

Trivia: Twelve commemorative medals were struck to celebrate Britain's George V's Silver Jubilee in 1935. 36 were struck for the coronation of Edward VIII in 1937. Source: The Invention Of Tradition, Editors Eric Hobsbawm, Terence Ranger.

Currently Reading: Watchers Of The Skies: An Informal History Of Astronomy From Babylon To The Space Age, Willy Ley.