Monthly Archives: December 2011

Christmas with American characteristics

Around the globe, people decorate this season. The retail sector the world over leaps at the excuse to adorn shops at this time of year, and American retailers are, of course, no exception. Even in “Communist” China and Shinto Japan, where most do not celebrate Christmas, shops are now brightly decorated. In Europe, lavishly decorated pedestrian shopping streets and traditional Christmas markets are seasonal pleasures. Some of the littlest towns or dorpies in South Africa have the fanciest Christmas light shows down their main streets.

The singularly American aspect to this decorating frenzy, I think, is the way in which Americans adorn the outside of their homes. While many in countries celebrating Christmas decorate inside their homes, nowhere in the world does one experience such fervour in decorating the exteriors of houses. Here in the United States, if you celebrate Christmas—and, sure, many do not—the chances are you will decorate the outside of your home. Working class, middle class, wealthy, religious, secular, elderly, young, you name it. If you celebrate Christmas here, you decorate outside. Some of it is very creative, tasteful, and discreet; some of it just too much and outrageously over the top. But, hey, it’s Christmas in America!

The paraphernalia for this outdoor decorating is readily available. Thanks to cheap Chinese imports, strings of LED lights—white! multicoloured! on green wire! on white wire!—can be purchased very reasonably. And one can connect lots of these together to create a quite dazzling effect; a box of lights notes that a maximum of 43 strings can be linked together. Another favourite is a type of “net” with white or multicoloured lights, which can be draped over bushes or railings. Every year, there are new lights, gimmicks, or other innovations on offer (clever Chinese), so you can always expand your collection. All this illumination gives communal cheer on these chilly winter nights when it becomes dark so early. Yet spiked electricity bills should give pause to those who overdo it, and overall increased energy consumption certainly gives this dimension to the season here an environmental cost.

One of the weirder manifestations of this decorating obsession is how some even jazz up their cars. Wreaths on the bonnets of cars are common. The one that always makes me giggle is the reindeer thing: A pair of “antlers” emerging from opposite side windows, with a red “nose” on the bonnet. Seriously!

European bakers are frantically busy at this time of year. The Germans, Swiss, Belgians, Dutch, Scandinavians all indulge in wonderful gingerbread, almond, cinnamon, shortbread, anise, and chocolate cookies around Christmas. Americans are also munching yummy cookies in December, with typical flavours including apple, pumpkin, oatmeal, cranberry, coconut, peanut, and chocolate.

The American twist on cookies at Christmas is the “cookie exchange”. Trust ever-practical Americans. The idea is that each person arrives with, say, three dozen of their favourite home-baked cookies, and then departs with the same amount of cookies chosen from the array of those others contributed. A key dimension, even etiquette, to this ritual is that the cookies have to be something over which one has taken time and trouble. It would be bad form to participate in a cookie exchange with goodies that involved little effort or were purchased, even if very special.

Giving is an essential part of Christmas. Americans are very generous people; indeed, they do the giving part of Christmas exceedingly well. In these depressed economic times, needs have increased everywhere, and one is inundated with requests for assistance. One’s mailbox is filled with requests for help, newspapers and churches list volunteer opportunities at nearby soup kitchens and charities, schools ask for assistance in providing gifts for needy children and constantly run food drives for local food pantries. The focus, as it should be at Christmas, is on giving. Yes, cynics note, charitable giving is tax deductible, and the tax year ends soon. But it’s the spirit of the giving—often anonymous—that illustrates my point:

Kmart announced that secret Samaritans in stores in Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Montana, and Nebraska had paid off many layaway accounts on toys and children’s clothing, leaving only a few dollars or cents so the items remained in the system. An Indianapolis woman paid off about 50 people’s layaway orders and handed out $50 bills as she left the store—in memory of her husband who had just passed. For the fifth year in a row, a Salvation Army collection kettle outside a Clarksville, Tennessee supermarket has had a krugerrand placed into it. A Salvation Army collection point near Harrisburg, PA, announced recently that it too had received a krugerrand. Cynics may suspect drug smugglers laundering their ill-gotten gains, or former criminals trying to make good, but I’m not so sure.

The materialism of the receiving part of the American Christmas experience can be repulsive and excessive, although the capacity of that great engine of the global economy—the U.S. consumer—is greatly diminished in recent years. Numbers from “Black Friday” (the shopping day after Thanksgiving when stores traditionally move into the black for the year) and “Cyber Monday” (the day for deals on electronics, especially for online purchasing) were up this year from last. Obviously, it’s too early to tell if the Christmas shopping season overall has been successful for retailers, but the frequency with which one sees UPS brown trucks and FedEx Home Delivery vehicles on the road suggests that people have been shopping hard. A middle-class suburban detail that amazes this South African is how parcels are dropped off by front doors and then left there, awaiting collection when people return home at the end of the day. Such parcels would quickly disappear in middle-class suburban Johannesburg or Cape Town–and perhaps not fare too well either in most American towns or inner city neighbourhoods.

Yet the most noteworthy aspect of Christmas in America is high attendance of church services, a phenomenon that is well documented elsewhere, and one that is categorically not true of all societies celebrating Christmas. Whether you go to church or choose not to go this Christmas, a very merry Christmas to all!


The “99 percent”

A tense standoff last night between Occupy D.C. protesters and police over an unauthorized wooden structure that protesters provocatively erected and police predictably took down, arresting 31 in the process, may escalate into a wider confrontation. Police may now decide that the two Occupy D.C. camps must be cleared. Or the camps may be allowed to continue, so long as the occupants resume their previous non-aggressive style. Whatever official decision is made, as the temperature dips further this winter, I predict that the ranks of Occupy D.C. are likely to thin.

Police in Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Portland, amongst other cities, have already evicted protesters from parks and arrested those who resisted leaving. The clearing of the University of California at Davis campus was particularly controversial due to police pepper spraying kneeling protesters, actions that were captured on video. Mayors have justified clearing the parks as necessary for public health, and overnight camping is prohibited in many parks.

Yet the factors that motivated the Occupy movement have hardly dissipated. They are still very much in play. These include anger at expanding income disparities, where the wealthy “1 percent” gets richer and richer and the rest of society—the “99 percent”—receives diminishing or no benefit. Protesters are also disgusted at crony capitalism and how individuals and institutions in the financial and mortgage sectors were not punished for their role in the 2008 financial collapse and mortgage crisis but were instead bailed out. There is also deep frustration over ongoing unemployment and the lack of prospects, and worry about debt and the inability, for example, to repay student loans.

While the Occupy movement may have a winter go-slow, there is no question in my mind that the movement will be back in the spring, especially because of the pivotal presidential election in 2012.

The Occupy movement has profoundly changed political discourse in the United States. All discussion now on how to revive the economy to foster job creation while simultaneously cutting spending and raising revenues to cut the federal debt is phrased in terms of the impacts on high-earners, the middle class, the working poor, and the unemployed. Where to make necessary spending cuts and how and for whom to increase taxes are the core issues of the 2012 presidential campaign. That is the accomplishment of the Occupy movement.

As I walked through the two camps of Occupy D.C. last week, chatting to people here and there, the significant political impact of the Occupy movement was not all I pondered. I marveled, honoured, and celebrated freedom of speech and the right to protest.

The two Occupy D.C. camps are in the heart of Washington, D.C. The one camp, Occupy McPherson, is literally two blocks northeast of the White House; this is where yesterday’s clash with the police occurred. The other camp is at Freedom Plaza. This site is flanked by Pennsylvania Avenue as the road heads from the White House and the Treasury Department to Capitol Hill, passing the Willard Hotel, one of D.C.’s swankiest, and the National Theatre, both now gaily festooned in Christmas finery.

Yes, Washington is the “protest capital” of the United States, so local authorities are used to this type of activity and are conditioned to tolerate it. Yes, prior to yesterday’s skirmish, police had issued warnings to D.C. Occupiers about, for example, urinating in public and the like; possible pretexts to clearing the camps? Nevertheless, the camps are an extraordinary sight, and their persistence in their prominent locations highlights the core values of a tolerant society.

During my most recent stroll through Occupy D.C. camps, I wondered how other societies marked by huge disparities in income between rich and poor would handle such ongoing protests. I tried to imagine “Occupy Beijing”, with protesters camping in Beihai Park, the dusty public park nearest to the lush, well-manicured Zhongnanhai, Chinese leaders’ official compound in the heart of Beijng. The Chinese leadership’s initial tolerance of weeks-long protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989 ended in a massive blood bath. Today on Tiananmen Square, any attempt at protest, whether it is shouting obscenities or unfurling a critical banner, is squashed immediately by the vigilant, always present security officials. Instant arrest is guaranteed.

I thought about other protest movements that have emerged from the “99 percent” in 2011: The groundswell of public discontent in Arab countries that has felled dictators; and the protests in India supporting activist Anna Hazare’s campaign for tougher laws against chronic graft.

As I meandered amidst the tents of Occupy D.C., I wondered about South Africa, my home country with its alarming income inequality. Wealth there is concentrated in a small elite, government and corporate corruption is now widespread, unemployment is shockingly high, and many young people feel they have no prospects or productive means to improve their lives. Despondency increased with recent passage of a democracy-narrowing Protection of State Information Bill (Secrecy Bill) whereby classified information that is in the public interest cannot now be disclosed. Exposing government corruption or malfeasance is now seen as threatening national security.

How tolerant would South African authorities be of an “Occupy Pretoria” or an “Occupy Cape Town” that tapped into public disgust at government corruption? Imagine a tent city of frustrated, unemployed youth and other representatives of the “99 percent” in the terraced gardens under the Union Buildings in Pretoria, or in the Gardens adjoining Parliament in Cape Town. Would the South African government allow such months-long encampments? I reckon neither an “Occupy Pretoria” nor an “Occupy Cape Town” would be tolerated as long as Occupy D.C. has been allowed to endure.