Tag Archives: holidays

Judith Butler Wishes You a Merry Christmas

1Thanks to Blingee.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Jewish Christmas — The Chinese Connection

My friend Andy Markovits passed along to me a very funny YouTube video that has been making the rounds. It touches on an intriguing aspect of American social history — the curious affinity of Jews for Chinese food. Ever since Eastern European Jewish immigrants began arriving here in large numbers about a century ago, they showed a special inclination to go to Chinese restaurants whenever they went out to eat non-Jewish food.

There was always something a little odd about this, since many of them normally avoided non-kosher food, and Chinese food is anything but kosher — certainly no more kosher than, say, Italian or Irish or generic-American food. (In recent years some Chinese restaurants have adapted by going kosher, but such cases used to be vanishingly rare.) Perhaps the sauces that smothered and disguised the food, which also tended to be finely chopped up, made a certain degree of denial easier? (Through most of the 20th century, the kind of Chinese food that American Jews were eating was usually some version of gloppy American-Cantonese.) And perhaps the special attractiveness of Chinese restaurants had something to do with the fact that Chinese — unlike a number of other ethnic groups in the U.S. — had no history of, or reputation for, anti-semitism? One can only speculate.

Here are some informed socio-historical speculations by two Jewish sociologists, Gaye Tuchman and Harry Levine, in “‘Safe Treyf’: New York Jews and Chinese Food” (for those of you who come from the dominant culture, “treyf” or “treif” means non-kosher):

Three themes predominate. First, Chinese food is unkosher and therefore non-Jewish. But because of the specific ways that Chinese food is prepared and served, immigrant Jews and their children found Chinese food to be more attractive and less threatening than other non-Jewish or treyf food. Chinese food was what we term “safe treyf.” Chinese restaurant food used some ingredients that were familiar to Eastern European Jews. Chinese cuisine also does not mix milk and meat; indeed it doesn’t use dairy products at all. In addition, anti-Semitism, anti-Chinese racism, and the low position of the Chinese in American society also (perhaps paradoxically) made Jews feel safe and comfortable in Chinese restaurants.

Second, Jews construed Chinese restaurant food as cosmopolitan. For Jews in New York, eating in Chinese restaurants signified that one was not a provincial or parochial Eastern European Jew, not a “greenhorn” or hick. In New York City, immigrant Jews, and especially their children and grand-children, regarded Chinese food as sophisticated and urbane.

Third, by the second and third generation, Jews identified eating this kind of non-Jewish food — Chinese restaurant food — as something that modern American Jews, and especially New York Jews, did together. “Eating Chinese” became a New York Jewish custom, a part of daily life and self-identity for millions of New York Jews.

Whatever the reasons, this connection between American Jews and Chinese food has long been a solidly established social fact. (I don’t know whether this has also been true for Jews in Montreal and Toronto, or whether there are any parallels outside North America.) And I am told by people who know about such things (not just professionally, but from relevant sociological research) that this connection has long been a self-conscious part of Chinese-restaurant lore as well. If someone wanted to start a Chinese restaurant, the best bet was to have a Chinese community nearby — but, failing that, everyone knew that the second-best situation was to open the restaurant near a supply of Jewish customers.

As part of this pattern of ethnic symbiosis, one special Christmas custom (we might almost call it a tradition) that emerged among American Jews was to go out to a Chinese restaurant for Christmas. Again, the explanation is no doubt complex. Since most Chinese didn’t celebrate Christmas as a religious or family holiday, Chinese restaurants were likely to be open when other restaurants were closed. I would also guess that it’s easy to get a reservation at your favorite Chinese restaurant when the goyim are mostly having Christmas dinner at home. And the movie theaters are often emptier, too — so why not go to the movies while you’re at it?

For a celebration of this Jewish Christmas tradition, click HERE.  For a nice video on the subject from the Forward, see Jews and Chinese Food: A Christmas Story.

Jeff Weintraub is a social and political theorist, cultural and political sociologist, and democratic socialist who has been teaching most recently at the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr College. (Also an Affiliated Professor with the University of Haifa in Israel and an opponent of academic blacklists.)  This post originally appeared at his blog, Commentaries and Controversies.

If There’s a War, We’re Losing It: “Merry Christmas” vs “Happy Holidays”

1I would guess that most of us were unaware of the war on Christmas raging all around us until Bill O’Reilly started reporting from the front. He has since been joined by seasoned war reporters like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. I get the sense that they don’t really take themselves very seriously on this one – their war cries often sound like self-parody – and I guess that this attitude gives them license to say much that is silly and incorrect. Which they do.

Still, these Christian warriors may be right about the general decline of Christian hegemony in American culture.  What’s curious is how that historical trend seems out of sync with the historical trend in the war on Christmas. In fact, it looks like there was a similar war on Christmas 60-70 years ago, a war that went unnoticed.

O’Reilly’s war has two important battlegrounds – legal challenges to government-sponsored religious displays, and people saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”   He sets the start of the current war in the early years of this century. From Fox News Insider:

“Everything was swell up until about 10 years ago when creeping secularism and pressure from groups like the ACLU began attacking the Christmas holiday. They demanded the word Christmas be removed from advertising and public displays.”

Many people caved in to their demands, creating what O’Reilly has dubbed as the “Happy Holidays” syndrome.

If pushed, O’Reilly might trace the origins of the war back further than that – to the 1960s.  That’s when the secularists and liberals started fighting their long war, at least according to the view from the right.  It was in the 1960s that liberals started winning victories and when the world as we knew it started falling apart. In the decades before that, we took it for granted that America was a White Christian nation.  We all pulled together in World War II without questioning that dominance. And our national religion continued to hold sway in the peaceful and prosperous 1950s. We even added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.  And of course, we all celebrated Christmas and said, “Merry Christmas,” no questions asked.

But then came drugs, sex, rock ’n’ roll, protests against an American war, and “God is Dead” on the cover of Time. Worse yet, in 1963 the Supreme Court ruled that the establishment clause of the First Amendment meant that public schools (i.e., government-run schools) could not impose explicitly sectarian rituals on children.  No Bible reading, no Christmas pageants.

The trouble is that even if this history is accurate, it doesn’t have much to do with the War on Christmas, especially “the Happy Holidays syndrome.”  I checked these two phrases at Google Ngrams – a corpus of eight million books.

The first big rise in “Happy Holidays” comes just after the end of World War II.

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From about 1946 to 1954, it increases sixfold. It goes out of fashion as quickly as it came in, and even in the supposedly secular 1960s, it rarely turned up (at least in the books scanned by Google).  The next rise does not begin until the late 1970s, continues through the Reagan and Clinton years.

But just when O’Reilly says the War started, “Happy Holidays” starts to  decline.

And what about “Merry Christmas”?  According to the War reporters, the new secularism of the last ten years has been driving it underground.  But Ngrams tells a different story.

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If there was a time when “Happy Holidays” was replacing “Merry Christmas,” it was in the Greatest Generation era of the 1940s.  Since the late 1970s, when “Happy Holidays” was rising, so was “Merry Christmas.” Apparently, there was just a lot more seasonal spirit to go around.

Perhaps the best way to see the relative presence of the two phrases is to look at the ratio of “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.”

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In 1937, there were 260 of the religious greeting for every one of the secular.  In the 1940s the ratio plummeted; by the late 1950s it had fallen to about 40 to one.  In the Sixties, “Merry Christmas” makes a slight comeback, then declines again.

By the turn of the century, the forces of “Merry Christmas” are ahead by a ratio of “only” about 18 to one.  Since then – i.e., during the period O’Reilly identifies as war time – the ratio has increased slightly in favor of “Merry Christmas.”

O’Reilly may be right that at least in public greetings – by store clerks, by public officials, and by television networks (even O’Reilly’s Fox) – the secular “Happy Holidays” is displacing the sectarian “Merry Christmas.”  But that still doesn’t explain a similar shift over a half-century ago, another war on Christmas that nobody seemed to notice.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Gender-Swapping Christmas

Gendered nonsense wasn’t on the Pew Research Center survey about what people don’t like about Christmas, but it’s in my top five!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Militarizing Santa: Then and Now

Since 1958, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has entertained kids with an annual Christmas-themed Santa-tracking program.  Kids keep an eye on where in the world Santa is delivering his gifts and everyone thinks it’s jolly.

Well, not this year.  Earlier this month we learned that Santa will be joined by two military fighter jets.  Some objected to the new twist on the tradition, arguing that it militarized Santa, essentially brainwashing kids into romanticizing the ugly necessity of defense and the aggression of war.

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Is it pro-U.S. military propaganda?

If it is, it’s nothing new.  Ben Ostrowsky sent us this World War II-era propaganda poster. It was part of a series produced by the labor union and corporation-led War Production Board in 1942.  The aim was to engage as many civilians and companies in weapon production as they could.  “Santa Claus has gone to War!” it exclaims.  Maybe he needs those fighter jets along for the ride after all.

1P.S. In case anyone is still debating: this proves not only that Santa Claus is white, but that he’s an American too.  Team America!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

1/3 of People Say Commercialism is the Worst Part of Christmas

In Pew Research Center data collected earlier this month, only 4% of respondents said that the thing they liked best about Christmas was the gift exchange. Only 1% said they most liked shopping or good deals and only 2% said it was the food.  Instead, the majority (69%) said it was the family and friend time that they most appreciated, followed by religious reflection (11%), and general happiness and joy (7%).  My pet suspicion, that people really like it for the vacation, came in at only 3%.

What do they like the least?  Commercialism and materialism top the list (33%), the expense comes in second (22%), and shopping comes in third (10%).

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There may be some response bias here — that’s when people say what they think the researcher wants to hear instead of the truth — but, if the data are good, it reveals why marketers have to try so damn hard every season to convince us that the gifts, decorations, and food are what make the holiday special.  What would happen to spending if we all decided to do Christmas the way we wanted instead of the way it is in toy and jewelry commercials?  There are lots of monied forces that don’t want us to find out.

1All images from a Google search for “Christmas marketing.”

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Disguising the Gift of Money

Princeton sociology professor Viviana Zelizer wrote a wonderful succinct editorial for the New York Times about the idea of giving money as a gift.  Money, she explains, is used in the most impersonal of transactions (even antagonistic ones, as someone who recently paid a parking ticket recalls), so giving money to loved ones can be seen as crass, tasteless, or thoughtless.

Zelizer explains that cultural elites have been worrying about this since the early 1900s.  The solution: “camouflage money inside a traditional gift.”  Offering some examples, Zelizer writes:

In the December 1909 Ladies’ Home Journal, for instance, the writer Lou Eleanor Colby said she had found a way to “disguise the money so that it would not seem just like a commercial transaction.” She explained how she had incorporated $10 for her mother into artwork. She inserted dollar bills into two posters; one showed five sad bills not knowing where to go, and the other depicted the happy ending: “five little dollars speeding joyfully” toward her mother’s purse.

Housewives hid gold coins in cookies and boxes of candies; dollar bills could decorate belt-buckles or picture frames. Women boasted when the recipient failed to realize that the actual present was money. Men also disguised the money they gave to their wives as gifts, to distinguish it from their allowances. If you give her a check, The Ladies’ Home Journal advised, “put it in an embroidered purse, or a leather sewing basket or a jewel box which will be a little gift in itself.” The better the disguise, the more successful the gift.

Today these tokens are probably familiar to many of you.  One site suggests making the money into a gift basket:

Another suggests that you give the gift of (money) origami:

Soon, Zelizer explains, companies figured out how to cash in on this cashing out, inventing the idea of decorated money orders and telegrams:

…in 1910, American Express began advertising money orders as an “acceptable Christmas gift.” Western Union improved on the idea by creating distinctive telegrams for sending money for special occasions, while greeting card companies started selling decorative money holders for birthdays and holidays.

Thus the “money holder” card was born:

(source)

And what do you think these really are?

(source)

While it may seem obvious to many of us now that gift certificates and money holders exist, Zelizer shows that these objects have a cultural history, devised to solve a particular problem that emerged with the spread of a wage-based economy.

Via Kieran at OrgTheory.  Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Move Over Halloween, Here Comes Christmas

‘Tis the season to remind us that men and women are different and one of women’s jobs is to pander to a hypothetical heterosexual male gaze.  The University of Akron’s Will LeSuer photographed the Christmas-themed costumes for sale at a local store, noting the not-so-implicit gendered expectations.

Surprise, the main theme of the women’s costumes was cute and flirty:

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The men’s themes are, let’s see, comfortable and… superhero?

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And, yes, it starts when they’re kids.IMG_20131209_172436

Here’s a fun compare-and-contrast for maximum icky feeling.  The sexualization of girls and the infantilization of women, in one holiday-themed shot (“child” costume on left, “adult” on right):

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.