Roman Holiday

As seen previously on Twitter.

Have yourself
A merry Saturnalia,
If the Fates allow—
And if Zeus
Does not turn you in-to a cow.

Have yourself
A merry Saturnalia
Let your heart be light!
The Alps will keep
Those elephants all out of sight.

Here we are as in olden days
Pre-Triumv’rate days of yore—
When Senators had no cause to spill
Caesar’s blood on the floor!

Even with
The Goths upon our doorstep,
Rome may yet endure—
Or Justinian will say the fall’s deferred.
So have yourself a merry Saturnalia now!

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Because credit cards are probably symbols of the Papacy or something

On the off chance that anyone you encounter over the course of this holiday season should happen to mention the “War on Christmas,” and go on to complain that political correctness has stifled the celebration of real, American traditions, the appropriate response is to nod in vigorous agreement and say, “I know! And the worst part is, who has five shillings to pay the fine these days?”

Have a merry Foolstide, everyone!◼

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Have yourself a scientific Christmas

The love makes beautiful. frosted landscape for christmas xmas and happy new year pour noël et le nouvel an Photo by Thierry.

Have yourself a scientific Christmas,
May your teaching load be light!
Next year maybe funding will not be so tight.
Have yourself a scientific Christmas,
Pipette your last lane …
Don’t stir the reagents with that candy cane!

You’re done with your holiday shopping and ready to read about selective breeding of Christmas trees, right? Well, then the Molecular Ecologist has just the post for you. Or maybe you’d rather check out an old Denim and Tweed post about mistletoe population genetics?

And a happy midwinter celebration of your choice to all!◼

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Holiday baking

Grandma’s date pudding. Photo by jby.

I could frankly do without a lot of holiday-time rituals, but I’m perfectly happy to have the excuse for baking. This year I made cranberry orange bread for the folks in my lab, following a great recipe in Mark Bittman’s magisterial How to Cook Everything. I’ve also taken a crack at Ma Savage’s Christmas Snowballs for one party, and for the departmental party, I dug up a family tradition: Grandma Bender’s date pudding.

My mom’s mom has a pretty serious sweet tooth, and so I learned to love this recipe—cubes of rich, sweet, date cake layered in sweetened whipped cream—as part of the main course for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Nowadays, I cut the sugar from the whipped cream, and it still goes over quite well as a dessert. It’s also possible to substitute in whole wheat or spelt flour, which only makes the cake denser and richer. Recipe follows:

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat one cup of water to boiling, and soak one cup of chopped dried dates in the hot water for 20 minutes. Cream together one tablespoon of butter and one cup of sugar, and then blend in one egg, one cup of flour, one cup of chopped pecans (or other nuts), half a teaspoon of salt, one teaspoon of baking soda, and one teaspoon of vanilla extract. Finally, fold in the soaked dates and any liquid remaining with them; blend it all well. Spread this batter in a greased 9 inch by 13 inch cake pan and bake it for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.

When the cake is done, let it cool to room temperature, or stick it in the fridge or freezer if you’ve baked it in advance, which is often convenient. When you’re ready to assemble the pudding, whip two cups of heavy cream together with a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract until it’s stiff, then cut the cake into one-inch cubes and layer cubes of cake with the whipped cream in a midsize serving bowl. ◼

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Surprising? Not really.

The weird yet perennial “war on Christmas” rhetoric – in which, regular as Santa Claus, the conservative commentariat gets up in arms about some perceived slight to the Christian origins of the holiday – has always mystified me. It’s transparently mean-spirited to transform the words “Merry Christmas” into a proclamation of cultural dominance, to the point that the neutral “Happy Holidays” has become more Christian in spirit. Over in Washington State, the addition of an atheist belief statement to a holiday display has set off an arms-race of symbolic appropriation culminating in demands to include a Festivus pole and a sign saying that “Santa Claus will take you to Hell,” finally forcing the state government to place a moratorium on additions.

Max Blumenthal writes that this absurdity has its roots in Anti-Semitism. Because you know who really hates Christmas? The Jews:

Unlike their more respectable counterparts, Brimelow’s writers dared to name the true anti-Christian Grinch: Jews. The winner of Brimelow’s 2001 War on Christmas competition, a “paleoconservative” writer named Tom Piatak, insisted that those behind the assault on Christmas “evidently prefer” Hanukkah, which he called the “Jewish Kwanzaa,” a “faux-Christmas.”

Which makes perfect sense; nothing offends a racist like showing basic courtesy to someone different from them. Saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” implies that you can’t assume some random person on the street is Christian. That doesn’t strike me as particularly scary or bad; but for the Christmas Warriors, it’s the end of the world as they know it.

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Well, that’s different

In Catalonia, it’s a deeply entrenched tradition to make a very specific kind of addition to public Nativity scenes:

Statuettes of well-known people defecating are a strong Christmas tradition in Catalonia, dating back to the 18th century. Catalonians hide caganers in Christmas Nativity scenes and invite friends to find them. The figures symbolize fertilization, hope and prosperity for the coming year.

Via P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula, who points it out for his own doubtless nefarious purposes.

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Not-so-silent nights in Bethlehem

For Christmas Day, here’s an excellent article about life in present-day Bethlehem from National Geographic. If you aren’t well versed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s a good introduction. For me, it’s a sad reminder of how much worse things have gotten since I spent three weeks in Bethlehem as part of an undergrad cross-cultural semester. Dave Landis, who was on that trip with me, is now back in-country, helping to run a sort of interfaith hostel in Nazareth. He has lots of pictures.

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