The Many Meanings of Christmas

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, December 20, 2020

Christmas, or the more generic “holiday season,” always brings a rush of emotions, but none more than 2020 because of political and COVID-19 anxieties and isolation.

The Christmas season is a mixture of traditional, religious, commercial and cultural aspects that can overload even the steadiest and carefully-minded among us. This year most of us will travel less, window-shop less, visit family and friends less, socially celebrate less. We will have to work at it to make it a “Holly Jolly Christmas” or to be “Home for Christmas (if only in our dreams).”

The modern American Christmas tradition stems from the popularization of Clement Moore’s 1822 “Twas the Night Before Christmas” that presented a fairy tale alternative to the Christian tradition of St. Nicholas celebrated widely throughout Europe. The poem is the basis for the modern notion of Santa Claus with his cheerful, rotund white-bearded face, calling his reindeer by name and bringing toys to children. Moore’s poem may be the first poem most American kids learn voluntarily.

Likewise, traditional Christmas songs may be our first introduction to music because we sing them at school, church and home. One irreplaceable loss this December is the school concerts and plays that won’t take place because of virtual schooling.

The foundation of most of our personal sentiments about Christmas is often based in our early family experiences. Mine were wonderful. In a family of eight kids, with some visiting relatives, no school and usually a snowy white Christmas, it seemed like Hallmark had heard about us. My silly parents even had a neighbor dress up as Santa Claus for the first 10 to 12 years of my youth. He was well informed about our Christmas wishes, as well as our school and family responsibilities, and pulled presents from his white duffle bag with flair. We had the pleasure of reenacting it one year for my parents when I was in my 20s, and they loved it. I guess they saw they had been successful in making Christmas memories we cherish.

My siblings and I recently Zoomed to talk about our Christmas memories, and, not surprisingly, we had many of the same ones: waking up too early on Christmas morning and sneaking down the stairs; the year we got the family toboggan; and how our unmarried aunt sent all eight of us the same matching pajamas, robes or sweaters for about 20 years.

The Christmas culture has, of course, a commercialism that many profess to object to but can’t seem to shake. The explosion in “Black Friday” shopping since the 1980s seems not to have been slowed by the more convenient internet form of shopping. On the other hand, the season seems to bring out our compassion, at least the aspects of charitable giving and caring for the less fortunate. The cynic, of course, asks why we don’t have that Christmas spirit all through the year.

The Christmas culture also has a bittersweet theme of suffering and loss, and of joy and hope. Our political history still recalls “Washington Crossing the Delaware” — to take control of Trenton from the Hessians on Christmas Night 1776 — as one of the most viewed paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. And then there is the Christmas Truce in World War I in 1914 when German, French and British soldiers ceased their combat for several hours on Christmas Eve to mingle and share food and fellowship before returning to war.

More recently, in 1986, three astronauts on Apollo 8 read from the book of Genesis from the Bible while in the moon’s orbit on Christmas Eve. The broadcast became one of the most watched television events in history, ending “Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

For the early baby boomers coming of age in the 1960s, perhaps the single memory of the bittersweetness of Christmas is Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 “Silent Night and the 7:00 News” that artfully blended the sacred with the cold realities of our lives.

Christmas songs reflect the many streams of seasonal sentiment ranging from the religious “O Holy Night” to the comedic “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.” Hearing well-recognized Christmas songs in other languages presents a familiar feeling suggesting that we may all be one people.

Over the past several decades, legal battles over having a nativity on the courthouse lawn and the alleged “War on Christmas” may have had a dampening effect on public holiday celebrations, even totally secular ones. The National Christmas Tree near the White House, and similar displays in many cities, reflect the blend of religious, commercial and traditional aspects of Christmas.

My strongest, most bittersweet recent memory of Christmas was 15 years ago at the Missouri United Methodist Church, where Pastor Jim Bryan gave his Christmas Candlelight Sermon about the history of “I heard the bells on Christmas Day,” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863. My elder son was a Marine in Iraq, and I felt Longfellow’s despair that “There is no peace on Earth. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on Earth, good will to men.”

Bryan’s refrain was one of hope, saying “The star shines bright for those who want to believe.”

Believers and non-believers will return to Christmas Eve services once the pandemic is no longer a public health threat. This year, the internet will be busy with streamed services from the Vatican, national cathedrals and local churches. Our universal hope of “Peace on Earth” is shared around the globe.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu

When will politics stop? It seems like never with Schmitt’s latest effort

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, December 11, 2020

Eric Schmitt, Missouri’s attorney general, reportedly led the effort along with 16 other Republican state attorneys general, in supporting a Texas lawsuit to challenge 2020 presidential election results that have been certified in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin, four states where former Vice President Joe Biden won more votes than President Donald Trump.

At least 106 Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives have endorsed the Texas lawsuit.

The first sign that something is fishy is that the Republican attorneys general in Arizona and Georgia, both states won by Biden, did not sign on. Chris Carr, Georgia’s attorney general, said the Texas brief is “constitutionally, legally and factually wrong about Georgia.” There have been three recounts in Georgia, and both the Republican governor and Republican secretary of state have said that no voting irregularities or fraud took place in their state.

Technically, the attorneys general are not plaintiffs, as they do not qualify for “legal standing” in the action because they have not been directly harmed. They filed a “friend of the court” brief, sort of like a full-page ad in a national newspaper or a 30-second ad during the Super Bowl directed at the Supreme Court. Their purpose is to get additional information into the judicial proceeding, and, perhaps more importantly, to signal to the court and other politicians that they support the Texas lawsuit. Because it involves conflict between states, the suit goes directly to the Supreme Court.

The Texas suit is unlikely to achieve its objective of delaying Biden’s inevitable election. More than a dozen suits have been filed by Trump, or his supporters, without success. Some critics of the Texas effort see it as a PR stunt meant to bring political favor to the Texas attorney general who faces his own legal troubles.

The Texas suit, and its endorsement, is but another signal that plain-old politics is the omnipresent concern of government officials who we once trusted to administer government programs. Raw perpetual politics is a epidemic, a cancer on the American political system.

While it was widely expected Trump might not concede the election and recognize Biden as the next president, it is surprising that Sens. Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley and other Republican officials have not done so either. Enough states have certified their results to ensure that Biden will receive more than 270 votes when electoral votes are cast.

Opinion surveys find that about three-quarters of Republican identifiers say the recent presidential election was marred with voting irregularities. Because courts in several states have concluded there is not supporting evidence for allegations of fraud, Republican voters are likely following the lead of elected Republicans and selective media leaders who apparently wish to please Trump.

Schmitt and other attorneys general should be devoted to the peoples’ welfare rather than advancing their political interest. Most citizens would be surprised that the attorneys general are doing politics on taxpayer time and dime. While the line between politics and official activities can often be difficult to draw, in this case it is simple. The Texas attorney general, and his counterparts in 17 states, are part of a political campaign. It’s pure politics. At the national level, the Hatch Act prohibits mixing politics with official actions. Elected officials are not permitted to seek campaign contributions from their government offices. Once the campaign is over and they have begun their official duties, elected officials should be required to “punch out” from the official clock and their political party should reimburse their state for time spent on politics. Similarly, travel, computer use and staff help should be billed to their political account and the state reimbursed.

There are societal consequences for remaining in a state of perpetual politics. In 2020, the presidential transition was slowed by the refusal of a Trump-appointed agency head to designate Biden as president-elect. Additionally, planning for controlling COVID-19 and the surrounding economic consequences have been hampered.

There are three important dates remaining in the 2020 election cycle. On Monday, electors meet in respective state capitols to officially cast their state’s electoral votes. On Jan. 6, electoral votes are officially counted in a Senate proceeding with the vice president presiding. Two weeks later, Jan. 20, the new, duly-elected president will be inaugurated.

In elections past, these events have been conducted with grace and precision. Sadly, there is concern this year that politics will continue way beyond the time the new president should be recognized and congratulated. Let’s hope Missouri Attorney General Schmitt and Sens. Blunt and Hawley recognize our duly-elected president, moving on to address the peoples’ concerns.

David Webber David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu

Are universities transforming from places for vocation to ‘just’ employers?

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, December 5, 2020

MU professor Michael Budds died last month, bequeathing $4 million to the MU School of Music. When I mentioned it to a friend who is an MU alum, but not an MU employee, she reacted in surprise: “Isn’t that just giving money back to your employer? Why would a person do that?” Employer, I thought, MU isn’t an employer, it’s a vocation.

Universities are, of course, employers, and they have transformed drastically since I first discovered them 50 years ago. Back then, the decision to pursue an advanced degree, especially in Arts and Science, with the intent of obtaining an academic position, i.e. a j-o-b, was similar to joining a religious order: you did it for the love of a particular discipline, not for love of pecuniary compensation. Few people back then selected an academic field based on their economic forecasts of future earnings. Most choose an academic field because of a personal attachment to that field whether as a curiosity about the subject matter or connection through a teacher or family member. 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how MU has changed since I arrived here in 1986 because this past year, four of my senior Political Science colleagues, Professors Fred Spiegel, age 96; Paul Wallace, age 89; Dean Yarwood, age 85; and Robin Remington, age 82, passed away. Also dying this year was Joan Watson, a wonderful woman who was the widow of my late colleague Richard Watson, perhaps the intellectual leader of the department when I joined in 1986. While I had differences and disagreements with each of them, I never doubted their devotion to MU.

Sociology Professor Andrew Twaddle who died this week is part of that cohort, too. They each gave more than 30 years of teaching and research to the university but also time and participation support to the university community. These colleagues came to MU in the 1960s and ‘70s were involved in many campus activities, served on campus committees, knew each other’s personal lives, and made a bequest to MU in one form or other.

Universities are microcosms of society and in a constant state of change. The late 1980s is a good pivotal point to help grasp how drastically MU has changed, even before social media and COVID-19. In 1986, the first parking garage was almost completed, the law school was a big hole in the ground, the nearest quality printer was in the Math Science Building across campus, few students had access to cable TV, and Mizzou was in the Big 8.

In about 1990, a few younger professors and I, having discovered e-mail, lost interest in getting second-hand gossip in the coffee room when we just as easily could email friends and colleagues at other universities to get our own information. Similarly, rather than spending 15-20 minutes in the coffee room discussing a forthcoming decision, someone even proposed proxy voting, so we didn’t have to attend meetings. By about 2000, many professors had their own coffee machines that made individual servings, so we seldom visited the coffee room. Starbucks down Ninth Street rendered the coffee room dark and empty; in about 2008 it was turned into a faculty office.

An incremental change in about 1990 concerning academic advising had huge consequences for MU. Faculty no longer had responsibilities for student advising. Previously, each professor had responsibility so advise and approve course registration for about 20 students each semester. We actually kept office hours back then. Depending on your point of view, we were either “relieved of our duties,” “fired,” “freed up to do our research,” or “re-assigned” but we had less personal contact with students. Yes, students might now receive more current information about requirements, but we had less opportunity to learn about their college experience.

An irony of most academic hiring is that current faculty and administrations are hiring newly minted professors from higher status universities who are “better trained” than they are. In the social sciences, this meant young faculty know the latest statistical techniques and have the youthful ambition to “hit the highest journals in the discipline.” Consequently, many of us became more specialized and narrower with little genuine interest in our colleague’s work. Their resumes became longer and more esoteric so they can compete in a national job market. My department hired several outstanding junior scholars, after just a few years many of them were “hired away” by more prestigious universities, increasing turnover.

Efforts to address the most common challenges of higher education such as the disproportionate increases in administrators and staff, increase in college costs and student debt, more emphasis on employment preparation, poorly prepared students, admission standards ethics, social equity and the massive impact of information technology have changed all of higher education in the past few decades.

Universities sure look, and feel, more like “employers” than they did when I finished graduate school in the 1980s. We are all products of our generation. Certainly, my senior colleagues would have adapted to a larger MU with its contemporary information technology and larger bureaucracy but there would have been less of a learning community with less time for 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. chats in the coffee room. My hope is that present and future faculty find a home at MU that provides an opportunity for a fulfilling career.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu. David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.