Staff Picks: Christmas Reads, Portlandia


This Week’s Reading

If Christmas is now a thoroughly domesticated ritual—gifts beneath the tree, cookies and milk for Santa—Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas reminds us that it wasn’t always so. The Puritans of Massachusetts outlawed the holiday (since it was obviously just the pagan solstice in disguise), and until the mid-nineteenth century it was mostly an excuse to get drunk and hit the streets. In 1712, Cotton Mather complained: “[T]he Feast of Christ’s Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty.” Those were the days. —Robyn Creswell

I discovered a nicely bound anthology edited by W. Somerset Maugham while wading through the holiday shoppers at the Strand. In it, among many other gems, was a series of (charmingly prefaced) epigrams by Hilaire Belloc. My favorite (titled On His Books): “When I am dead, I hope it may be said:/ ‘His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.’” —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

Why is it that Christmas spirit seems to be the most difficult to find around the holidays? The feeling I associate with December is stress: the stress of coming up with the perfect gift for a loved one, then braving the vicious hordes to buy it; the stress of the post office; the stress of travel. Which is why David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon Commencement Speech is so essential. Wallace calls on his audience to summon the sort generosity that this season purports to be—but rarely is—about. “It will be within your power,” he promises, “to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things.” That would truly be a Christmas miracle. —Miranda Popkey

With lines like “Portland is a city where young people go to retire,” IFC’s Portlandia looks like (organic, locally grown) manna from television heaven. The trailer has been on repeat play (and then some) here at the office this week, and I’m counting the minutes until the January 21 premiere. Sure, they’re shooting fish in a barrel, but then again, it’s only funny ’cause it’s true. —Peter Conroy