DAILY BRIEFINGHoliday Magic (etc)
Jan 5 - I'll start with a quick thought: it's been twenty years since 1984 and there's still no sign of Big Brother. I mean, say what you will about the state of American politics, and the uses and abuses of the federal muscle, we're still a long, long way from permafascism—the very existence (and health) of our government's critics are all the proof you need.
I never actually saw much of a future for "speak-write tubes" or "a boot stomping on a human face—for ever," so I'm not surprised. Personally I'd say Orwell was an optimist in that he thought any order at all could be imposed on humanity—a thesis which, given the course of human history, probably works best as satire. Harness a horse and you can plow a field. Harness a man, and sooner or later he's gonna turn around and bite your ass—then kill you and your family, burn your house to the ground, and kick the crap out of anyone who helped you build that harness.
But optimism is tedious. I could probably quintuple the hits to my website if I started writing about how the world was going to hell. That's interesting. It's also inaccurate using virtually any significant measurement. Things are slowly and monotonously getting better and better for the human race. We live longer, healthier, happier lives. The percentage of people living in freedom continues to grow. The coldest assessment of all the cold figures at our disposal suggests cause not for despair, but guarded optimism.
It's all so goddam boring.
Yeah, I know, there are wars, and rumors of wars, and all that crap. There's pain and suffering and cruelty and injustice. Political prisoners still languish in prisons, slavery is still a blight upon the earth, children are still dying of starvation, treatable diseases, and simple neglect. Innocents are still killed in the name of God, ideology, and economics. I just think that every once in a while we ought to stop and acknowledge that there's less and less of it every year; that slowly but surely we're becoming less horrible as a species, less devastating an affliction unto one another.
I now return you to the skepticism, pessimism, and bewilderment that constitute my regular programming.
People have described Christmas as a "magical" time of year pretty much everywhere I've ever lived—even in the Jewish neighborhoods—but here in this fairy-tale nation of Denmark even a snarky-ass skeptic like myself can feel the magic.
(I can't overlook the possibility that a lot of that magical feeling came in bottles and went down way too easy, way too often, but I'll take my magic any way I can get it.)
I was introduced to a lot of interesting Danish traditions over the holidays, but I'd like to focus on two of their particular manias: gaming and pyromania.
In my own limited experience of the world, I've never met a truly uncompetitive person. I don't deny the possible existence of such sages nibbling tree bark in hermitic mountainside aeries: I just haven't met any. My experience among the rest of the human race has in fact persuaded me that if I should ever meet one of those elusive apostles of indifference, they'd go on and on about how much less competitive than me they were.
So I hope no one will interpret what follows as an indictment of the Danish national character. They're no more competitive than the rest of us, though they'd probably like to be. Even if they were, competition being what it is, I suppose we'd envy rather than disparage them for it.
That much said, the Danish capacity for gaming is astonishing. In the heart of Christmas—a holiday smothered with as much blather about selflessness, giving, and charity as it is with candy canes, angels, elves, and candles—in the very heart of this near-global orgy of saccharine sentiment, the Danes are reaching for their dice and setting their timers and snatching gifts away from one another with the unbridled glee of. . . well, I don't know. I'm picturing craps tables, horse tracks, roulette wheels. Giddy greed gone gloriously gaga.
They're called "gift games," or gavespiller. They work like this: every guest brings along a few inexpensive gifts to a Christmas party. They're wrapped and set out along the middle of a table around which everyone is seated. (Typically the dinner table, after the plates have been cleared.) Guests then take turns rolling a die. Roll a six and you get your pick of the gifts. This goes on until all the gifts have been claimed. At that point, everyone unwraps the gifts they've "won."
Then it gets interesting.
The host sets a timer to an undisclosed amount of time within a range previously agreed to by all the guests—between 22 and 28 minutes, say. The die-rolling then resumes. If you roll a six, you can take any gift you like from any guest you like. If you roll a one, you must surrender a gift to the person to your right. When the buzzer sounds, the game is over, and what you've got is what you've got.
This is just one version of one type of gavespille. You could play with more than one die, or put limits on how many gifts you can claim, or how many gifts someone has to have in front of them before it's "legal" to snatch one away from them, and so on. The main thing is, it's a game, it's competitive, and it can get downright vicious.
When I say "vicious," I mean it in the sense that people will invariably find themselves wanting a gift that other people want, and often enough they'll be given the opportunity to take it away from them—and they will. All with a big smile, of course, and the best of holiday wishes, but still: you like that dishtowel set? Too bad, buddy, read my six and weep!
At one Christmas party, one of the guests suggested we play by "social-democratic rules," in which you could only take gifts away from somebody with more than the average number of gifts before them, the idea being no one would really "win" or "lose." I made a quiet pitch for free-market rules, but the social-democrats won out.
About two-thirds of the way through the first phase of the game, the very man who'd proposed the social-democratic rules in the first place rolled a six, leaped up from his seat, and snatched away the only gift in front of me.
"That's my only gift," I protested. "Almost everyone else has more than me!"
"Yes," he acknowledged, "but we changed the rules. Now we're playing the way you wanted to play."
Trine told me they had in fact changed the rules not long into the game—in Danish.
It was a lesson in social-democracy, and the importance of learning Danish, that I'm not likely to forget.
* * *
Any Dane will tell you that hygge is untranslatable but means something like "cozy" or "intimate." I've already written a whole blog about the concept, which is as integral to Danish culture as microwave popcorn is to our own. But I begin to suspect they're lying. I think it may actually mean "open flames indoors," "fire hazard," or maybe just plain "arson."
Denmark must be the candle capital of the world. During the dark season (the gloomy ten-month hibernations between two-month periods of insomnia), Danes array their homes with as many candles as possible. I mean that literally: if they burned any more of the oxygen in their homes, they'd die of asphyxiation. Candles and candleholders come in all shapes, colors, sizes, and styles. There are baroque candles, neo-modern candles, post-modern candles, socialist-democrat candles, anarchist candles, even Rene Magritte "this-is-not-a-candle" candles. You can buy candles and candleholders everywhere.
Christmas and New Year's are the peak of open-flame season in Denmark. At these two holidays Danish culture makes the transition from "cozy" to "dangerous." On Christmas, they festoon their trees with candles, light them, then hold hands in a circle around the tree and sing Danish carols (I couldn't translate those we sang on the fly, but I'm guessing they were something like "O Come, All Ye Firemen" and "Noel Inferno").
On New Year's Eve, every single citizen of Denmark is compelled by law to detonate a battery of fireworks equivalent in firepower to that of the average American municipality. When midnight finally strikes, the sky is ablaze with explosions. It's a beautiful, stunning, and somewhat frightening display of pyrotechnics that claims a few lives every year.
But to really appreciate the enormity of the display, you have to wait until the sun comes up on January 1 and take a walk around town. Every street, every alley, every park, every horizontal surface is littered with the detritus of the night before. Spent batteries, exploded rockets, the packaging they came in, the hats and streamers of the people who detonated them, the water-filled bottles out of which they shot them—there it all this, everywhere. The smell of gunpowder lingers over the city.
If global warming is really the problem some claim it is, the Danes have a lot to answer for.
I picked up a couple of corrections over the holidays. For one thing, the Danish pharmacy system isn't nationalized. It's highly regulated, but the government itself doesn't own or operate any pharmacies. Also, the St. Lucia Christmas tradition is Swedish, not Danish, and it's on December 13, as reported in previous years, not the 23rd, as reported this year.
I have also clearly under-represented the amount of drinking done in Denmark over the holidays.
I regret the errors.
* * *
I also got a lot of mail about U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's warning about almanacs. Specifically, in a Christmas Eve bulletin sent to 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, the FBI warned that al-Qaeda type groups might use almanacs "to assist with target selection and pre-operational planning."
Let us hope that my almanac is among those being used.
* * *
Another reader wrote in with a peculiar question. "If my hat size is 7-3/4 inches," he wrote, "and my shirt collar size is 17 inches, shouldn't I be able to button my collar and pull it over my head?"
Short answer: yes. But I'm astonished by this question, since even a newborn child's cranial circumference would exceed eight inches. Make a circle with your thumb and middle finger: that's what seven or eight inches in circumference looks like. (I'm sure plenty of mothers are staring down at that little circle and thinking, "if only!") And yet my astonishment doesn't come from the question, but the fact that someone with a brain tiny enough to be accommodated by such a diminutive head could actually concern himself with hats, let alone abstract thought or posting an email. Forget about hats, my friend: contact Guiness!
(You can learn a little more about hat sizes here. Size 7-3/4 hats, for example, are designed for heads that are 24-1/4 inches, or 62 centimeters, in circumference.)
* * *
Last week at a party we bumped into Rebekka Notkin, the Danish goldsmith who designed and made our wedding rings. I couldn't remember whether or not I'd ever put in a link to her site, but you can find it here. I'm not much of a jewelry nut, but her rings are beautiful (and also have a nice Scandinavian-design quality about them). If you happen to be looking for wedding rings (vielsesringe), or, I suppose, any kind of custom jewelry at all, it's definitely worth it to check out her site.
Today is the birthday of Marilyn Manson (1969), Pamela Sue Martin (1953), Diane Keaton (1946), Juan Carlos I, King of Spain (1938), Alvin Ailey (1931), Robert Duvall (1931), Walter Mondale (1928), George Reeves (1914), George Dolenz (1908), and Konrad Adenauer (1876).
© 2004, The Moron's Almanac