Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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  • Three True Meanings of Christmas

    • Posted on Dec 22, 1991 by Scott Cawelti

    12-22-91

    Every December without fail comes the chorus of complaints about Christmas. Too commercialized, too glitzy, too removed from "the" true meaning. It's a tradition, almost as predictable as the post-Thanksgiving day shopping frenzy.

    Christians in particular seem to complain about their holiday. Some grow quite emotional about losing the small babe in the manger among the baubles and bangles of store-bought Christmas. 

    In their letters, sermons, and even church advertising, they  labor to remind us that Christmas exists solely because of that babe in the manger. He's the reason for the season, they proclaim.  The true meaning of Christmas.

    Well, they're wrong. The pagan celebration of the winter solstice occurred long before Christians settled on December 25 for their holiday. In fact, according to at least two authorities--Barbara Walker ("Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets") and Vergilius Ferm ("Encyclopedia of Religion")--for several hundred years, Christians had no idea when to celebrate Christmas.

    "According to authentic records," says Ferm, "no church festival was held in celebration of Christ's birth until the first half of the 4th century."

    And why did early churchmen choose December 25? Because that's when most people already celebrated the winter solstice, a time-honored pagan festival. That's the longest night, and when the sun begins returning. The "son" returns, get it?

    "Norsemen celebrated the birthday of their Lord, Frey, at the nadir of the sun in the darkest days of winter, known to them as Yule," says Walker.

    So the origins of Christmas aren't really Christian. None of the solstice celebrations were connected to the Christian church. "Yule logs, gifts, lights, mistletoe, holly, carols, feasts, and processions were altogether pagan," notes Walker. "Christmas trees evolved from pinea silva, pine groves attached to temples of the Great Mother." 

    But what better day to celebrate the birth of Jesus, since there was already a huge holiday then? Christians, after much debate and foot-dragging, appropriated the old pagan holiday as their own.

    So those lawn decorators who combine the babe in the manger with candy-cane lights and Santa Claus actually combine a couple of the true meanings of Christmas.  More power to them, I say.

    To be accurate, there are at least three meanings to Christmas. None are more "true" than the others, in spite of Christian protestations

    First, there's the Christian Christmas. Let's be fair, after all. A babe born in a lowly manger destined to become a savior makes a great story. It's worth celebrating, even if it isn't the only true meaning. Any holiday that inspires people to think about the lowly becoming the mighty deserves serious attention.

    But just as true, and just as important, is the winter solstice. We do live in a climate that needs sun. Right about now we have the least sun possible for sustaining life. We get crabby from lack of light, the ground seems closer to granite than earth, winds howl nightly. It's a fairly miserable time, and beginning this week, the sun literally begins its return. If that's not worth celebrating, nothing is.

    Finally, and equally true, there's the spirit of giving that pervades the holiday, and always has among Christians and non-Christians alike. People tend to think of other people more at Christmas, thanks to the pagan tradition of gift-giving.

    As so many Christmas stories remind us (Scrooge, George Bailey, the Grinch) a happy, meaningful life hinges more on giving than receiving. 'Tis the season to be larger, both in mind and in spirit.

    So I for one don't mind all the commercialization, since that's one of the true meanings of Christmas. I do mind one group trying to claim that they have a lock on "the" true meaning of Christmas.

    As Christians who know history must know (whether they deny it or not) jingle bells were around long before silent night.                       

    Go comment!
  • Bigots Vs. Punks: Know the Difference

    • Posted on Dec 01, 1991 by Scott Cawelti

    12-1-91

    So does Waterloo now have a problem with open bigotry?  Are there hundreds, perhaps thousands, of full-fledged racists out there, itching to drive away all but whites with cross burnings and racially derogatory graffiti?


    Maybe. But I doubt it. And I doubt that there are any more racial bigots than before the recent rash of cross-burnings and graffiti-scrawls. My guess is that we're about level with the number of bigots. But we may have a few more punks.


    The distinction seems essential.  Let's call a bigot someone who harbors an irrational fear and/or hatred of humans with different racial features than his/her own. In general, they take their own race as superior to all others, most especially persons of color.


    There are also anti-semitic bigots, who harbor special ill feelings for Jews, and even anti-Native American bigots, who would like to see all the Indians return to their native land.  Bigots aren't intellectual giants.

    Bigotry seems part of human history; hatred directed toward groups of "inferior" and\or hated humans breaks out into feuds and wars with depressing regularity. Witness Yugoslavia, not to mention Northern Ireland, India, the Middle East, etc.  

    Punkdom, in sharp contrast, has almost nothing in common with genuine bigotry. A punk has no comparable beliefs; in fact, punks have no serious beliefs at all. They simply seek attention. If they're attracted to anything, it's to whatever makes them bigger than they are, which isn't very big. They may be racists, but only superficially. They really haven't given it much thought.


    The "Punk" style came into vogue a few years ago. It was composed mostly of whatever would draw attention: safety pins through the nose, purple hair-spikes, fright make-up and such. Punk groups like the Sex Pistols were on the leading edge of outrageousness, and most people took them for what they were:  Punks giving punkdom a voice.

    In Waterloo, we have an ideal situation for punks to garner mountains of attention. They had to notice that in Dubuque, burning a cross anywhere, anytime, drew enormous press and community notice.  Take two scraps of lumber, bind them in a cross pattern, douse them with lighter fluid, and voila! TV crews, reporters, politicians, ministers all converge, hands at full wring.

    All that attention, and any punk can get it for two bucks worth of material and twenty minutes on a dark street. Given this volatile mix of punkdom and predictable community attention, the wonder isn't that we have had so many cross burnings, but that we've had so few.

    What to do? Surely it would be wrong to completely ignore cross burning, even if only punks are involved. Yet which is worse? Giving them all the attention they want, thereby encouraging other punks to do the same? Or just greeting their handiwork with a quiet comment about pathetic punks at work? Even David Duke, potentially the most powerful bigot in the country, disavows cross-burning as the work of punks. He himself wouldn't bother with such tactics, not because he doesn't agree with the message, but because it gives bigotry a bad name.

    Instead of the instant attention and constant wondering about bigotry being on the rise, etc. we would probably do better let cross-burning die the death it deserves. Quietly.

    Another cross burning? Ho hum, a punk or two at work. A scrawled "Nasi" on a wall? (Punks generally can't spell.) What a nuisance. Find them, fine them.

    But don't give them much attention. Instead, combine ongoing police investigation with mostly silence.                 

    For silence is exactly what punks don't want. It destroys their whole attention-getting enterprise. It takes all the fun out of racial slurs and mayhem. And it reminds them that they're not the grand recipients of overwhelming community attention and outrage.

    They're just punks.

    Go comment!
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