Last Christmas, we featured Charles Dickens' hand-edited copy of his beloved 1843 novella A Christmas Carol. He did that hand editing for the purposes of giving public readings, a practice that, in his time, "was considered a desecration of one’s art and a lowering of one’s dignity." That time, however, has gone, and many of the most prestigious writers alive today take the reading aloud of their own work to the level of art, or at least high entertainment, that Dickens must have suspected one could. Some writers even do a bang-up job of reading other writers' work: modern master storyteller Neil Gaiman gave us a dose of that on Monday when we featured his recitation of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" from memory. Today, however, comes the full meal: Gaiman's telling of A Christmas Carolstraight from that very Dickens-edited reading copy.
Gaiman read to a full house at the New York Public Library, an institution known for its stimulating events, holiday-themed or otherwise. But he didn't have to hold up the afternoon himself; taking the stage before him, BBC researcher and The Secret Museumauthor Molly Oldfield talked about her two years spent seeking out fascinating cultural artifacts the world over, including but not limited to the NYPL's own collection of things Dickensian. You can hear both Oldfield and Gaiman in the recording above. But perhaps the greatest gift of all came in the form of the latter's attire for his reading: not only did he go fully Victorian, he even went to the length of replicating the 19th-century literary superstar's own severe hair part and long goatee. And School Library Journal has pictures.
I don’t know if you got everything you wanted on Christmas, but we here at Open Culture have what you need. And that’s a very special Bob Ross Christmas Special. No special guests, no musical numbers. Just Bob, his palette filled with phthalo blue, Van dyke Brown, and other favorite paints, and a solid black canvas which Bob turns into a Christmas Eve snow scene. (In 2018, Ross' official YouTube Channel posted all 31 seasons of The Joy of Painting online, a total of 403 episodes.)
While watching (and maybe following along at home), consider that Bob Ross accidentally invented ASMR with his shows, all those years ago. His pleasant, slightly gruff southern accent complements the sound of the swishing brush and scraping knife on canvas. Consider also the percentage of people who watch these not to paint, but to meditate or go to sleep. (There’s an app for that.)
Bob Ross *is* the sound of a Christmas Eve nocturne, a moment when the air is crisp and clean, a little bit of peace falls over the world, and there’s a chance to reflect. It’s time to start a new canvas. The possibilities are endless, and you can always change as you go. Heed Ross’ famous words: “We don’t make mistakes. We have happy accidents.”
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
The nature of marketing in the nearly-over 2010s, with all its unexpected brand crossovers and collaborations, gave rise to many strange commercial bedfellows. But for sheer artistic shock value, did any of them surpass Christmas of 1960, when Salvador Dalí designed holiday greeting cards for Hallmark? It was the rare intersection of the kind of company that has built an empire on broadly appealing, inoffensive expressions of love and festivity and an artist who once said, "I don't do drugs. I am drugs."
"Hallmark began reproducing the paintings and designs of contemporary artists on its Christmas cards in the late 1940s, an initiative that was led by company founder Joyce Clyde Hall," writes the Washington Post's Ana Swanson.
"The art of Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe all took a turn on Hallmark’s Christmas cards." And so, Swanson quotes Hall as writing in his autobiography, "through the ‘unsophisticated art’ of greeting cards, the world’s greatest masters were shown to millions of people who might otherwise not have been exposed to them."
Hallmark signed Dalí on in 1959. The painter of The Persistence of Memoryand Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus)asked the greeting-card giant for "$15,000 in cash in advance for 10 greeting card designs, with no suggestions from Hallmark for the subject or medium, no deadline and no royalties." The designs Dalí came up with included "Surrealist renditions of the Christmas tree and the Holy Family," as well as some "vaguely unsettling" images, such as a headless angel playing a lute and the three wise men atop some insane-looking camels. Ultimately, Hallmark only produced two of the Dalí cards, a nativity scene and a depiction of the Madonna and Child. Alas, even those relatively tame images didn't go over well.
Dalí's "take on Christmas," as Patrick Regan writes in Hallmark: A Century of Caring, was "a bit too avant garde for the average greeting card buyer," and the negative public response soon convinced Hallmark to drop Dalí's cards from their product line — thus ensuring their future as sought-after collector's items. As inauspicious as the marriage of Dalí and Hallmark might seem, the artist did possess a commercial sense more in line with Joyce Clyde Hall's than not: in his lifetime Dalí created a range of products ranging from prints to books (including a cookbook) to tarot decks, and even appeared in television commercials. Not all of his ventures were successful, but as with his Hallmark Christmas cards — about which you can learn more at the site of Spanish language and literature professor Rebecca M. Bender — sometimes the failures are more memorable than the successes.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
We all know, don’t we, that the 1984 charity hit “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” qualifies as possibly the worst Christmas song ever recorded? Does that go too far? The song’s writer, Bob Geldof, went even further, once saying, “I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history. One is ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ and the other one is ‘We Are the World.’”
There’s no objective measure for such a thing, but I’m not inclined to disagree, with due respect for the millions Geldof, co-organizer and co-producer Midge Ure, and British celebrity supergroup Band Aid raised to feed victims of famine in Ethiopia in the mid-80s. Revisiting the lyrics now, I’m shocked to find they're even more ridiculous and cringe-inducing than I remembered.
We can quickly dispense with the absurdity of the title. As an exasperated Spotify employee helpfully pointed out recently in a series of annotations, “the people of Ethiopia probably did know it was Christmas—it’s one of the oldest Christian nations in the world” with a majority Christian population.
The song’s aid recipients are referred to as “the other ones” who live in "a world of dread and fear." Listeners are enjoined to "thank God it's them instead of you." And two years after Toto’s “Africa,” Band Aid manages to deliver the clumsiest, most ill-informed stanza perhaps ever written about the continent:
And there won’t be snow in Africa
This Christmas time
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows
No rain or rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?
Troublingly, the song “peddles myths about the cause of the famine,” writes Greg Evans at TheIndependent, “suggesting it was down to a drought, rather than the corrupt government misusing international aid.”
But it’s Christmas, as you probably know, so let’s not be too hard on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The artists who participated, including George Michael, Bono, Boy George, Sting, and many others had a significant impact on the entertainment industry’s role in international aid, for good and ill. The song was re-recorded three times, in 1989, 2004, and 2014, and it has become, believe it or not, “the second bestselling single in Britain’s history,” Laura June points out at The Outline.
Evans notes that “a reported £200m was raised via sales of the single which went towards the relief fund and it later went on to inspire the iconic Live Aid concert in July 1985, which raised a further £150m.” (Some of that money, it was later discovered, inadvertently made it into the hands of Ethiopia’s corrupt government.) Other benefit events, like Farm Aid in the U.S., would follow Geldof and Urge’s lead, and the model proved to be an enduring way for artists to support causes they cared about.
See the unbearably earnest original video at the top of the post and, just above, a thirty-minute making of film with a who’s who of mid-1980s British pop royalty learning to sing “let them know it’s Christmas time again” together.
Will you do us the honor of accepting our holiday invitation?
Carve five minutes from your holiday schedule to spend time celebrating The Insects' Christmas, above.
In addition to offering brief respite from the chaos of consumerism and modern expectations, this simple stop-motion tale from 1913 is surprisingly effective at chasing away holiday blues.
Not bad for a short with a supporting cast of dead bugs.
Animator Ladislas Starevich began his cinematic manipulations of insect carcasses early in the 20th century while serving as Director of Kaunas, Lithuania’s Museum of Natural History. He continued the experiment after moving to Moscow, where he added such titles as Insects' Aviation Week, Amusing Scenes from the Life of Insects and famously, The Cameraman’s Revenge, a racy tale of passion and infidelity in the insect world.
Shades too of Johnny Gruelle’s Raggedy Ann and other stories wherein toys wait for their human owners to retire, so they may spring to life—though Starewizc’s sleepy doll seems to have more in common with the Christmas tree's absent owners than the tiny Father Christmas ornament who clamors down to party al fresco with the insects.
After his dismissal from Harvard for researching LSD with Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert left the U.S. for India in 1967. He devoted himself to the teachings of Hindu teacher Neem Karoli Baba and returned to the States a permanently changed man, with a new name and a message he first spread via the collaboratively-edited and illustrated 1971 classic Be Here Now.
In the “philosophically misty, stubbornly resonant Buddhist-Hindu-Christian mash-up,” writes David Marchese at The New York Times, Ram Dass “extolled the now-commonplace, then-novel (to Western hippies, at least) idea that paying deep attention to the present moment—that is, mindfulness—is the best path to a meaningful life.” We’ve grown so used to hearing this by now that we’ve likely become a little numb to it, even if we’ve bought into the premise and the practice of meditation.
Ram Dass discovered that mindful awareness was not part of any self-improvement project but a way of being ordinary and abandoning excess self-concern. “The more your awareness is expanded, the more it becomes just a natural part of your life, like eating or sleeping or going to the toilet” he says in the excerpt above from a talk he gave on “Conscious Aging” in 1992. “If you’re full of ego, if you’re full of yourself, you’re doing it out of righteousness to prove you’re a good person.”
To really open ourselves up to reality, we must be willing to put desire aside and become “irrelevant.” That’s a tough ask in a culture that values few things more highly than fame, youth, and beauty and fears nothing more than aging, loss, and death. Our culture “denigrates non-youth,” Ram Dass wrote in 2017, and thus stigmatizes and ignores a natural process everyone must all endure if they live long enough.
[W]hat I realized many years ago was I went into training to be a kind of elder, or social philosopher, or find a role that would be comfortable as I became irrelevant in the youth market. Now I’ve seen in interviewing old people that the minute you cling to something that was a moment ago, you suffer. You suffer when you have your face lifted to be who you wish you were then, for a little longer, because you know it’s temporary.
The minute you pit yourself against nature, the minute you pit yourself with your mind against change, you are asking for suffering.
Older adults are projected to outnumber children in the next decade or so, with a healthcare system designed to extract maximum profit for the minimal amount of care. The denial of aging and death creates “a very cruel culture,” Ram Dass writes, “and the bizarre situation is that as the demographic changes, and the baby boomers come along and get old, what you have is an aging society and a youth mythology”—a recipe for mass suffering if there ever was one.
“Recorded at the Conscious Aging conference sponsored by the Omega Institute in 1992,” notes the Ram Dass Love Serve Remember Foundation, the conference “was the first of its kind on aging. Ram Dass had just turned sixty.” He begins his first talk with a joke about purchasing his first senior citizen ticket and says he felt like a teenager until he hit fifty. But joking aside, he learned early that really living in the present means facing aging and death in all its forms.
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