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The Inner States (Complicated Feelings About) Christmas Special!

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Alex Chambers: The other day my eye doctor asked how the kids were doing, and then she said, "Oh, they must be great, the holidays are coming up." But just a couple of days before that my nine-year-old admitted they'd already ranked the most stressful things about the holiday season; number one: buying presents. There are things about your kids you can't take credit for, and others you can. Unfortunately, for my kids, I think I can take credit for that one. The holidays are a good excuse to treat the people you love, and it is so satisfying to give someone a good special gift. It doesn't have to be big, just thoughtful, but sometimes it takes a lot of fun, combine that with feeling like money's tighter than you'd like, and then it become just one of a number of stressful aspects of this season of joy and celebration. Luckily for my kiddo, they're young enough that they don't seem to be too troubled by complicated family psychodynamics. This week on Inner States we're trying to avoid Christmas. Mostly, we're going to fail. That's coming up after the break.

Alex Chambers:  It's Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. Let's start our complicated feelings about Christmas episode with a Christmas story. Though heads up it starts out a little darker than your average Christmas story.

Joan Hawkins: So, there's a junkie and he's looking for some place where he can get a fix. He has all these adventures. He finds a suitcase that he thinks he can pawn and when he opens it up there's some body parts inside. And so, he has to get rid of the body parts and then try to pass it off as a clean suitcase. So, he goes to all these various places trying to get money. He goes finally to this very sketchy doctor to get some morphine or something. He gets just the tinniest amount, just enough so that he thinks, okay, not enough to get me high, but enough to get me through this uncomfortable period that I'm going through. He checks into this ratty hotel. He's getting ready to shoot up and he hears this horrible groaning from the next room, grrrrr.

Joan Hawkins:  And just being a crotchety old junkie, he decides that this a downer, so he goes next door to try to find out what is going on with this guy. It's this young kid who has a terrible case of appendicitis. He's in terrible pain. He's tried going to the clinic and they wouldn't treat him because he wasn't from that area. And since that was an excuse that junkies often use to get morphine, they thought that the kid was a junkie.

Joan Hawkins:  Our main character heaves this huge sigh and decides he's going to be a hero. He shoots this kid up with his one little last remaining bit of morphine and decides, I don't know how I'm going to get through the night, but okay, get you through the night. The kid relaxes and blisses out and goes to sleep and our narrator goes back to his ratty little room and sits on the bed and thinks, oh well, great, now what am I going to do? And suddenly this miracle happens and he feels this warmth coursing through his body.

Joan Hawkins:  And what has happened is that he says, "I've scored for the immaculate fix." [LAUGHS] It's just hysterical. That's my bro's Christmas story.

Alex Chambers:  That was Indiana University Professor Joan Hawkins, recounting, "The Junky's Christmas" by the great Beat writer, William S. Burroughs. He's most famous for his novel, "Naked Lunch," and he was a somewhat notorious addict himself. I want to stick with Burroughs for a little bit because I think he'll help illuminate some of the tensions we're exploring in today's episode. Let's admit that this Christmas story is out of character for Christmas stories in general, even so, it's surprising that Burroughs decided to write one at all.

Joan Hawkins:  He was a very dark, dark character in that he believed that, it's almost like we would think of cultural hegemony, but for him it had even a more sinister connotation. He talked about control. That we all exist under the thumb of, if it were, this thing called control. And that we go around leading our lives believing that we have some amount of freedom, but really unless you go off onto the land, as he often would do, and just cut yourself off as much as you could from these other power sources, really none of us are free. He believed in magick with a K, so he believed curses could be thrown on you, and he believed in this, as I said, this thing called control.

Joan Hawkins:  And I think for him, he would say, if you don't believe in that, if you don't believe in magick or you hear me talking about control and you don't think that that's correct, it's because you're living under an illusion, you've been skating under the radar. And you've been skating under the radar so long you think that you're lucky and you think you're immune, and you're not immune. Some day your number will be up and you'll realize, oh my God, I was a pawn in the game all along and I didn't realize it.

Alex Chambers:  Sounds like the Matrix before the Matrix. Yes, but not just the Matrix. I want to make the case that a lot of classic Christmas movies are also about this thing Burroughs called control. Take, "It's a Wonderful Life." As he's growing up, small town boy, George Bailey, has this plan to see the world.

James Stewart as George Bailey:  I'm going to see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum.

Alex Chambers:  His dream isn't greedy in a traditional sense, it's just one that's focused on himself. But, of course, that dream gets thwarted at every turn. He's saved up enough money to travel and then his father dies and he has to run the savings and loan company, so the scrooge like Mr. Potter doesn't get it. Life keeps throwing his plans off track and one Christmas Eve he decides to throw himself into a freezing river. But, through the intervention of an angel named Clarence, who's always kind of reminded me of my grandmother, he sees what the world would be like if he had never lived.

Alex Chambers:  Everyone is miserable. Finally, George Bailey gets to return to his old life, this time with the knowledge that the care he's given his community and the love he's gotten in return is really what makes life wonderful.

Alex Chambers:  It's that classic Christmas epiphany that what really matters is the people around you, not the fancy experiences you might have had, the money you could have made or spent. George Bailey broke through the Matrix of trying to achieve things just for himself, and saw the reality that his life was bound up with others. Okay, I'm just going to note that I know, "Elf" has become another Christmas classic, and I was looking for a way that's also a critique of control, the capitalist hegemony of buying things, acquiring more money and more stuff, but it seems like the message of that one is that if you give yourself up to truly believing that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole with a bunch of elves, and flies around in a sleigh powered by Christmas spirit, you'll end up with a book deal that makes you rich.

Alex Chambers:  Not every Christmas classic is about the tension between commercialism and celebration. Still, so many of them are, "A Christmas Carol," "The Grinch," "A Charlie Brown Christmas." And the reason we gobble them up at this time of year, of course, is that as we wander through the mall or scroll through Amazon trying to check one more thing off that list, we're desperately trying to remind ourselves what this is all about, or what we want it to be about.

Alex Chambers:  Because for all the joy and celebration and family, it's also a great time of year for retailers, which brings us back to William Burroughs. As I mentioned, he was mostly famous for his writing, but he was also, as Joan Hawkins put it, a notorious heroine addict.

Joan Hawkins:  People tend to think because of the foreword to "Naked Lunch," people tend to think that he went through this horrific cure, and then remained cured for the rest of his life. And he really didn't. He was in and out of periods of addiction for his entire life.

Alex Chambers:  And that constant relationship with drugs gave him some insight into a bigger system that he was part of.

Joan Hawkins:  Unless you're born to an addicted mother, no baby is born needing heroin. So, you become addicted to the drug, and as soon as you become addicted to the drug your need increases. As soon as you develop a certain tolerance then you need more, then you need more, then you need more. You're totally dependent on the person that supplies it to you, and that person jacks up the price, and does these various things to make you aware of how dependent you are. So, they create artificial scarcity, they keep you waiting, they never come on time.

Joan Hawkins:  There's this great line in Lou Reed's song, "Heroin." "The first thing you learn is you always gotta wait." And they make you wait until you're really sick so that you realize how dependent you are on them, less you think you can survive without your supplier. And so, it's this absolute. I'm making a little triangle with my fingers. It's like these fat cats on top who have created need at the bottom, and what you have are people who as the need increases they're struggling and struggling and struggling, doing anything they can to make a little bit of money so that they can get this thing that they wouldn't have needed if the need hadn't been created for them.

Joan Hawkins:  He called it the, "Junk Economy," the pyramid of need. And he said that the way that junk works is exactly the way capitalism works. That this is an addictive economy that we live in.

Joan Hawkins:  I was watching commercial TV the other night and it started, right, all of the ads. And all of the ads are always about, show them that you love them. But it's always this idea that she will love you if you give her this thing. Show her that you love her, as like taking her out to dinner wouldn't be enough, or just a kiss and let me take care of the kids for a while and you can have some time, that wouldn't be enough. No, it has to be diamonds.

Alex Chambers:  It's because we love our partners, our children, that we want to get them their fix. I don't know. Maybe it's not as complicated for you as it is for me. Maybe you grew up more removed from all the ads, maybe your parents hardly celebrated holidays at all. That was the case for Yané Sanchez Lopez.

Alex Chambers:  For Yané, growing up the holidays were mainly a time people got off work and school. Her family was Christian, but they really didn't celebrate. Holidays meant long weekends at best.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  Easter, we didn't have days off, so I went to school in the morning, I came back in the afternoon.

Alex Chambers:  And that was it, mostly it felt normal, but.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  There was part of me that I can remember that was just like, I feel like I'm missing something. Like, why am I not as excited as everybody else? Something's not right.

Alex Chambers:  It's not that her family didn't have any traditions. There were the goats.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  Yeah, that's what we would eat for these holidays because even though we're not celebrating them, like, my family still comes together and they'll eat a lot.

Alex Chambers:  Of course, that tradition didn't help her feel more like a part of things.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  I went to somebody's farm and they had goats and I was like, "Oh my gosh, are you going to eat these?" And they were like, "No, they're just here." "Here for what?" I was like, usually when people have like chickens, they're like, "Oh we're going to eat them." Turkeys, "We're going to eat them," you know? People don't eat goats.

Alex Chambers:  And I guess it's about time I told you where all this holiday avoidance comes from. Yané's parents are Mexican. They moved to US before she was born. And on it's own being Mexican obviously, doesn't mean you don't celebrate holidays, but.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  My parents don't feel like anything in the U.S. belongs to them, especially holidays.

Alex Chambers:  But not just the holidays.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  They don't feel any entitlement to U.S. things and culture. Even when I hear them talk about politics and injustices done towards minorities or our people, they're like, "Well, what do you expect? This isn't our country. This is normal." They say it in such a way where they don't expect any justice because they know they're not from here, and so they don't think that they're entitled to it, which is a very sad reality.

Alex Chambers:  The holidays seemed especially American to Yané's parents. An American culture was not what they were looking for when they came to Indiana.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  The way my parents view American culture is that it never stops and that it's very materialistic. There's always this idea of buying new things, which has been implanted in me. I've been raised here. But my mom loves to go thrift shopping. She loves to save money. She doesn't like to spend money on new things. She doesn't see the value of it. I feel like especially Christmas is very capitalistic and very materialistic. Like, children want these new toys or they want the new technology, and I don't think my parents were very fond of that.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  In Mexico they lived a very slow life. Yeah, they worked, but my dad used to go fishing and he would go catch crabs, this was a very simple life. And they lived up in the mountains and they did their own hunting. My mom took care of the children. It was a very slow life and very humble and you didn't really ask or look for more, which is kind of what I feel like Christmas is about sometimes a little too much. There's other things apart of it, but we can't lie and say that it's not about gifts.

Alex Chambers:  Sure. And it's not that they're opposed to gifts in general.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  Gifts are important in Mexican culture. It's very disrespectful if you get a gift and you re-gift it or you throw it away. That is considered to be the ultimate disrespect. You don't do that. I've heard people mention this and it blows my mind that they could re-gift something, that's an abomination to us.

Alex Chambers:  Her parents did show their love.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  They did give me gifts for Christmas. Were they wrapped under a tree and did I not know ahead of time? No. It was a very like, "Hey, we're at the store. Christmas is coming up, pick out a jacket." It was like that. It wasn't like, "Oh, make a list for Santa Claus." I didn't believe in Santa Claus.

Alex Chambers:  It's true, Yané did not believe in Santa Claus. She doesn't feel like she missed out on that one, and really in general, she wasn't that into Christmas. She agreed with her parents. It was materialistic and commercial. Then she moved out of her parents house.

Alex Chambers:  What's your relationship to the holidays now?

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  It's very complicated because I so badly want to participate, but I've also realized that there's something more to the holidays than just having a Christmas tree. Like I mentioned before, I live in my own apartment and I did want to decorate it for Christmas, but seeing the way my boyfriend's family celebrates Christmas, I understood that I could go to Target, I could buy my little tree, could buy my little ornaments. I could put it all up, but it's more than the aesthetic and what you see.

Alex Chambers:  Her boyfriend's family has been doing the whole American Christmas for a long time.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  They put up these ornaments that some of them are heirlooms, some of them were made by my boyfriend when he was a little kid, getting a little clay thing and putting his hand and his finger, whatever, so they came with like time, history, connections. It's more than, like, that 30 pack of ornaments. That's the only thing I could have.

Alex Chambers:  Which is how you had been seeing Christmas before?

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  Yes. I thought Christmas was the stuff you could get at Target, to put it very shortly. But it turned out, as I was genuinely exposed to people who celebrated these holidays, it comes with memories almost, you know?

Alex Chambers:  Have you ever seen, "The Grinch?" And I mean the short version of, "The Grinch," the cartoon version.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  No.

Alex Chambers:  "The Grinch" hates Christmas and all this stuff. He takes away all the presents and the trees and all the stuff, all the boxes and bags. And is so pleased with himself, I don't think he's ever happy, to have stolen all of this stuff and stolen Christmas. And then the Whos down in Whoville, he hears them, the strain of the song they start singing, and as his heart grows three sizes, he realized Christmas is about so much more than the stuff.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  Yeah.

Alex Chambers:  I feel like it's a similar thing.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  Exactly. That's exactly what it's like. And because I have this complicated relationship, I was like, how am I going to find a middle ground? Because for the last ten years, 20 years, I'm 20-years-old, I haven't created this history to add on to my tree or these traditions to continue on. And I just found that I have to start from scratch, which is not easy, but it gives me a lot of room to make it what I need it to be for myself and I think that's really important. So, recently my boyfriend and I, we went to a pottery place, that we've gone to many times before, it's called "Busy Bees" in Merrillville, Indiana. It's in the mall. And you go and you pick out these clay things and you paint them, and then they put them in a kiln and then you get them two weeks later, and it's beautiful clay work or whatever, pottery. And we went in and we made decorations and I actually made a cat decoration and I made it look like my cat. I realized like, hey, you know, part of having a tree is having these ornaments that have meaning, so let's go and actually make these ornaments that have meaning to us.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  At its core, like in, "The Grinch," right, there's something more special and it's community, family, coming together. And I guess Christmas is like a really good excuse to do all of that, especially in America with such a fast paced life, you don't get to usually do that. I think that is why Mexicans maybe, or at least my family, didn't because they had been used to a life where they had such a slow life, they had always done this, but it did change, obviously, when they came to the United States. I guess they just didn't see it that way that, oh, we can come together now. But I think my mom is starting to see it more this way because she wants to make tamales for Christmas, which she hates making because it takes a lot of people. It's a really big mess. Also you can just buy them, so easy to just buy them like tortillas. But I was talking to her and she was like, "You know, I'll make tamales if you make them with me." So, I think it's this idea of even though it's a really big labor of love, it's going to spread across and it's going to be with someone like my daughter, or like, my family, and then everybody gets to enjoy these super delicious tamales.

Alex Chambers:  The tamales weren't the only sign of her mom's attitude changing. Like, right before we talked her mom had decorated for the first time.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  I was like, "Mom, why did you decorate this year out of the two decades that we've lived here?" And she goes, "Oh, [FOREIGN DIALOGUE]. " Which means the holiday spirit, the Christmas spirit has entered my body. That's what we said to me. And I was like, after two decades? That's not very rational. There's something else going on. I think it's my nieces and nephews.

Alex Chambers:  When Yané and I decided to do this interview, I had the impression she was pretty anti-Christmas, so when she came in to the studio I was surprised by her sweatshirt.

Alex Chambers:  So, it's bright red.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  Yes.

Alex Chambers:  It's Christmas red and it's got teddy bears on it. The one in the middle is playing the drums and one playing, I guess, like a cello or maybe a sideways violin.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  Like a trumpet.

Alex Chambers:  And a trumpet, but they're wearing sort of Christmas themed colors, plaid vests, red and green, and I guess even though I'm looking at it, I don't see Christmas decorations, but it feels very Christmassy.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  I think the colors, especially red and green.

Alex Chambers:  She's pretty much going all in on Christmas.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  I do want to have some Christmas traditions that are typical in the U.S., but I do want to still maintain some of my ideology. Like, yeah, I just can't get around lying to my kids about Santa Claus being real. I don't know what it is. It's just not happening. How do I explain to them later on that he's not real and that I've lied methodically for the last, I don't know how many years? How do I tell 'em, that was actually your dad, that was not Santa Claus. I'm so sorry.

Alex Chambers:  They'll be crushed.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  Exactly. How am I going to deal with that?

Alex Chambers:  Staying off the Santa Claus bandwagon or sleigh, I guess, might simplify a few things for her. It might make it easier to stick with other parts of the tradition, which at this point she seems pretty invested in. For Yané, the stakes go way beyond her own family.

Yané Sanchez Lopez:  I am pro-Christmas because I think America needs it actually. I would argue that America needs Christmas because when do you get to be around all your family? When is it acceptable and when do you get actual breaks?

Alex Chambers:  Yané's right. The intensity of American work culture makes it really hard to catch a break, so in the spirit of the season let's actually take one right now.

Alex Chambers:  Oh Hanukkah, oh Christmas. I still want to hear stories about Hanukkah, or Yule, or Kwanzaa, or Diwali. Which is earlier I know. However you celebrate, if you've complicated feelings about it, or how your celebrations relate to Christmas, let me know. In the meantime, in most of the U.S, Christmas reigns supreme. It's like the Kings of Kings of Holidays. Even when you try to create a whole new tradition, Christmas is still there in the background. As is the case for the family in the next story. Jillian Blackburn went to talk with them

Frank Costanza:  Welcome newcomers [LAUGHS]. The tradition of Festivus begins with the Airing of Grievances. I've got a lot of problems with you people, now, you're going to hear about it.

Jillian Blackburn:  If you know, you know. But if you don't know, that's a clip from the season nine episode of Seinfeld, the strike. The very episode that brought the secret holiday of Festivus to the attention of the Grudis family.

Erin Grudis:  At first it was kind of "oh, ha, ha, we'll watch the episode, and you know, we'll put up the pole." But now it's like a set day, it's a holiday, we have schedule, things we do, you know.

Jillian Blackburn:  The true history of Festivus began in the home of Seinfeld writer, Dan O'Keefe, who's father, like the show's Frank Costanza wanted to invent a holiday that avoided the religion and commercialism of Christmas.

Michael:  It's like a rejection of like what Christmas is. So, like, it's, kind of, supposed to be like anti-consumerism in way.

Jillian Blackburn:  Erin and Michael's family has been celebrating their own version of the holiday for over a decade. And what was once a simple recreation of the Costanza family traditions has evolved into a day to celebrate all of Seinfeld. Which might be the true religion in the Grudis household.

Erin Grudis:  We watch the same episodes every year.

Michael:  We had to buy like a special paella pan that we only use once a year.

Jillian Blackburn:  So now, along with a metal pole and Airing of the Grievances, the family has also incorporated other parts of this sacred text into their festivities. For example, they discovered paella in an episode on the same DVD as the Festivus episode.

Michael:  Yeah, it's definitely, you know, kind of, different.

Jillian Blackburn:  I've known Erin and Michael since grade school, and I've been aware, if not a bit jealous, of their family's Festivus celebration. But throughout my conversation with them, I notice not only a shared and perhaps religious love for Seinfeld, but also a family connection like none other.

Erin Grudis:  It started off with us putting up a pole, but for the first, I would say seven years, I think until yes, maybe like five years ago, my dad instead of buying like a pole stand, you know, he would buy one from a hardware store, but then he would return it like the day after. Because we would use it once a year.

Jillian Blackburn:  Their parents are just as much of a part of the celebration as they are, and their mom never fails in her duty to air her Festivus grievances.

Erin Grudis:  In like all of our Christmas photos from the past like five years, there's this aluminum pole in the corner that just kind of looks like stripper pole, that my mom, that's one of her biggest grievances is that there's this aluminum pole or stainless steel pole in the corner of our kitchen, in like half of our Christmas photos.

Jillian Blackburn:  As we talked about Festivus traditions and outlooks on the future, I had one very important question in mind, to wrap up our conversation.

Jillian Blackburn:  Have you ever defeated your dad, in a feat of strength?

Michael:  Well, it's typically me that will take on the challenge. But it's also usually not my dad, it's usually my uncle because, I don't know, he's a bit younger and more willing to, you know, wrestle me. But no, I've lost every single year. He's just very good at bombarding all of my senses and I just kind of get flattened to the ground. So, yes, it hasn't happened yet, but I'm hoping that this will be the year. I should probably get some training in.

George Costanza:  Nothing, it's a card from my dad.

Jerry Seinfeld:  What is it?

Elaine Benes:  Dear Son, Happy Festivus. What is Festivus?

George Costanza:  It's nothing.

Jerry Seinfeld:  When George was growing up.

George Costanza:  Jerry, no.

Jerry Seinfeld:  His father...

George Costanza:  No.

Jerry Seinfeld:  ...hated all the commercial and religious aspects of Christmas, so he made up his own holiday.

Elaine Benes:  Oh! And another piece of the puzzle falls into place.

George Costanza:  Alright.

Jerry Seinfeld:  And instead of a tree, didn't your father put up an aluminum pole.

George Costanza:  Alright Jerry, stop it.

Jerry Seinfeld:  And weren't there feats of strength, that always ended up with you crying?

George Costanza:  I can't take it anymore, I'm going, you happy now.

Alex Chambers:  Jillian Blackburn. Jillian runs our social media here at Inner States. This was her first story on the show, and I'm very excited for more. Okay, we've heard two stories about people making their own traditions. But another way to approach the holidays is to hold fast to the traditions that are already there, the old ones. Sometimes, the really old ones. Caroline Tatum studies some of those traditions in Ireland. And well she comes by her research interests honestly.

Caroline Tatum:  My mom was dressed up as a clown and my grandpa was dressed up in his traditional gear. So, it's just like, "Okay these people are scary." Like, what is wrong with my family?

Alex Chambers:  It feels like it was like a moment of realization?

Caroline Tatum:  Yes, it was. It was realizing that we're weird and I can't get out of it. I'm kind of just stuck in it. If I don't understand it, I'll never understand it. And that, that memory kind of motivates me to do what I do know, where I'm just like, it's worth understanding this. This is part of who I am, it's worth grappling with. And I think it's just part of thinking about what makes you human. You know, dressing up and acting like someone other than yourself. It's just like part of addressing who are you. So, if you're not who you are, who are you? I'm Caroline Tatum, I'm currently doing my PhD in Indiana University for Folk Law and Ethnic Musicology, with a minor in Linguistics.

Caroline Tatum:  I think I have to just breakdown a little bit of like what the Mummers are.

Alex Chambers:  Please do.

Caroline Tatum:  Because you're probably just like, what? So, basically Two Street, is a street in Philadelphia where there's New Year's Associations. There's these club houses for these mostly like fraternal secret societies. Women only joined in like the seventies. It's been men since like the dawn of time. 1901 is when the parade first started, before that it was just people randomly getting out in the streets in costumes and masks. And they also had a tradition of shooting guns. And they were probably like the New Year Shooters. But then, when they made it a parade, they wanted to make it more like quaint and traditional. So, they called it the Mummers, which is like a thing in England and Ireland. And it's not exactly the same thing at all. But they put that name on it. And, it's a parade. So, people spend the entire year getting ready for this one day.

Caroline Tatum:  And there's string bands, that's like the most prominent group, and they perform with like violins and saxophones and bases and drums and all of that, and banjos. And they wear costumes and they have choreography. So, they'll act out like a skit. Every year they have a new theme. They pick out the theme like the day after the parade and start getting read for the next year immediately. And the themes, they're a little infamous, because their themes can be like, sometimes it's like Star Wars, and other times it's like Native Americans. So, you know, I can't talk about it, like it's just this innocent tradition, it has a dark side.

Alex Chambers:  Anyhow my grandpa, so his story is like, he was raised to just be musical, piano as a kid. And one night he was laying in bed in his like Philadelphia apartment and he heard a banjo, and he got out of bed and he went over to the guy on the street and was like "teach me." And the guy was a Mummer. So, in six months he learned the banjo and was performing in a Mummers band, and he was only 12. And he finished school around that age, started working in a factory, and this became his life. Where he would make money playing gigs, like going to bars and playing with his band mates. Because, you know, they're a band, like they do this thing in the costumes, but they also just go to bars and play music. They're musicians so they do it all the time. I mean these bands are huge, they'll be like 50 people. They're not like a six person band, they're like quite substantial.

Alex Chambers:  Because they're primarily for the parade?

Caroline Tatum:  Yes. So, you need a lot of people to march, yes.

Alex Chambers:  And that was something you saw him doing as you were growing up?

Caroline Tatum:  Yes, every year we would watch it on TV, because it's on the local channels. So, we would always be like, "he's famous" like "Grandpa's famous, we're going to watch him on TV." And my dad would do like back line, like he would help move the props. And so you would see like him in the background, and be like "that's dad." So, we felt like we were a famous family, because of this tradition. We thought we were super cool.

Caroline Tatum:  But yes, to me that is Christmas, like seeing him on TV and all the excitement of getting ready for that. That was basically my Christmas. And I thought that everyone's grandpa was a Mummer. I thought that a Mummer is what a grandpa is. And it took me a long time, I was maybe ten when I was talking to another kid and I was like "well, you know the Mummers and like grandpas and Christmas..." and they're just like "what are you talking about." And then other people were like "yes, I've heard of that." And I'm like, "but you don't do it?" And I was confused that it's actually like right in your face, like bright colors, downtown Philadelphia. But a lot of people have never heard of it. Or they have and they're not involved. But, I feel like pretty lucky that I grew up around this. It was my family's one thing that we did that was like cultural, or like social, or meaningful. Otherwise everyone just went to work and came home, you know. But this was our one thing that was like, this is what we do, it's special.

Caroline Tatum:  I was interested in Ireland, I was doing an Irish Studies MA. So, I went to Ireland to take some summer classes, and then I decided to meet these Irish Mummers. And I met them at a festival Lughnasadh. Lughnasadh is one of the quarter days in the Celtic calender, that's halfway between the solstice and the equinox. So, it's a thinning of the world, it's like a magical moment. And I was at a festival where they were burning the Wicker Man. And I get there and the Mummers, I thought I was just going watch the show, be a spectator. It's all I've ever been with the Mummers. I was going to do an interview, watch the show, take notes. And they were like, "you would look really good dressed up." And I'm like, "sure, thanks." and then they just put a costume on me, and a mask over my head. And they take me out to the performance space, which is round room, so you can't leave. Because you're surrounded by the audience.

Caroline Tatum:  So, I was like, I'm in the deep end. So, I just danced, and I was a little stressed because I don't see myself as a performer. But I liked the music, it was Irish traditional music, so I just like enjoyed the music and danced. And then I had a spiritual experience right afterwards, I did a meditation with a guide. And it was very profound, like I was crying. I felt like I connected with my ancestors, and I left the world behind and came back. And, I said, "you know I feel like I died." And they were like "Oh, that's good, because that's what this tradition is about." I'm like, are you, like what? And then I've done more research, it is actually about death and resurrection.

Caroline Tatum:  The Irish Mummers play, it's a play. You have two heroes, they boast about all they're heroic accomplishments in rhyme. And then they have a sword fight, and one of them dies. Someone gets a quack doctor to come, who lists of like what he can cure, what his medicines are. And they're like, Bumbies Bacon and Gray Cat's Feather, weird. So, then they say something usually like hocus pocus alacompane, rise up dead men, and fight again. So then, they will like rise up, raising from the dead. And there's all these other characters, that just come and give rhymes. And, they collect money at the end. And this goes door to door. So, it's in the kitchen, these plays take play in the kitchen.

Alex Chambers:  Of people's houses?

Caroline Tatum:  Yes, in the countryside, yes. And it kind of has moved on to being in bars and community halls, because you get a bigger audience. But traditionally it's a door to door tradition. And it's usually in December or St Stephen's Day, which is the day after Christmas, or New Year's Day or like any time before the epitome. So, it's a holiday season celebration, to a lesser extent than they used to be, as you can imagine. Like, with any tradition, and you have TV and things like that, you don't want to have the guy come into your house and just like rattle a can for money and tell rhymes.

Alex Chambers:  What do they actually do with the money?

Caroline Tatum:  Drink.

Alex Chambers:  Okay, I see.

Caroline Tatum:  Or have a ball. It's a time to rethink community too, like the holidays. Like it's about exchanging gifts, but also entertainment. Like in Ireland it's about giving food to the Mummers and then them giving you a show. Or giving them money, and they save it for a dance. And like I said on the phone like sometimes protestants and catholics would only ever dance together on that one night. It would actually bring people together, in a way that they would never get together otherwise. And celebrate their common bonds of like, yeah we're just people that live together. Like, it doesn't matter what our religion is, like we're all friends now. And, I think that has to do with carnival too, because Christmas and carnival go together in the sense that they're about community coming together and putting aside the every day, in exchange for something special.

Caroline Tatum:  So, in a way like the Mummers are very much in line with the Christmas spirit. You know, like in a way it's like this really ten-gentle, weird, folklore thing. But in another way it's like right at the heart of what is Christmas.

Alex Chambers:  That was Caroline Tatum. Caroline is a PhD student in Indiana University's Department of Folklore and Ethnic Musicology. Alright, it's time for another break. When we come back, we'll think about what kids really want. And ask why William Burrows decided to write a Christmas story in the first place. Stay with us.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back, I'm Alex Chambers, and you are listening to the Inner States (Complicated feelings about) Christmas special. Our theme is that age old Christmas question of how to deal with, well, capitalism and, especially, our addiction to stuff. Joan Hawkins, she's our resident scholar of William Burroughs and the Junky's Christmas, said "Studies with kids show that what they really want from their parents is time and attention."

Joan Hawkins:  You know, like, just put the laptop completely away and play this game with me.

Alex Chambers:  But our society makes it very easy to get distracted from that.

Joan Hawkins:  This is very autobiographical, but I remember that my parents were small business people. And so, for them it was doubly this. It was on the one hand, you know, all this stuff is a marker of how much we love you, but also as a marker of our success in the world. The fact that all this backbreaking labor that we've been doing, that there is a reason why we're doing it, because we can afford to give you this Christmas. And so, Christmases were often quite lavish in my house, which given the rest of my life didn't necessarily make sense. My dad was a bartender, my mother was a cocktail waitress and they went in and out of, you know, owning bars or owning men and boys clothing stores and I never understood the connection between the two of them. Like, one decade they would own a bar and the next decade it would be a men and boys clothing store.

Joan Hawkins:  But it would be all of these things and then we would end up going to visit friends all day on a Christmas, so I wouldn't even be able to really play with them. And so, when I look back on it now, I thought, you know, well yes, and that sort of, it sums up kind of what I felt like my relationship with my parents were as a kid. Like, what I wanted was time with them. I couldn't have time with them. There was always this promise of largesse and plenitude. But then, it would be kind of cut off in some sort of weird way. And so, for Christmas, I would come out. None of the toys were wrapped. They were all just on display. And then sort of, you can imagine as a child, just like oh my God. This huge razzle dazzle. And then we would go to church, we would come home, we would have breakfast and then we would go on this trek of visiting all of my parents friends. All day I could take one toy. One toy?

Alex Chambers:  From this toy store that you had seen in the morning.

Joan Hawkins:  Exactly. And go to each and every friend and then when we would come home, it would be sort of too late to play with my toys. So, it was just this kind of weird thing.

Alex Chambers:  Kind of heartbreaking?

Joan Hawkins:  Yeah, I know. I know, I spent my whole life trying to get over it.

Alex Chambers:  We spend our days trying to get over it and when Christmas comes around, it gives us this tantalizing promise that maybe something will be different. Maybe, like in the stories, we'll experience a miracle. Where do you think that story came from for Burroughs?

Joan Hawkins:  Oh, the Junky's Christmas?

Alex Chambers:  Yeah.

Joan Hawkins:  That's a very good question actually. Given him, I think it came out of a truly deep ironic sense of humor. That looking at all of these miraculous stories, like, what would be miraculous for me and how silly is this story, the stories that we have around these miracle things that happen around Christmas. You know, it's as reasonable to suppose that your life suddenly is shown to be quite marvelous on Christmas Eve, because everybody's coming forward and saying, we couldn't live without you. It's as unreasonable to expect that as it is for a junkie sitting in a motel room who has nothing to think that suddenly he's going to feel a speed ball coursing through his veins. So, I mean, I could just see him writing it with a very wry sense of humor.

Alex Chambers:  Joan said even though this story has an ironic miracle at its heart, it's also a reminder of how we might relate to the real people around us this time of year.

Joan Hawkins:  We tend to commercialize this too, but we should be aware in a much more deeply humane way, of the fact that this is a terrible, terrible time for a lot of people. Both people who look like they're doing well but who carry the scars of all kinds of things in their lives, and also for those poor people who are living out in Seminary Park, who are not doing well at all. And, you know, knowing at the same time that we're buying things that have insignias on them, so it looks like if we buy this, that some of it's being donated to some charity or something. Then often really right down the street there are these poor folks and it's not necessarily the case that you should be going down with a soup bowl and feeding people, but I think we do need to put more pressure on the city to do less of the lighting of the canopy of lights and more of the paying attention to the people in our community who could really use a little warmth and light in their lives.

Alex Chambers:  Whether you celebrate Christmas or something else, or you celebrate Christmas but with complications, I hope the end of this year brings you abundance in the form of friends, family you get along with, the food and shelter you need and the ability to share it with others. From WFIU's Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers wishing you an uncomplicated holiday season.

Alex Chambers:  And that's our show. As usual, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up. But first, the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Jillian Blackburn, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Sam Schemenauer, Jay Upshaw, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is Eric Bolstridge. Special thanks this week to Joan Hawkins,Yane Sanchez Lopez, Erin and Michael Grudis, Caroline Tatem and Jillian Blackburn for her first Inner States story. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

Alex Chambers:  Alright, time for some found sound.

Alex Chambers:  That was an abundance of stones being shoveled into a wheelbarrow. Another one recorded by Patsy Rahn. Thanks Patsy. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks, as always, for listening.

A freestanding pole with post-it notes, in a house, with a Christmas tree in the background

The Grudis family takes its winter holiday traditions very seriously (Courtesy of Erin Grudis)

My 9-year-old admitted in early December that they already have a list of the most stressful things about the holiday season. Number one? Buying presents. There are things about your kids you can’t take credit for, and others you can. Unfortunately for my kids, I think I can take credit for that one.

The holidays are a good excuse to treat the people you love. And it is so satisfying to give someone a good, special gift. Doesn’t have to be big, just thoughtful. But sometimes it take a lot of thought! Combine that with feeling like money’s tighter than you’d like, and that becomes just one of a number of stressful aspects of this season of joy and celebration.

This week on Inner States, we’re trying to avoid Christmas. Mostly, we’re going to fail.

We’ve got five approaches to the season.

  1. A surprising fact about William S. Burroughs - you know, the Beat writer famous for the novel Naked Lunch and for his long-time addiction to heroin - is that he wrote a Christmas story. We hear about that, and how he saw the capitalist economy as being very similar to drug addiction.

  2. We find out what made both Yané Sanchez Lopez and her mom change their minds about Christmas.

  3. Jillian Blackburn brings us a family who got their most important winter holiday traditions from TV.

  4. Caroline Tatem tells us about realizing not all grandfather’s dressed up and played banjo in parades around Christmastime, and about an Irish Christmas tradition of going to people’s houses and putting on plays in their kitchens.

  5. Finally, Joan Hawkins, our resident William S. Burroughs scholar, reflects on gifts as a replacement for time and attention, the sense of humor that shaped Burroughs’s Christmas story, and what we can learn from all of that.


Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Jillian Blackburn, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Sam Schemenauer, Jay Upshaw, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is Eric Bolstridge.

Special thanks this week to Joan Hawkins, Yané Sanchez Lopez, Erin and Michael Grudis, Caroline Tatem, and Jillian Blackburn, for her first Inner States story!

Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar, and the artists at Universal Production Music.

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