Happy Anniversary to a Famously Humanist Take on Christmas

On this day in 1843, A Christmas Carol by English author Charles Dickens was first published (first edition pictured below), arguably influencing Christmas as we know it more than any pagan tradition. In fact, the phrase “Merry Christmas” was popularized by the story!

Left-hand page shows Mr and Mrs Fezziwig dancing; the right-hand page shows the words "A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens. With illustrations by John Leech
Wikimedia Commons

Dickens was ambiguous about religion; while he was likely a Christian and admired Jesus, he openly disliked rigid orthodoxy, evangelicalism, and organized religion. (He once published a pamphlet opposing the banning of games on the Sabbath, arguing that people had a right to pleasure.)

To that end, a Christmas Carol placed less emphasis on faith and observance and instead focused on family, goodwill, compassion, and joy. Dickens sought to incorporate his more humanist approach to the holiday, constructing Christmas as a family-centered festival that promotes generosity, feasting, and social cohesion. Some scholars have even termed this “Carol Philosophy”.

So when religious and nonreligious folks alike think of loved ones and the “Christmas spirit”, they are basically channeling Dickens’ once-unique take on the holiday. (Though in his time, other British writers had begun to reimagine Christmas as a celebratory holiday, rather than a strictly religious occasion.)

Mayan Supermoms

Like most aspiring parents, I think a lot about how I will raise my children. Obviously, I am not alone in these concerns, since raising another human being is one of the most consequential things one can do.

That is why parenting advice is a dime a dozen, and why there has been so much interest and discussion around parenting styles from Asia or France. People everywhere share the same understandable need to learn the best way to shape their children in ways that will help them flourish.

One approach that has received far less attention is Mayan parenting, which challenges many of the assumptions that underpin parenting across the world. NPR has a great piece about it, and I recommend reading the whole thing. Here are some choice excerpts highlighting the life and philosophies of a Mayan mom:

Burgos is constantly on parental duty. She often tosses off little warnings about safety: “Watch out for the fire” or “Don’t play around the construction area.” But her tone is calm. Her body is relaxed. There’s no sense of urgency or anxiety.

In return, the children offer minimal resistance to their mother’s advice. There’s little whining, little crying and basically no yelling or bickering.

In general, Burgos makes the whole parenting thing look — dare, I say it — easy. So I ask her: “Do you think that being a mom is stressful?”

Burgos looks at me as if I’m from Mars. “Stressful? What do you mean by stressful?” she responds through a Mayan interpreter.

A five-minute conversation ensues between Burgos and the interpreter, trying to convey the idea of “stressful.” There doesn’t seem to be a straight-up Mayan term, at least not pertaining to motherhood.

But finally, after much debate, the translator seems to have found a way to explain what I mean, and Burgos answers.

“There are times that I worry about my children, like when my son was 12 and only wanted to be with his friends and not study,” Burgos says. “I was worried about his future.” But once she guided him back on track, the worry went away.

In general, she shows no sense of chronic worry or stress.

“I know that raising kids is slow,” she says. “Little by little they will learn.”

I would love to channel that delicate balance of stoicism and paternalism, somewhere between “helicopter” and “free-range” parenting.

Families In A Maya Village In Mexico May Have The Secret To Getting Kids To  Do Chores : Goats and Soda : NPR
Credit: Adriana Zehbrauskas / NPR

As it turns out, the Mayan approach reflects a fundamentally different paradigm to parenting. Whereas most Western cultures frame parenting as a matter of control—be it less or more, or over some things but not others—the Maya do not even have a word for control as it relates to children.

“We think of obedience from a control angle. Somebody is in charge and the other one is doing what they are told because they have to,” says Barbara Rogoff, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied the Maya culture for 30 years.

And if you pay attention to the way parents interact with children in our society, the idea is blazingly obvious. We tend to boss them around. “Put your shoes on!” or “Eat your sandwich!”

“People think either the adult is in control or the child is in control,” Rogoff says.

But what if there is another way to interact with kids that removes control from the equation, almost altogether?

That’s exactly what the Maya — and several other indigenous cultures — do. Instead of trying to control children, Rogoff says, parents aim to collaborate with them.

“It’s kids and adults together accomplishing a common goal,” Rogoff says. “It’s not letting the kids do whatever they wantIt’s a matter of children — and parents — being willing to be guided.”

In the Maya culture, even the littlest of children are treated with this respect. “It’s collaborative from the get-go.”

No doubt this collaborative and egalitarian approach would be alien to most American parents (among others I’m sure). So would the Mayan idea of what is called “alloparenting”:

Human children didn’t evolve in a nuclear family. Instead, for hundreds of thousands of years, kids have been brought up with a slew of people — grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, the neighbors, Lancy writes. It’s not that you need a whole village, as the saying goes, but rather an extended family — which could include biological relatives but also neighbors, close friends or paid help.

Throughout human history, motherhood has been seen as a set of tasks that can be accomplished by many types of people, like relatives and neighbors, the historian John R. Gillis writes in The World Of Their Own Making. Anthropologists call them “alloparents” — “allo” simply means “other.”

Across the globe, cultures consider alloparents key to raising children, Lancy writes.

The Maya moms value and embrace alloparents. Their homes are porous structures and all sorts of “allomoms” flow in and out. When a woman has a baby, other mothers work together to make sure she can take a break each day to take a shower and eat meals, without having to hold the baby. (How civilized is that!)

In one household with four kids that I visited, the aunt dropped off food, the grandma stopped by to help with a neighbor’s baby and, all the while, the oldest daughter looked after the toddler — while the mom fed the livestock and started to make lunch. But in Western culture, over the past few centuries, we have pushed alloparents to the periphery of the parenting landscape, Gillis writes. They aren’t as valued and sometimes even denigrated as a means for working mothers to outsource parenting duties.

It is a stark contrast to the stereotypical—and still widespread—notion of the “mom in a box”: A mother stuck at home with the kids and responsible for virtually every domestic task in addition to nearly all parental duties. Learning on dads, relatives, or close friends is more common—if only by necessity—but is still treated as a last resort or otherwise unusual.

The Arab Queen Who Took on the Roman Empire

I’ve recently become fascinated with the ancient historical figure of Zenobia, a third century Arab queen who is the only woman to almost rule the Roman Empire.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing
An idealized portrayal titled Queen Zenobia’s Last Look upon Palmyra, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1888)

Zenobia came to power as regent to her ten year old son, who inherited the throne of Palmyra, an ancient Mesopotamian city that was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the ancient world. (You may recall it was targeted by ISIS for destruction, which led to literally millennia of history being lost.)

By the time it came under Roman control in the first century, Palmyra was already a prosperous and cosmopolitan city, mostly Arab but with large minorities of Greeks, Armeans, and other ethnic groups. Multiple languages were spoken, a variety of faiths were tolerated, and there was even a Greco-Roman style senate that ran various civil affairs. Its incredible wealth and beauty—including cutting edge urban planning and numerous monuments and public works—earned it the moniker “pearl of the desert”. Situated at the crossroads between the Roman Mediterranean and the Western Asia, its caravans went across Europe, Africa, and even the Silk Road, making it a huge asset to Rome—and allowing its rulers uniquely significant autonomy under Roman imperial rule.

In fact, by the time Zenobia became the de facto queen of Palmyra in 267, the desert city-state had essentially become an allied power rather than a province; not only did it bring commercial goods and revenue, but it offered protection against unruly Arab tribes and eastern rivals, most of all the old nemesis, the Persians. Hence when the Roman Empire began to unravel during its “Crisis of the Third Century”, Zenobia apparently saw an opportunity for her people to attain well deserved greatness.

The Palmyrene Empire she founded spanned most of the Roman east, from central Turkey into western Iraq and down to Egypt (then one of the richest provinces of Rome). While she declared both herself and her son as emperors of all of Rome, she was never able to extend her rule past these territories, though her conquest of Egypt and managing to keep the Persian at bay (who had detected Roman weakness) had been impressive enough. Zenobia was definitely a product of her city: She spoke four languages, received a comprehensive education, and was steeped in the latest philosophy and science. Her reign was characterized by a policy of religious tolerance and intellectualism. While she worshipped a pantheon of Semitic gods, she was familiar with other faiths and cultures, and accommodated all religious groups, from the small but controversial cult known as Christianity, to the Jews who had long been in conflict with Rome. She invited scientists, philosophers, and other thinkers from all over the known world to her royal court, seeking to turn Palmyra into the next Athens.

While her empire barely lasted three years before it was subdued by Rome—her ultimate fate remaining unknown—Zenobia left a lasting legacy.

The Augustan History, a fourth-century Roman collection of biographies of emperors and usurpers lamented that “all shame is exhausted, for in the weakened state of the [Roman] commonwealth. . . a foreigner, Zenobia by name . . . proceeded to cast about her shoulders the imperial mantle [and ruled] longer than could be endured from one of the female sex.” She is also a point of pride to the people of Syria (where the Palmyrene kingdom was located) and remains a role model to women across the Arab world and beyond. Even Edward Gibbon, the famous seminal historian of the Roman world, remarked that few women in history were as influential as her.

What an Ancient Broken Femur Says About Civilization

There is an apocryphal story about the anthropologist Margaret Mead that has a timeless and universal message, though it’s relevant now than ever.

Years ago, she was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about clay pots, tools for hunting, grinding-stones, or religious artifacts.

But no. Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000 years old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. This particular bone had been broken and had healed.

Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.

Many thanks to my friend Arthur K Burditt for sharing this.

International Mother Language Day

In honor of International Mother Language Day—created to promote linguistic diversity and preservation—check out this beautiful and very detailed chart of the world’s languages. A lot of the data might surprise you!

It’s too big too fit here, but below is a little snapshot to give you an idea.

Here are some fun and colorful language infographics that do fit here!

The-100-Most-Spoken-Languages-in-the-World_Supplemental

As the name suggests, the massive Indo-European family includes every language from northern India through Iran and nearly all of Europe between Portugal and Russia (with Hungarian, Estonian, and Finnish being notable exceptions).

The language with the most speakers is, probably not surprisingly, English; about 15 percent of humanity can speak!

However, the vast majority of people who speak English learn it as a second language (as you might have noticed with the top infographic). Here are the languages with the most native speakers compared to second language (2L) speakers:

Here’s an interesting breakdown from the source:

Nearly 43% of the world’s population is bilingual, with the ability to switch between two languages with ease.

From the data, second language (L2) speakers can be calculated by looking at the difference between native and total speakers, as a proportion of the total. For example, 66% of English speakers learned it as a second language.

Swahili surprisingly has the highest ratio of L2 speakers to total speakers—although it only has 16 million native speakers, this shoots up to 98 million total speakers. Overall, 82% of Swahili speakers know it as a second language.

Swahili is listed as a national or official language in several African countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s likely that the movement of people from rural areas into big cities in search of better economic opportunities, is what’s boosting the adoption of Swahili as a second language.

Indonesian is another similar example. With a 78% proportion of L2 speakers compared to total speakers, this variation on the Malay language has been used as the lingua franca across the islands for a long time. In contrast, only 17% of Mandarin speakers know it as a second language, perhaps because it is one of the most challenging languages to learn

Tragically, the U.N. has good reason to dedicate a day for the preservation of languages: The 100th most common language is “Sanaani Spoken Arabic”, spoken primarily in Yemen by around 11 million people. Yet there are a total of 7,111 languages still spoken today, meaning the vast majority of them—all but 100—have less than 11 million speakers.

In fact, approximately 3,000 all languages (40 percent) are at risk of being lost, or are already in the process of dying out today. (By one estimate, a language dies every two weeks.) Fortunately, growing awareness and advanced technology are helping to document and preserve these unique aspects of human existence, and all the unique ideas, stories, and concepts they each contain.

Ancient Links Between Rome and Sri Lanka

It never ceases to amaze me how well connected and globalized the ancients were. We think of globalization as a thoroughly modern phenomenon, yet the seeds of it were planted centuries or even millennia ago, where global connections would have seemed impossible. 

As Science reports:

Visit Mantai, nestled into a bay in northwestern Sri Lanka, and today you’ll see nothing but a solitary Hindu temple overlooking the sea. But 1500 years ago, Mantai was a bustling port where merchants traded their era’s most valuable commodities. Now, a study of ancient plant remains reveals traders from all corners of the world—including the Roman Empire—may have visited or even lived there.

Mantai was a hub on the ancient trade networks that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean and connected the distant corners of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The port town flourished between 200 B.C.E. and 850 C.E. During that time, it would have been a nexus for the spice trade, which ferried Indonesian cloves and Indian peppercorns to Middle Eastern and Roman kitchens.

[…]

The team also found remains that could link the port city to the ancient Mediterranean world—processed wheat grains dated to 100 to 200 C.E. and grape seeds dated to 650 to 800 C.E. Neither crop can grow in Sri Lanka’s wet, tropical climate, so they had to be imported, possibly from as far as Arabia or the Roman world. Kingwell-Banham says her team is studying the chemical isotopes absorbed by the plants to determine where they were grown.

But no matter their precise origin, the coexistence of rice and wheat is evidence of Mantai’s “cosmopolitan cuisine,” in which both local and foreign foods were eaten, she says. The discovery of wheat and grapes in Mantai “is entirely new,” and shifts the focus on goods transported from South Asia to the Roman world, to goods that went in the other direction,” Coningham says.


While there is no evidence that Roman merchants or other travelers lived in what is today Sri Lanka, it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility: just a few years ago, remains were unearthed in London that appear to be of Chinese origin — and date back to between the third and fifth centuries C.E., when it was the Roman city of Londonium. 

Facebook Isn’t Popular in Only a Handful of Countries

Russia and China are the only countries to have their own social media platforms be more popular than an American one: V Kontakte and Odnoklassniki (part of “Russia’s Google”, Mail.ru) and QZone (owned by China’s tech giant, Tencent, the world’s largest gaming and social media company). However, China bans most U.S. platforms, and only Russia’s are popular abroad (albeit in the Russian-speaking former Soviet bloc).

Otherwise, Facebook is very clearly the leading social network by a wide margin, dominating 152 out of 167 countries analyzed (91% of the planet).

Source: www.vincos.it/world-map-of-social-networks/

The World’s Tallest Statue

On Wednesday, India unveiled the world’s tallest statue: The Statue of Unity, which depicts the country’s first deputy prime minister and major independence leader, Vallabhbhai Patel. It is about twice the size of the Statue of Liberty, and taller than the previous record-holder, China’s Spring Temple Buddha.

Funny enough, it will not be the tallest statue for long: India’s state of Maharashtra is constructing a memorial to the Maratha warrior king Shivaji that will be several meters taller.

In addition to playing a leading role in organizing nonviolent resistance against the British, Patel was instrumental in forging a cohesive, democratic republic from the politically fragmented British Raj, which included both British-controlled colonies and over 560 self-governing “princely states” that had been indirectly ruled.

Through both force of personality and de facto command of the military, he managed to cajole nearly all these states to join India; this uncompromising willingness to do whatever it took to form India earned him the moniker of the “Iron Man of India” and “Unifier of India”. Patel was also the founder of the country’s massive civil service, the “All India Services”, which he identified as the “steel frame” of the country that would cement a fractious, disunified society.

Although widely beloved for his decisive leadership in founding India, many locals protested the construction and dedication to the statue, believing it to be a waste of well needed public funds; demonstrators were subsequently kept at bay during the unveiling ceremony.

See a slideshow of its construction here.

Source: BBC

The Bleak and Macabre Art of Francis Bacon

To commemorate Halloween, here are some surreal and often creepy paintings by Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon.

Although known for his bleak, existentialist worldview — which became more somber and macabre following the suicide of his lover — he was actually quite energetic and charismatic in person, and spent much of his middle age eating, drinking, and gambling in London’s leisurely Soho district.

Source: Wikimedia

Tyrus Wong

Today I learned that the lead artist for Disney’s “Bambi” was a Chinese-born illegal immigrant who drew inspiration from the art styles of the Song Dynasty.

Tyrus Wong was born Wong Gen Yeo on this day in 1910, in Taishan, Guangdong, China. When he was nine, he and his father immigrated to the United States, where they were initially detained, separated, and questioned due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited immigrants from China. They assumed false identifies as “paper sons”—relatives of Chinese Americans already legally resident in the U.S.—and were subsequently released, ultimately settling in L.A. Continue reading