Americhristmas: The 10 Most Surprising Things About American Holiday Traditions

Christmas is one of the holidays with the most commonality between Britain and the US. We both encapsulate the Northern European traditions of trees and snow and reindeer and so on. But there are some surprising differences. Some of these that particularly flummoxed or amazed me when I first encountered them are as follows:

  1. What, no Boxing Day? American companies are rather Scroogelike in the amount of holidays, public or otherwise, that they give their employees. Whereas in England, the 26th is a public holiday as well, I was most distressed to learn that here in America I was expected back at work bright and early, fully functional and ready to be a productive little cog in the machine. Seriously, does anyone really expect to get much done on the day after the biggest holiday of the year? I get more time off for Thanksgiving than I do for Christ’s birth most years, and last time Christmas fell on a Saturday I got the Saturday off (it’s usually a workday for me) and that was it. Conservatives moan that “companies can’t afford it”, but given the bonuses they pay their executives, I’m more convinced it’s “won’t” than “can’t”. Very surprising, and unpleasantly so.

  1. Food Differences. The familiar mince pies, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake don’t really exist here, but make room for cookies. Hundreds of the things, sugared, iced and cut into seasonal shapes. The potatoes served with the turkey are likely to be mashed, not roasted (you people have no idea what you’re missing), the turkey might get deep-fried, and the green vegetable accompaniment is beans, not Brussels sprouts. Chocolate coins in the Christmas stocking isn’t the done thing, but candy canes hung on the Christmas tree might be.

  1. Candied Sweet Potatoes. Top of my personal list of “what on earth were you thinking?” foods, this one is so weird it needs its own category. Sweet potato was a nonexistent vegetable in my growing up, and I really wasn’t sure about something that had the consistency of stringy regular potato but a sweet flavour. But to mash it up and bake it in a pan with marshmallow on top, and then insist that it belongs on the same plate as turkey? No, you people are strange. I like you, but this food crosses too many boundaries for me. I’d never even suspected the existence of a food (not a condiment like apple sauce with pork or cranberry sauce with turkey, but a food) that was sweet but a “dinner” food and not a dessert. That’s a line I don’t personally cross. Like your weird jello salads, this I’ll pass on.

  2. HanukChristKwanzFestivus. When I first arrived in the States, I hadn’t yet tumbled to what inveterate particularists Americans are. When I was growing up, Christmas was Christmas. I’d vaguely heard of Hanukkah by the time I moved to the States as an almost thirty-year-old, but other than that it was a Jewish festival around Christmas time, I didn’t know anything about it. It didn’t, and still doesn’t, have a very high profile in the country of my birth. Jews, and even Muslims, are as likely to wish you a happy Christmas as anyone else. But what on earth’s a Kwanzaa? A Festivus? Come on; you’re making these up. Kwanzaa, I’m informed, is essentially Christmas for black people who think Christmas is too white and European; Festivus is Christmas for militant atheists. This is America. Everyone’s got to have their own holiday catering specifically to them. Now, I understand that if you’re Hindu you probably want to celebrate Diwali rather than Christmas, and if you’re a Jew you probably want to celebrate Hanukkah. But these have an actual history and don’t seem to be fabricated out of whole cloth simply because we like having a holiday and there are things we object to about the majority one. I guess the early Christians’ adoption of the Saturnalia for Christmas was something like this originally, but given the basic nonexistence of Kwanzaa in the UK and the very definite existence of a thriving black and African community, I wonder whether stuff like Kwanzaa is really as “African” as it’s claimed.

  3. Musical Differences. I talked about this last post, but it’s worth mentioning again. The carols have different tunes in many instances (Away In A Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Angels From the Realms of Glory, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear). The secular music is totally different. And there are some different carols, too. I was particularly surprised by Angels We Have Heard On High, which has our tune for Angels from the Realms of Glory (mostly) but different words, and the complete absence of Once In Royal David’s City.

  4. There’s No Such Thing As Tacky Decorations. Whether it’s the tree or the house, American notions of proper decorating are like themselves: bold, loud, overpowering and individual. Nothing is so cheesy or tacky that some American won’t put it on his front lawn, whether the 12ft tall inflatable Nativity scene, the dinosaur Santa giving presents to all the little T-rexes, the zombie Santa, the upside-down Santa that hangs by a toe from the gutter, or whatever else. Coming from a part of Britain that was relentlessly middle class and the last thing anyone wanted to be accused of was of being tacky, it was rather surprising. Tree ornaments are similar. No-one would make patriotic or state (if we had them) tree ornaments in Britain, but you see them all the time here, blazoned with the Stars and Stripes, or the Confederate flag if you’re of a mind, or football teams, TV shows, whatever. Express yourself. It’s the American thing to do, and if anyone doesn’t like it, it’s the American thing that they can kiss your… Ahem.

  5. So few Christmas cards. Ok, Britain goes a little overboard with Christmas cards. You get them from everyone, and you’re supposed to give them to everyone. They make special Christmas card display hangers that you can pin up to 100+ cards to apiece, and people regularly need several per room in their house. Think US valentine cards, raised to the power of ten and at Christmas time. And when I say everyone gives them to everyone, I mean it. I got Christmas cards at school from kids with names like Anwar Islam and Rakesh Patel. But we didn’t usually send or give cards to immediate family. By contrast, my wife’s family did cards for one another, and a few closer friends and church people, and that’s it. As my family know, I’m particularly disorganised about cards, and at $2 a card to mail them internationally, it gets expensive, but I always feel particularly guilty that I’m not doing it right, no matter what we do.

  6. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: the Movie. Yes, I mean the 1964 vintage one. We all know the song, even in the wilds of Britain, but not only had I never seen the film (still haven’t, in fact), I had never even suspected its existence. This “classic” American Christmas film apparently has a distinctly North American audience; it hasn’t been shown on British TV that I know about or remember any time in my life of fortysomething years. This, Frosty the Snowman (which I’ve never seen either), and a couple of others I don’t recall off the top of my head are basically unknown. We have our own Christmas TV classics (The Snowman), but typically what I recall being shown on TV on Christmas day were popular mainstream films like The Empire Strikes Back. Of the classic American holiday films, I’ve seen A Charlie Brown Christmas and maybe a couple of others. “Classic” for me is sometimes code for “not watchable on merit; needs added nostalgia”.

  7. Eggnog. To go from a country in which it’s a marginal, slightly strange alcoholic cocktail involving real eggs (at least, that’s what I thought “egg nog” was when I got here) to a country in which it’s a vanillaish creamy soft drink demanded by the masses and used as a flavouring in seasonal chocolates and stuff is fairly eyeblinking. I’d never drunk eggnog of either incarnation before I moved to the States. To hear what I always thought was an alcoholic drink craved loudly by my resolutely teetotal father-in-law was something of a shock. Eggnog is big business here, consumed by the pint and lapped up with relish. I don’t personally care for it; you can have my share. But how in demand it is and how much a Christmas flavour it’s considered to be here was certainly surprising.

  8. We Wish You A Sober Christmas. America has its share of holiday drinking, but it seems to be of things that would be drunk anyway, like regular beer or wine. There seems little of the holiday sherry or the alcohol-soaked desserts or the mulled wine that you have to prepare or buy specially. Hot apple cider in the US means warmed spiced apple juice, not the alcoholic drink that is the only meaning of “cider” in the UK. American Christmas is designed for kids, so there’s no alcohol on show, there’s masses of sugar, and everything is very G-rated (U or Uc, in British film classification parlance). Britain’s a bit more European; alcohol is a part of life and we don’t feel any particular need to hide it from our children. The sooner they treat it as something to drink sensibly, but just something to drink, the better off they’ll be. Including at Christmas, with our sherry and our mulled wine and our brandy-soaked Christmas puddings that you set alight at the table, and our brandy butter. We’re really not a nation of alcoholics, but alcohol is definitely more embedded into the Christmas festivities than it is in the US.

Anyway, that’s my list. I’ve probably forgotten a few, but those are the main ones that caught me out. Enjoy your Christmas preparations; I’m back to mine.

Kyrie Eleison

And now I have to somehow find a way to explain to my children that the Presidency-elect of the United States of America belongs to an arrogant sex predator who brags about sexually assaulting women, cheating on his multiple spouses and being completely uninvolved in raising his children, who mocks the disabled, cheats his employees out of their wages, apparently thinks that the reason we have nuclear weapons is so that we can use them, and doesn’t think he’s done anything that needs God’s forgiveness.

Worse, I have to somehow explain that self-proclaimed evangelical Christians voted for him in droves because apparently God doesn’t care about anything except abortion and the US Supreme Court.

May God have mercy on us all.

My dad texted the single comment from his home in the UK:  “Disaster for the world”.

I think for me the most hopeful thing of the election night coverage was Glenn Beck’s comments about listening to one another.  Normally I don’t have a lot of time for his brand of screaming conservative rants, but what this seems to amount to is “Dear God, what have we done?  What have I done?”

Glenn Beck, arch-Republican of arch-Republicans, said that.  There might be hope yet for sense to break out.

I have my doubts, though, when members of my church claim “he’s not saying anything we aren’t thinking”, when I know pastors who think Hillary Clinton is “worse than Jezebel” (what on earth has she done to deserve that dubious accolade?  She’s not exactly killing Christians left, right and centre the way Jezebel killed YHWH’s prophets).  Good grief, if you’re thinking what Trump is saying, all I can say is that you need to know Jesus.  Badly.

And yet, God is still good.  He’s still sovereign.  He is still in the business of redeeming lives from darkness and sending His Holy Spirit to convict the world with regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.  He doesn’t need a righteous President in order to build His Kingdom; He built His Kingdom under Nero and Domitian and Stalin and Hitler and builds it today under Kim Jong Un and Hu Jintao and even Ayatollah Khomeini, in spite of the political powers-that-be in the various nation-states around the world that persecute His followers.  He is still able to build His Kingdom here in the United States despite us having elected ourselves a crude and unpleasant troll with anger management issues.

I will not fear.  I will trust in the Lord and continue to do good.  He is my shield and my strength and my song.

Citius Altius Fortius, or “Why are Americans so dominant in sports?”

With the Olympic Games currently being staged in Rio, naturally the Americans are dominating the medal tables. This is normal; Americans treat this as evidence that everything is right with the world; the rest of us with a sort of weary acceptance that yes, things are proceeding as usual.

But it begs the question: Why are Americans apparently good at every sport we’ve ever heard of, plus all the ones no-one has suspected might exist as well?

I typically like to lay the blame on the simple mathematics of population and economics. The United States of America is in the world’s top three for population and has the world’s largest and most dominant economy. They’ve got the population base to find people who are good at just about everything and the economic muscle to buy them world-class training facilities. The results speak for themselves.

But there’s more to it than that.

Talking with my American wife about it, she made the astute observation that there’s a cultural difference between the way Americans approach sports and the way Brits approach sports. She expressed it as “Brits don’t worship athleticism in the way Americans do”, and while that wouldn’t be the way I’d put it, she’s definitely got a point. There are reasons why Americans are so good at sports, and they are primarily cultural, not mathematic.

I thought that in this post I’d take a look at some of those differences. Yes, it’s another “compare and contrast” exercise between our two countries. I happen to like them. Live with it.

The usual caveats about generalising and personal opinion apply; this is my list, not a definitive guide. Plus the following:

I’ve never personally been much of a sportsman. As a child I had the hand-eye coordination of a jellyfish, the physical flexibility of a rhino and the forward running speed of a sloth, and there isn’t any point in trying to compete with eagles if you’re one of the world’s penguins.

Also, I’m at best a casual sports fan. It’s difficult to really love something you’re personally terrible at, and the only things I’ll actually turn the TV on to watch are the Olympics and the World Cup. But the cultural differences involved here are fascinating to me, so here goes anyway:

1. Americans exalt competition and success, Brits love a heroic failure.

Americans are naturally competitive about everything. It doesn’t matter what it is, Americans will compete over it. It’s been said that if an American’s neighbour comes home with a brand-new Rolls-Royce, the American will want one just like it or better, whereas if a Brit’s neighbour comes home with a brand-new Rolls, they will secretly wish the neighbour to die a fiery death. Same envy, different results. Americans compete in work, they compete socially, they compete in and through their kids. And naturally, they compete in and through sports.

Not only do Americans love competition, they worship success therein. Only in America would “loser” achieve the level of perjorative connotation that it has. The world is basically seen as a Darwinian struggle in which you either succeed or are trampled. Even American street address numbering starts at 100, so that the Americans who live there don’t start killing one another over who gets the number 1 address.

Donald Trump seems to be a sort of unfortunate distillation of this mentality. He worships the idea of power and “success” so much that he actively despises weakness – the economically disadvantaged, the disabled, the physically unattractive (his own speech convicts him) – and the one thing that will send him most quickly into frothing apoplexy is the suggestion that reality might be different from his “Look at me, I’m a success” self-image (witness his persistent rage against various reporters). Frankly I think he’s temperamentally unsuited to the leadership of anything more sophisticated than a chimpanzees’ tea party, but we’re talking about sports.

Naturally, therefore, because competition and winning are so important, Americans expect to win. Winning is vital to their national self-image; if we don’t win, something is wrong with our country. See my comments on “loser” above.

By contrast, nothing warms the British heart like a story of someone struggling against the odds and almost making it. To American ears, the concept of “heroic failure” is nonsensically oxymoronic. There’s nothing heroic about failure. Heroes are people who win. End of story.

But it’s one of the subtle central tenets of British culture. Scott of the Antarctic would be a national embarrassment to Americans; to us he’s one of our heroes. Maybe it’s something we got from the Scandinavian domination of the British Isles in the 8th and 9th Centuries. The Norse ideal of a hero was someone who went down fighting for all they were worth, and even their gods were destined to lose the final battle at the end of the world. To them, heroism wasn’t shown in victory, it was shown in how you face death. (To use an analogy from the original Star Trek, it’s the antithesis of Kirk’s cheating solution to the Kobayashi Maru scenario.)

Wherever it comes from, we seem as a nation to have some of this idea. Heroes don’t necessarily have to win to be heroes; they show their heroism in how they face whatever comes their way, be it victory or defeat. Sometimes all the courage and training in the world isn’t enough, and the true hero is the one who does what’s right whether that leads them to victory or sends them crashing down in flames. That’s something of what I mean by “heroic failure”.

Turnabout is fair play, so a British political example: I suspect that Boris Johnson was trying to tap into this deep well of the national psyche by the way he campaigned for the Brexit. He seemed totally unprepared for the idea that he might win; I think it might have been intended as a subtle calculation, that he was supposed to put up a valiant fight and lose, so that the nation would then love him. My opinion only, and probably based on hearsay (but the same goes for what I think of Trump, I guess).

Anyway, Brits love heroic failures. Trying big and falling on your face is a way to our hearts like nothing else. Remember Eddie the Eagle?

2. Americans deify hard work, Brits worship fair play

It’s impossible to overstate the value of hard work in American culture. I’ve commented on this in a Father’s Day post a couple of years back; one of the questions that always seems to get asked in American church small groups around that time of year is “what did you learn from your father?”, and almost without exception the answer Americans give includes something about the value of hard work as the first or second thing mentioned. And without exception it’s in there somewhere.

American culture worships at the altar of work. Whereas in Britain, asking someone what job they do is perceived as a sly way of asking how much money they make, in America it’s one of the first questions asked. Work is what defines you; an out-of-work American suffers a sort of identity crisis in a way Brits don’t (or not to the same degree), because who Americans are is so tied up in what they do. The American Dream is that if you work hard, anyone can make it; their love of success makes them gravitate especially to those who started from nothing and made themselves wealthy and famous. The entrepreneur, the business-starter, the self-made man: these are the national icons.

Most Brits, I think, would probably suspect that the American Dream is a subtle bill of goods: that hard work doesn’t always pay off in the real world and that the deck is being stacked by those who are “winners” under the current system. Whether you succeed or fail isn’t only dependent on what you personally can do. Time and chance happen to us all. The race is not always to the swift.

Americans also almost universally see personal drive and ambition as basically unalloyed good things. I’ve heard Americans saying “I’m a very driven person” and meaning something unequivocally positive, whereas to me it always comes across as either “I’m a Nazi to my underlings and my employees are plotting to kill me” or “I want my boss’ job and I’ll trample anyone who gets in the way”. They’re often prepared to accept levels of cutthroat ruthlessness in the pursuit of goals that would shock most Brits; again, look at Donald Trump. Any advantage you can wrest is to be seized with both hands, whether it’s above or below the table. If playing dirty gets the job done, there’s a certain amount of shrugging and telling people not to be crybabies. All’s fair in love and war.

Theologically, the work focus leads to an awful lot of American Christians struggling with the notion of grace, but it’s not like there aren’t facets of the British mentality that run diametrically opposed to the truth of God. Anyway, we’re talking about sports. Onward!

Brits, by comparison, deify the notion of fair play. Sharing, fairness and taking turns are drummed into children with the same singleminded devotion we show to the teaching of important things like table manners. My own kids’ ineptitude with a knife and fork is something I find deeply shameful; most Americans, however, wouldn’t even notice a problem in the way they eat.

Where Americans crowd and use their elbows, British people wait patiently in line. Your turn will come. I suspect that if Michael Phelps had been British, he wouldn’t have come out of retirement to swim in the Rio Games, and when I personally am confronted with ultrasuccessful athletes like this, I’m always struck with the impulse to cheer for someone else. Anyone else, in fact: he’s already won his share of medals, and it’s someone else’s turn now.

I expect that most of my countrymen would find that this impulse resonates with them; to most Americans it’s probably an absurdity. A winner is expected to keep on winning, otherwise he becomes a loser (or worse, a “quitter”) and we despise him. By contrast, the British “heroic failure” mentality means we often warm more to our celebrities on the way down than on the way up.

Notions of fair play carry over into the language. One of the primary connotations of “sporting” in the British variety of English is “giving the other guy a chance; not pressing your advantage; playing fairly and in a gentlemanly manner”, and of course, “it’s not fair!” is probably the number one complaint that you will hear from children up and down the country whenever anything goes wrong.

It allowed us to host an Olympics without any shadow of judging scandals that I ever heard about; as a nation, we’re deeply devoted to the idea of fairness and the level playing field. We cheer for the underdog, because the big guy has all the advantages and it’s a way to do something to even the odds a little. We also have a deep-rooted national suspicion that if you’re successful, probably you had an unfair advantage of some kind. Someone with Trump’s background would never make it in the British political scene because of the unfair advantage that his inherited wealth gave him, and we’d never celebrate the way he uses his money to push people around in the way that some Americans seem to celebrate it.

Americans, on the other hand, would probably view the success of the successful as just desserts. Their national mythology expresses the idea that hard work always pays off; therefore the successful must be those who have worked for it (even if they didn’t necessarily get their own hands dirty). It’s right that they enjoy the fruits of their success, including, perhaps, the right to do what they can to see to it that they keep on succeeding. If this means bending the system to support them, American culture doesn’t care about it as much as it cares about winning.

3. American education emphasises sports to an insane degree

University-level sports is big business in the USA. Any American who hasn’t spent the last hundred years in an underground nuclear bunker knows about March Madness, the BCS, College Baseball and so on. They’re televised and followed nationally by legions of fans, even among those who never went to university or played the sport in question.

Partly this is just that Americans exhibit a far greater degree of loyalty to their university or college than Brits do. We don’t have class rings; reunions are very low-key; we don’t do the whole “Class of ’86: The Titans” type naming thing. Very few Brits, apart from perhaps those who went to Oxford or Cambridge, would have an expectation that their child would necessarily go to the same university they went to. But it goes deeper and broader than that. With the exception of the traditional Oxford vs. Cambridge Boat Race, there isn’t a single university-level sporting fixture that anyone in Britain would even remotely suggest televising. Universities are academic institutions; they aren’t supposed to be there for their sports programs. In Britain, if you want to study something like Sports Management at university, you try to go to the single sports-focused university, Loughborough. Who therefore win every sporting event they are in, which makes most of the competitions (particularly in the Midlands regional group where my own university was) unwatchably lopsided. There’s no point.

Anyway, with the way most of our universities’ funding comes from the public purse, we’d think they were wasting our money spending it on fripperies like sports teams rather than the academic education they are supposed to be there for.

Even at a primary-school (“elementary school”, O American) level, American school sports are worlds more professional and organised than British ones. What in British schools is a “P.E. teacher” rejoices in American schools with the title “Coach”. It’s a different focus. In Britain the suggestion is that they are a teacher, whose job it is to make sure your bodies aren’t withering while you exercise your mind in a classroom. In America they are a “coach”; their job is to help you succeed in your chosen sport.

The unspoken expectation is that you will have one, and that’s not nearly so much the case in Britain. Everyone is required to have some physical activity, but not everyone is expected to be an athlete. Some people are cheetahs, some people are sloths. There’s no shame in being one of nature’s sloths; they just aren’t well-designed for speed. Lack of basic sporting talent is not necessarily something you can help; it might well be inherent in who you are.

I suspect that the money machine drives a lot of the emphasis on sports in American schools. By and large, American schools are humungous by comparison to British ones (my high school was considered huge with about 600-800 kids including what in America are Junior High-age children, whereas there are high schools around here that have easily 1200 or more kids and less than half the age range of their British counterparts), and this means they have far more resources to devote to nonacademic things. In Britain, if you want to do something less mainstream like archery, your school is not going to be able to help you. They don’t have the money and they don’t have the people, and they will not waste either of those resources trying to make the time.

My wife counters that if American people weren’t devoted to sports in general, the money wouldn’t go to it in schools. I can see that, but I think that the “devotion to sports” is a complex of things stemming more from the veneration of the American twin gods of competition and hard work than it is about sports per se. I’d suggest that schools focus on sports as a way to let all the kids exercise their inner competitive jerk in a relatively controlled environment that isn’t going to end up with someone getting killed.

Because certainly the level of British sports fandom is comparable. Football (by which I mean soccer, not handegg) players have even more inflated salaries, not to mention egoes, than their American sporting counterparts. People are still insane enough to strip to the waist and paint themselves in their team’s colours, even with British weather to contend with. A team’s fortunes at their match may provoke either a celebration or a riot. We’ll cheer on our Olympic athletes with gusto even when we know they’re lucky to have made it that far, and we’ll get disappointed despite that knowledge if they don’t somehow pull off a miracle and win a medal.

However, you’d never get British universities accepting a knuckle-dragging troglodyte of a student purely because they can kick a ball, but this is what happens with the US’ sports scholarships. As I said, British universities aren’t perceived as being about sports; no-one cares who wins the national university rugby championship except students and their parents, and not all of them. The idea that you’d allow people to go to university just based on athletic achievement rather than academic ability is mind-numbingly dumb to me. Yeah, sure, if they have the academic ability as well, but not solely for sports. Why, America? How did it start? What is the academic point?

Maybe my wife’s idea of an American “worship of athleticism” isn’t as odd as I thought.

4. Brits insist on dividing themselves up

We’re already a smallish nation, population-wise. There are at least five European nations with larger populations, and we don’t even register against populational heavyweights like India, the USA and Brazil. But then, for reasons of tradition, we insist on dividing ourselves up into our component parts for most sporting events. We may be “Team GB” in the Olympics, but in the World Cup, or the European football championships, or rugby, we play as Scotland, England, Wales and (occasionally) Northern Ireland.

Understand, I’m not begrudging the Scots the opportunity to field their own team, nor to cheer for whoever’s playing against England. But it always seems to me like we’re sort of shooting ourselves in the foot. We aren’t big enough to do that any more.

Once upon a time it might have made sense. Surprising as it might be to modern ears, the United Kingdom once held the same sort of ultradominance in sports that the United States does today (incidentally, should that be “the United States does” or “the United States do”?). And so, due to the national devotion to fair play, it was more sporting to compete as England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland than as the United Kingdom all together. It’s more important that it be a fair and evenly-matched competition, even if that means hamstringing ourselves, than it is to win. Americans probably see this as a sort of national devotion to failure, but it isn’t. Fair play matters.

5. Americans revel in victory, Brits don’t want it to go to our heads

This is similar to some of what I’ve already said, but the emphasis is a little different.

Americans have an expectation of national victory surpassing even the Chinese (or the Soviets before them). Their whole national mythology leads them to the belief that the United States of America shows a self-evident superiority to every other nation, because We Are America, and we have the free-est and best country in the world. More, Americans approach competition with a mindset of victory. They won’t be happy with anything less than gold, and ideally we want to utterly crush the opposition, rewrite the record books and win silver and bronze too while we’re at it. To most Americans, this is probably a “well duh”-level obvious truism, but the attitude is a bit more alien to us Brits.

Americans believe in celebrating victory, and only victory. The national cult is the Cult of the Winner, and any winner is lauded and celebrated with a vigour that only Americans can devote to a party. And as soon as they stop being a Winner, the nation casts them out onto the ash-heap of history with an alacrity that has to be seen to be believed. It doesn’t matter who you are; if you can no longer produce the goods, we don’t like you any more. “What have you done for me lately?”

Second-best isn’t considered good enough unless another American takes gold, and even then the individual athletes will fight amongst themselves. The Cult of the Winner tells you that “runner-up” is just another way of saying “fastest loser”, and that the one who does win deserves all of the acclaim.

No British version of Michael Phelps is going to arrogantly waggle four fingers at the camera in a sort of “I’ve won this gold in four Olympics, na-na-na-na-na!”. Yes, the athletes deserve their personal celebrations, but there’s a distinct national attitude of despising even the appearance of arrogance, and the last thing anyone wants is for victory to go to their head. Once it does, they’re insufferable.

I remember the first season that Wayne Rooney played football for England. At that point he was a joy to see; it was like you could see him thinking “I’m playing for England; how cool is that?” every couple of minutes. His delight in being able to play the game at that level was wonderful. After a season or so of that, though, all the fame and applause gave him a severely swelled head, and the modern Wayne Rooney is a very different animal (using that term deliberately).

“Don’t let it go to your head” is something almost every British kid has heard at some point in their life. Yes, it’s great that you won, but you don’t need to rub salt in the other guy’s wounds. Let them at least keep their dignity. Don’t become an arrogant braggart over it. It’s not sportsmanlike.

Even in other fields than sport, there’s a sense that it’s bad form to cheer your own victory too loudly. The first Duke of Wellington said “next to a battle lost, there’s nothing half so melancholy as a battle gained”, whereas Sir Winston Churchill put it as “in victory, magnanimity”. The noble thing to do is to acknowledge the other person’s efforts and to demonstrate your greatness by being magnanimous, rather than proclaiming your greatness in words.

Perhaps we Brits are more interested in how you win than in whether; as an example, I’m prouder of my countryman Max Whitlock for standing to one side and letting the Brazilian gymnasts take centre stage for their celebration of the silver and bronze medals than I am of his winning Team GB’s first ever Olympic gold in gymnastics. That showed character and class, that did.

But be that as it may, we’re probably not going to be toppling the Americans from their pole position in Olympic medal tables any time soon. On the other hand, we did exceptionally well in London four years ago, and so far we’re doing astoundingly well again this year, without even the “boost” of being the host nation. Nothing in the US’ national culture automatically slates their athletes for victory, any more than being British is a recipe for automatic athletic disaster. London opened the door, and now a new generation of rising stars have the modern training and competition facilities and the renewed emphasis on sports that will be the Games’ enduring legacy to the country. Four years later, and if the Rio Games continue as they have done up to this point, it looks like we may well eclipse our medal performance in London. Despite a sort of collective sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, perhaps we know that victory is possible now.

But of course also, the Americans continue to lead the field in medal counts. That’s not going to change any time soon; unlike the Soviet and Chinese governments who groom children for particular medal success, the USA has never needed to bother because Americans will do it to themselves.

The American determination to win and succeed is one of the truly great things about their nation as a whole. As I’ve shown, it’s not without its downsides, but what can occasionally look like arrogance to the rest of the world is usually just individual Americans honestly expressing their Americanness. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

I’d suspect that Britons may hold together better when the chips are really down, but let’s not have any non-sporting national showdowns any time soon, ok?

God Bless America

An article I saw recently asked the question “What if God doesn’t want America to be great again?”

It’s a thought-provoking question. The point is not that God might want America’s destruction (I don’t for one second believe that He does), but that our ideas of what “greatness” looks like might be different to His.

Are secure borders, a strong military and a powerful economy what make a nation great in His sight? As the article pointed out, Jesus was born into a nation so weak it was actively under military occupation by a pagan foreign nation, to a poor family who could only afford the very smallest celebratory sacrifice prescribed in the Law for a firstborn. The early Church were a persecuted minority even in that nation. Why should we believe that God necessarily wants an America that is militarily and economically powerful even at the expense of righteousness?

Is this greatness?

The world would say so, but I do not believe that this is God’s view of the matter. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”. “When I am weak, then I am strong”. “Do not consider his height or his outward appearance, for I have rejected him. Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart”.

God is omniscient. This is fast becoming my favourite attribute of the Divine nature to talk about, but I think it’s timely. He sees everything as it truly is. No masks, no hiding. His Eye penetrates every smokescreen and half-truth. When we do not conform to His view of a matter, we are disputing the only One who really knows what is true Reality. We’re building on the shifting sand of illusion rather than the solid ground of the Real. We have to conform our ideas of greatness to God’s, otherwise we are being caught up in an illusory snare.

What might an America that is truly great in God’s sight look like?

A place where there truly is “liberty and justice for all”. A place of real equality of opportunity, no-one denied their opportunities for advancement or basic dignity as a human being made in the image of God on the basis of the shape of their reproductive organs, the colour of their skin or any other external factors. Honest pay for honest work. Employers being required to give just wages to their employees. No-one being required to shoulder the burden of selfish parasites who game the system, whether they bear the label of employee or employer.

Truth in our media, why not? No more misleading claims or outright falsehoods from our politicians, our advertisers or anyone else. A news industry that is more interested in publishing the truth than prolonging a problem or selling a story. A nation of forthright integrity, where a man’s word is their bond and where no-one takes credit for the good done by another or blames their own fault on someone else.

A nation whose abundance of resources are a source of blessing not just to a rich and powerful few, but to every citizen and overflowing into the world. Where we steward the good land that He has entrusted to us, tempering the real need for economic development and employment with our responsibility to preserve our vast natural wonders for the next seven generations and more.

A nation that recognises its role as a world leader as a role of service in the world; a nation that is a leader in compassion and justice, that engages in this fallen world in a way that promotes Godly freedom and opposes Satanic tyranny where it finds it. A promoter of true and lasting peace, not the “peace at any price” compromise with darkness or the harsh “peace” of the gun, but a peace built on justice and equity.

A nation whose entertainment industry is no longer a byword in the world for brazen lasciviousness and immorality, but for honest, clean fun and real thought-provoking stories.

An America we can all be proud of.

I offer this as a shining image we can all aspire to. Even this Brit. I’d be honoured to be a part of that America; who wouldn’t? Who cares if it comes about under someone calling themselves a Republican or someone calling themselves a Democrat; they aren’t going to be the ones responsible for it anyway. “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes”.

Feel free to disagree with some of my details, too. I’m not claiming prophetic insight here; I’m using my imagination. God gave you one also; if you don’t like my interpretation of an America that’s great in God’s sight, use it to prayerfully build your own.

This isn’t intended to be a case of the prophet pointing to the actual while holding up the ideal and saying “I have this against you, says the Lord, that you are not that“, either. It’s intended as a goal. Something we can pray towards.

Note my deliberate choice of verbs. This is not something we can achieve at the ballot box; it’s something we can only see if the Lord is gracious enough to send us a true revival. It begins not with the enforced changing of behaviours or the persuasive changing of minds, but with the Holy Spirit-instigated changing of hearts.

Maybe it’s time we took all of that energy and time we spend posting and arguing with political posts on social media, and instead spent them on our knees (metaphorically or literally) in prayer for our God to intervene and, by whatever means He should choose, to bring people to Himself heart and soul and mind and behaviour.

I put it out there as a challenge, and I’m challenging myself as well, because I’m at least as guilty as you are.

And I have a few suggestions for how to sustain it without it becoming rote repetition of a meaningless phrase:

  • Pick an attribute of God’s character – for example, mercy. Think about what it might look like for God’s mercy to be truly reflected in our national institutions. Ask God to make that a reality; that His will truly will be done on Earth, here in America, as it is in heaven. Tomorrow, pick a different one.

  • Pick a national institution or industry, for example the media, or the justice system, or the world of business. Ask God to show you what it might look like if His will was truly being done as it is in heaven. Listen, then ask Him to do it.

  • Live as a citizen of heaven. Praying “Thy will be done” in the nation is all very well, but what if one of the impediments is that His will is not being fully done in your own life? We’re all there to a greater or lesser extent; ask God to help you live out of your new identity in Christ. He’s given you His Holy Spirit; you have the power of the omnipotent God who dwells in His people. You can live a holy life, and do so without being an unpleasant person, too!

  • Get together with others. Following Jesus was never meant to be an individualistic thing divorced from any real fellowship or relationship with other people. We are a people belonging to God; a communion of saints. A real fellowship that begins with being real with one another is a vital part of this following-Jesus thing. And nowhere more so than in prayer! We are coming before our God, the ultimate Reality. We cannot afford to let offences and divisions build until they obscure His image in our fellows.

  • Keep at it! Persistence pays off. Even in Jesus’ parable of the widow faced with an unjust judge who was determined to rob her of her right to justice, the judge relented in the face of her persistence. God is not like that unjust judge, determined to keep us in misery and rob us of His justice. We are asking Him to do something He wants to do! We know that when we do that, we are praying according to His will; let us not give up before we see the fruit. When Elijah prayed for the drought to end, he had to send his servant back to look three times, and at the end the only sign was a cloud as small as a man’s hand. Look for it. Expect it. Live as though the Divine breakthrough is on its way. Be a living avatar of what it will be like then.

I finish with a song. One of only a very few patriotic American songs that I can stand tall as a Brit and sing with a whole heart, in fact:

God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam:
God bless America, my home sweet home.
God bless America, my home sweet home.

Never Beam Down to the Revolutionary War Wearing a Red Shirt

I keep chickening out of wearing one of my Union Jack t-shirts on the Fourth of July itself. Probably no-one would care or even notice, but it would feel like blowing a raspberry at the whole American Independence thing. Loudly. And there’s always the chance of meeting someone with a little more alcohol-fueled revolutionary fervour than is good for them, and I don’t want to get beaten up or attacked by some drunk redneck over my choice of apparel. If I’m going to get beaten up, I’d like it to be for something important.

But this year I may have found a way to express my own patriotism in a subtler way.

Since my red hair started to darken to its present browner shade, I’ve actually started to look pretty good in bright red.

Red’s a good patriotic American colour, the first of the trio of colours that we both share. No-one’s going to object. Least of all in Texas where it’s also the colour of the dominant Republican party. Look, I’m wearing a quintessentially American colour!

But red was also the uniform colour of the British soldiers during the period of the Revolution. It survives today in the British Army’s dress uniforms, including the Queen’s celebrated Grenadier Guards who are famed for not moving no matter what you do around them to try and distract them. Texas is too hot for a full coat or jacket around the Fourth, even quite late at night, so perhaps a red T-shirt…

I rather like the subtlety. I don’t want to be symbolically making rude gestures at the whole thing, just finding a way to touch base with my own national identity without getting perceived as cocking a snook.

This seems in itself fairly British. An understated but very real pride in our nation that doesn’t have to tell everyone how great we are. Maybe we do just expect everyone to know already, but this is America, and it’s the Fourth of July, and we were the Enemy during the War of Independence. And Americans are more in touch with their history than we are, because they have less of it to remember, and I’m doing my usual Fourth of July thing of worrying myself into a frenzy over the popular perception of my country as it was a mere couple of centuries ago.

Still, who can object to a red shirt? It’s subtle enough. Even a red shirt echoing the red coats of the Crown loyalists. No-one need know except you and me.

Sssshhhhh!

Christians Anonymous

I live in America (specifically, in Texas). I go to church in America. Like it or not, I’m part of American Christianity now.

Judging by what I see on the internet and in the advertising mailers we occasionally get from various Christian bookstores, I’m kind of embarrassed about admitting that.

Oh, there’s plenty of good things. America is still Christianised enough in these parts that saying you’re a Christian is still considered a positive thing. There’s a wide selection of numerous Christian radio stations and TV channels. There are several large Christian bookstores around. People set up plumbing companies with names like “Apostle Plumbing”. Politicians openly claim to be Christians. You don’t get any of that in Britain.

But.

So much of popular American Christianity seems to be either trite and shallow or weird and crazy.

The church where I and my family worship isn’t like that, at least not in the regular services and meetings. You’d look at that and think that American Christians are normal.

But if you look at what we’re buying in terms of what’s in stock in the local Christian bookstores, you ought to be given pause.

And if you look at what we’re reading and supporting in terms of what we post online, you really ought to be given pause.

Seriously, between the Bible story action figures (my Jesus isn’t poseable), the aggressive bumper stickers urging you to “Keep Christ in Christmas” by objecting when someone wishes you “Happy Holidays” (if you don’t know Jesus, merely saying “Merry Christmas” will not save you, and if you do, saying “Happy Holidays” will not keep you out), the latest crazy fad books about the coming End of the World, or at least the End of America (apparently they’re the same) and the horribly cutesy “inspirational” plaques with their Precious Moments angels and twee little sayings (that seem more about making us feel better than encouraging us to follow Christ), these days I walk into a Christian bookstore and feel like Jesus in the Temple courts. Making whips and overturning tables feels like it wouldn’t be that out of order.

Seriously, what is wrong with us?

At best, this is the spiritual equivalent of candy and junk food. It’s ok in small doses, but the constant diet to which we’re subjecting ourselves is lethal to our spiritual health and vitality.

Christian radio is no better. The stations bill themselves as “Encouraging music. Words of hope”, or “Safe for the whole family”, and have advertising testimonials from people saying just how wonderful it makes them feel.

And at times, this is appropriate. But Peter probably didn’t feel very good when Jesus told him to “Get behind me, Satan!”, the Pharisees undoubtedly didn’t feel good when Jesus demolished their arguments, and the rich young ruler went away from his encounter with Christ sad, because the Lord had exposed his love of money, and God is not now and never has been remotely safe.

It’s not Christian to make people feel better all the time. Jesus was full of truth as well as grace, and it was frequently the religious and the visibly devout that bore the brunt of His truth-telling.

However, neither is it Christian to go out of our way to be gratuitously offensive the way we sometimes want to either. Jesus dealt incredibly gently with the immorality of the woman at the well, with Zacchaeus, with Matthew the tax-collector, with the woman caught in the act of adultery. Not from His mouth any personal attacks, harsh demands to repent and shape up, or remonstrances that these sinners are corrupting the pure culture of contemporary Judean society. He was full of grace as well as truth.

No, the people that talked long and loud about the social corruption wrought by these dreadful pagan sinners were the Pharisees.

Are we working the wrong way round? We’re frequently overly gentle with ourselves and harsh with unbelievers. Jesus was frequently harshest with religious people and gentlest with sinners. And He was the Truth, so we can’t get away with misbehaving by calling it “making a stand for truth”. Just saying.

So much of what is on display is unbelievably shallow. Pre-milk. Spiritual colostrum. Or not even that – spiritual junk food. Compare the latest fad personal devotional book with something like My Utmost For His Highest and a lot of the time it’s actively shocking from what a great height we’ve fallen.

And if it’s not shallow, it’s often actively crazy. The Christianised astrology of “blood moons” (yeah, actually it’s just like astrology), the continual fear-peddling survivalist nonsense about stockpiling food, money and even weapons in preparation for the collapse of society that heralds the End Times (Um, God will take care of us tomorrow. Our job is to build His Kingdom today, not spend ages in preparing ourselves as if He’s powerless), the latest “revealed mystery” fad, whether it’s the “Bible code” or some kind of Jewish feast-based cycle of judgment or whatever. We feed ourselves so little meat of Scripture that we don’t know how to properly weigh and test anything. It seems we’ll believe anything if it has the right labels, forgetting that Satan himself is adept at having the right labels to the point of looking just like an angel of light.

And this is American Christianity as shown by what we sell ourselves. It’s embarrassing.

The frightening thing is the implication that this is what the market wants. Christian bookstores are commercial enterprises, and if it won’t sell, they’re not interested in stocking it. Which means it’s our fault that so much of what they sell is either shallow drivel or fear-mongering crazy.

Applying “you are what you eat” to what we buy, read, follow and post online, I’m becoming somewhat frightened and embarrassed to call myself a Christian. Is this tosh really what we are?

I take some comfort from the fact that most of the churches I’ve been in are relatively normal, but if our churches are so normal, why is our merchandise and online presence so dire?

And so with all due embarrassment I have to confess that I am indeed, by definition, a part of American Christianity now.

If there’s a counter-revolution, it begins here.

Happy Birthday America

Maybe I just found the key to being able to truly enter in to Fourth of July celebrations in a way that has eluded me so far.

On Father’s Day I wrote about the apparent American obsession with the father-figure, and connected it to the War of Independence. And here’s my thought:

If America is the “child” in that relationship, and Britain is the “father”, maybe I can approach Independence Day as…

My child’s birthday.

I don’t necessarily like or enjoy everything that my child does. I’m not completely like my child, nor am I expected to be. We’re different people, and that’s ok. I can still celebrate them and their birthday.

And like with a physical child, there was blood and pain on both sides during the birth process, but now there’s a new human in the world. That’s reason for celebration.

The analogy breaks down regarding postnatal care. Perhaps a better one would be the Rite of Passage: the ceremonies some cultures have in which a boy becomes a man.

Very often there’s blood and pain in those, too. It’s a severing of parental authority, a child becoming an adult and taking their place in the world of adults.

The Western world has lost the idea of the Rite of Passage. I’ve seen some attempts to manufacture one, and they look contrived and artificial. But birthdays? Birthdays we have.

So Happy Birthday, America!