TIME Culture

‘The Affair’ Is the Sound of Puppies Drowning—And We Can’t Stop Listening

Ruth Wilson as Alison and Joshua Jackson as Cole in The Affair (season 1, episode 10). - Photo: Mark Schafer/SHOWTIME - Photo ID:  TheAffair_110_8727
'The Affair' Mark Schafer—Showtime

Elizabeth Wurtzel is the author of Prozac Nation, Bitch and More, Now, Again. Her latest book is Creatocracy: How the Constitution Invented Hollywood.

'The Affair' is emotional like how we used to be—now everyone is on Facebook and on Prozac... and dead inside.

Even though Showtime is commercial-free, I DVR The Affair so that I can fast-forward past Fiona Apple’s ululating over the opening credits. It is the sound of puppies drowning.

Absolutely everything about The Affair is too much, which must be its appeal. It is a bubble bath of bathos. The white waves break in Ditch Plain, and on the shore someone is screaming or crying or having sex on a trapeze. (Okay, I lied about the last thing—but the show has been renewed for another season, so here’s hoping.)

Of course, this is nothing at all like how we live now. No one is this this emotional anymore. The Affair is a lot like how we used to be, maybe in the last century. Now everyone is on Facebook and on Prozac—and dead inside. Which is probably a good thing—certainly it is better than epidemic road rage. Consider the way things go when everyone is out at the same time, like on Black Friday. On days like that, when many people have little control over their behavior, it seems good that psychotropic medication and online living have become so prevalent. But we are nostalgic for everything, including pain. Enter The Affair: on Sunday night at 10 p.m., there will be spiraling.

As a portrait of an extramarital relationship, The Affair is accurate in the worst ways. The two cheaters are the lesser halves of their respective marriages, and it is resentment that has led them down the primrose path. Alison is a failed nurse who is now a waitress, and Noah is a failed novelist who can’t even teach “Romeo and Juliet” to ninth graders like he knows what love is. After a brief encounter in a diner—yes, the writers of The Affair settled on that gin joint—Alison and Noah are obsessed like Capulets and Montagues. It happens like kaboom. Or like desperation. But people cheat because they can and they will and they do. The Affair does not make excuses for the affair. It does not even make excuses for the attraction. It shows every situation twice—he says, she says—and both ways all you get is that they are in it for the mess. Don’t try to explain why people do wrong for fun. There: I just explained it.

The usual checks and balances don’t exist to stop Noah and Alison. The dialogue can be characterized as bad advice alternated with worse advice. Both Noah’s daughter and Alison’s mother-in-law are sociopaths, and only some of the children’s clothes are imported from France to Brooklyn. The only character on The Affair who seems to have principles is Cole, Alison’s husband, but he also happens to be running a drug-smuggling operation disguised as a horse stable. There is no one who is just an okay person on The Affair. Everyone is lousy.

Dominic West played Jimmy McNulty on The Wire, and McNulty was lousy. Really lousy. As a guy, Jimmy McNulty was worse than Noah Solloway. But McNulty had a mission. He was natural police. He was a man with a job he cared about. A lot. His wretched personal life was a sideshow that the audience forgave—mostly—because McNulty was cleaning up Baltimore one perp at a time like it mattered.

There was a time when television was about relationships mostly, but then the best TV was suddenly about work. Lately, whether it’s Mad Men or The Good Wife, people are more substantial accomplishing than emoting. We prefer it. We prefer it the way we prefer that life be less messy, which is why we conduct so much of it on a screen. But somehow, when we are reminded of how raw we can be—and how ridiculous it is—we watch The Affair as obsessively as the characters behave. We want to do wrong for fun.

Elizabeth Wurtzel is the author of Prozac Nation, Bitch and More, Now, Again. Her latest book is Creatocracy: How the Constitution Invented Hollywood.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

Being American Means Never Having to Fret Over Your Legal Documents

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Paperwork was a matter of life and death when I was a refugee — now, it’s just an annoyance

Last year, when my driver’s license was set to expire, I went online to apply for a renewal but was thwarted by error messages. Exasperated at the time I had to spend entering my information and getting nowhere, I called the help hotline only to be informed, after a 20-minute holding time, that because I had gotten eyeglasses since my last license was issued, I was ineligible for online renewal and would have to go to my nearest Department of Motor Vehicles office.

Like all other motoring Americans, I know full well what a visit to the DMV entails. You pull a number to wait in lines to pull more numbers to wait in more lines, all the while avoiding eye contact with your fellow motorists. To kill time, you might scrutinize the portrait of the governor on the wall, looking benignly down at you. As a student, I suppose I have the luxury of time, and could have gone to the DMV almost any day of the week. But, somehow May rolled around, and there I was driving around with a license that was about to expire. It’s hard to motivate yourself to spend a whole morning or afternoon waiting in line.

What got me to take my number at the DMV wasn’t the fear of being stopped by the police, but rather the thought that I might be turned away from a bar for having an expired license. I know, I know; we all have our priorities. So I finally made my way to the DMV and took a number to get a new license.

All of which is to say, I have come a long, long way. Such a cavalier attitude toward my “documents” and officialdom is a recently acquired privilege.

For most of my life, identification documents, especially their expiration dates, were a serious, life-altering business that left no room for nonchalance. I was born in Bosnia and fled the country with my family during the civil war of the 1990s. I was only in second grade, but one of my clearest memories of that time was waiting in a long line in Zenica so that my mother, sister, and I could get the required documents to join our father who, like many Bosnians, had already fled to Hamburg, Germany. It’s a strange childhood memory to hold on to since waiting in a line and filling out paperwork is nothing remarkable. But even as a second grader, I knew that this line and paperwork was not just any line and any paperwork. There were lots of questions about whether or not we would be able to get the papers. The stakes were palpably high.

I didn’t know it then, but waiting in lines for important and potentially life-changing paperwork was going to define my life for a while. My family and I spent the next six years living in Hamburg, where several times a year Bosnian refugees would have to report to the local refugee authorities, who would tell us that we could either spend several more months in Germany or that we would have to go back to Bosnia. We would line up as early as 5 a.m. and spend all day going through various offices, standing in long lines, and filling out what seemed to be mountains and mountains of paperwork to find out if our life would go on as it had, or if things would abruptly reverse course.

In the last couple of years that we lived in Germany it became increasingly common for families to be deported and sent back to Bosnia, or other parts of the former Yugoslavia, on the spot, with less than a couple of hours to gather their belongings. It was like a horrid game of bureaucratic roulette: black, you stay; red, you go.

Two months prior to getting the letter that we would be resettled to the United States, my family and I almost lost the game. As usual, we were waiting to hear how long we would be able to stay in Germany when an official called us into his office and told us we had two hours to prepare to be sent back to Bosnia. My parents pleaded with him that we only needed a couple more months because we had applied to a refugee resettlement program and were waiting to find out the date of our departure. He was unconvinced, but after some more pleading, he gave us an hour to produce the required papers or be deported that day. My mother had to run across the city to get the document confirming that we needed to stay in Germany because we were awaiting resettlement. Meanwhile, my sister, father, and I stayed in the official’s office as collateral.

When we were resettled to Boston, it seemed to me that the same pattern of long lines and worry over paperwork was awaiting us here. Social security numbers, work permits and, eventually, green card applications—each document hard to obtain, but holding out its own promises about what the future might hold, a hopefully less tenuous future. Even when things proceeded smoothly, I always felt a great anxiety about the next paperwork hurdle and the possibility that the next visit to the downtown immigration office could turn south.

Each additional document we secured meant we were closer to being eligible to apply for citizenship, but it was all too reminiscent of life in Germany for me. I was always afraid that something would be wrong, and we would somehow end up being sent to yet another place where we’d have to start over again.

It was mostly this fear that drove me to apply for my American citizenship on the very first day that I was legally allowed to do so in 2005. I wanted to belong, permanently. I spent the months leading up to that first date of eligibility researching all the requirements and putting my application packet together. I went to the post office several days earlier and even paid extra for the confirmation of delivery option. While I was able to overcome my tendency to procrastinate, there was still my inner klutz. In my eagerness, I neglected to sign the check that I sent along with my application, and the package came back to me several weeks later. I was horrified, worried that this would negatively affect my chances of citizenship, and might condemn me to expulsion from the union. I signed the check and mailed the citizenship application package back at once, and didn’t sleep soundly for days. But finally, the green card came.

For me, becoming an American has brought, among many other things, the comfort of knowing that nothing irrecoverable will happen if I don’t submit a form on time, forget to sign a check, or allow a document to expire. I can, finally, walk around with the same casual attitude toward officialdom that has long distinguished Americans.

Sanja Jagesic is a fellow with the Strategic Data Project at the Center for Education Research Policy at Harvard University. She is a recipient of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. She wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square. Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

Christmas Cards Were America’s First Social Media

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Before we posted our family Christmas photo on Facebook, we mailed images of our idealized selves and lives to the people we loved

My great-grandmother, who was born in the 1880s, passed away when I was about 11 years old. Looking back, it is fairly obvious now that she was a hoarder on a colossal scale, but since this predated reality television, we tended just to say she was a packrat. As we cleaned out her house in rural Missouri, there was something special waiting: two boxes brimming with postcards. These were not of the “wish you were here” variety depicting washed-out hotel swimming pools and palm-tree-lined boulevards. These were older, more elaborate—variously embossed, gilded, tinseled, and extravagantly colored. They were greetings for birthdays and anniversaries, tokens of affection and romantic overture, and happy returns for every holiday on the calendar. Christmas, especially.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my great-grandmother’s collection would give me a window into the desires—and anxieties—of a world I would only later come to understand and appreciate as I pursued my doctorate in American history. Until I embarked on that journey, the cards often sat in the back of closets or under piles of other accumulated stuff. Still, every so often, I’d take them out, dust them off, and wonder at them anew. Once my long nights of historical study began, I returned to them more and more often, until they finally set me on a path of becoming a scholar of American holidays and culture, including the phenomenon of holiday postcards.

It turns out there was a good reason my ancestor had piles and piles of these rectangular cardboard artifacts. For a few years in the early 20th century, postcards were a massive phenomenon. Billions of postcards flowed through the mail, and billions more were bought and put into albums and boxes. And amid that prodigious output, holiday postcards were one of the most popular types, with Christmas reigning supreme, just as it had in my inherited collection.

The practice of sending Christmas cards pre-dated the broader postcard craze by several decades, largely thanks to the efforts of Louis Prang. Prang was a savvy printing entrepreneur who kept adding products and lithographic techniques to his ever-expanding business, including the introduction of Christmas greeting cards (perhaps at his wife’s suggestion) in 1875. By the 1880s he was publishing more than 5 million holiday cards each year. And once postcards fell out of favor, greeting card companies like American Greetings and Hallmark rushed in to fill the void. But for a few short years between 1907 and 1910, Christmas postcards created a visual conversation between Americans that was unique because it was also very public. They were in many ways a forerunner of today’s impulse to post selfies and holiday pictures on social media. Unlike a greeting card or letter that hides its contents within an envelope, a postcard was always on display—from the rack in the drugstore where it might be purchased to its final destination. And those billions of snowy landscapes and bag-toting Santas churning through the mail system—the Rural Free Delivery system in particular—revealed much of what was on people’s minds at the height of the Progressive Era.

Take mistletoe, for example. Mistletoe had long been part of the Christmas tradition, with young men using sprigs of the plant to claim the right to demand or steal a kiss. Yet this was an era when women were asking serious questions about their rights and questioning the assumed passivity of their lives in everything from courtship and marriage to education and work. This is why so many postcards feature a woman who has taken control of mistletoe, deciding when and where it will be hung, and when she will choose to be under it and for whom. Sure, the rowdy, sprig-wielding young man still shows up in Christmas postcards, but now he must contend with the “New Woman” who uses mistletoe as part of her new right to take the initiative.

Rural landscapes are another good example. On the surface, nothing seems particularly unusual about a Christmas greeting that features a little snow-covered house in the countryside. That sort of mythologized ideal has been around since before the Civil War, when Currier and Ives capitalized on rural nostalgia with their inexpensive prints. Still, rural and small-town America was far from a contented place in the first decade of the 20th century. Farm children seemed to be fleeing to cities in droves, with 1910 marking the last census of a majority-rural American population.

One reason billions of Christmas postcards circulated with nary a cityscape to be seen is that rural Americans were circulating an idealized vision of themselves. When times seemed tough, all those picture-perfect fields, barns, fences, and country homes became a way to create an alternative narrative—one that was beautiful, healthy, and prosperous. One could argue this instinct shares significant DNA with the practice of staging family photographs for Christmas cards, or for today’s Facebook postings. There is something comforting and empowering about controlling the visual elements of a holiday greeting to your friends and family. Those visuals are not just representing you but a perfected version of you, and your world.

These were also the years when the United States saw the peak of European immigration, particularly immigrants from Southern and Eastern European nations like Russia, Lithuania, Italy, and Greece. Partly as a reaction to this inflow, and its surrounding anxieties, people were eager to emphasize their longstanding roots in the country, as if to say “we came here generations ago, not yesterday.” Manifestations of this urge to claim native roots pop up in the period’s genealogical societies, colonial revival movements, and yes, holidays. An “Old Fashioned Christmas” is a phrase that appears with increasing regularity through the first two decades of the 20th century. It is also a repeated theme in Christmas postcards with plenty of “ye olden time” imagery of colonial homesteads, spinning wheels, lanterns, rocking chairs, muskets, and horse-drawn coaches.

The postcard fad ended when the best postcards—which were printed in Germany using superior lithographic techniques—were priced out of the market by a newly passed tariff in 1909. By 1910, interest was waning as American firms failed to produce postcards of equal quality. World War I put the final nail in the coffin. Yet whereas Halloween or Thanksgiving greeting cards never took off the way their postcard predecessors had, Christmas cards have remained an American tradition, if now dressed up in an envelope. Always a mirror of the times, popular Christmas card styles included Art Deco in the 1920s and patriotic cards during World War II.

Looking back, however, there was something distinctive about the old postcards. They put it all out there—hopes, dreams, worries, excitement, wonder, fear, pride, and more—for store clerks and mailmen, nosy neighbors and family members to see and read.

Certainly I wonder how my great-grandmother’s network of cousins, friends, and her future husband (who sent her plenty of courting postcards, including a few mistletoes of his own) picked the cards they sent. What appealed to them and why? As a kid my answer would have been “because they look cool,” but as a cultural historian I now look deeper for what might like beneath the surface. Like so many others who gravitated to postcards with an almost forceful passion, she was a young rural girl from a long line of rural Americans who saw the world changing quickly. Postcards were a way of dealing with those changes, some welcome I’m sure, and many not. Still, I do agree with my younger self … they were and remain pretty darn cool.

Daniel Gifford is the manager of Museum Advisory Committees at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. His first book, American Holiday Postcards 1905-1915: Imagery and Context, was published by McFarland Press in 2013. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square. Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

10 Songs That Ruin Christmas Every Single Time

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Expectations run high for seasonal tunes and these just don't make it up there

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On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me… Some grating, tedious songs that get stuck in your brain like a tiny piece of caramel corn in your teeth; like flecks of glitter that you’ll NEVER get out of the carpet; like a tiresome metaphor that some blogger just can’t let go.

Anyway. My grandmother hated “The 12 Days of Christmas.” She was a gentle soul. She loved most people and never wanted much excitement in her life and I rarely saw her fired up about anything. But man, she hated that song, A LOT. So of course we sang it to her always.

Sure, it’s a terrible song. But it is not THE worst thing out there in Christmas music. The thing is—there is bad music all the year round. Why is it that bad Christmas music is so especially, terribly, mind-meltingly BAD?

Maybe it’s because Christmas music, on the whole, is supposed to be so very GOOD. When the angel appeared to Mary, she sang in response. We call it “The Magnificat,” and it contains some of the most powerful and prophetic words in scripture. And then, those angels showed up and sang to the shepherds on the hillside. Good news! Great joy! We can only assume that was a hella good concert.

So we can’t help it if our expectations are high when it comes to seasonal tunes. It’s biblical. We want good news! We want great joy!

Somewhere along the line, Hollywood and Dollywood got hold of our Christmas soundtrack, and it was all downhill from there. Granted, some of the results are deeply meaningful (good news). Others, just plain fun (Great joy!). And what makes Christmas music good or bad is not as simple as sacred or secular designation. Because the Muppets and John Denver, y’all…that is great joy. And some of the worst are songs that are supposed to be sacred, but really just make you want to club an elf over the head with a giant candy cane.

Here are the Ten Songs that Ruin Christmas, every single time.

1. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause. Nobody cares, kid. Guess what, IT’S YOUR DAD in the Santa suit. I hate to ruin that for you, but you’re a little creeper who should go back to bed.

2. I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas. Otherwise known as LeAnn Rimes and her bedazzled microphone make baby Jesus cry.

3. O Holy Night. Which really was an O.K. song until Josh Groban, Celine Dion, and Clay Aiken got ahold of it and each, respectively, stretched every syllable into three and butchered the high notes like a Christmas ham.

4. Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer. It’s one thing to torture your grandma with annoying Christmas tunes. It’s another thing entirely to celebrate her yuletide demise. Also, who let her drink so much? And then try to walk home in a blizzard? I’m starting to feel like the best grandchild ever.

5. Rocking Around the Christmas Tree/ Most Wonderful Time of the Year/Holly Jolly Christmas. I lumped these together because they are equally terrible in the same kind of way. Christmassy words set nonsensically to music does not a Christmas song make. Maybe it WAS the most wonderful time of year, until y’all started singing this awful mess. And also, who tells scary ghost stories at Christmas? WRONG HOLIDAY.

6. Baby It’s Cold Outside. When people first started calling this the date rape song, I said, “Nonsense,” and thought they were over-reacting. But as more and more attention has been called to rape culture, especially on college campuses, that whole “Hey, what’s in this drink?” thing gets hard to ignore. Also, just because it says ‘cold’ or ‘snow’ or ‘winter’ does not mean it’s a Christmas song. (Somebody tell that to the people who put “My Favorite Things” in the holiday rotation.)

7. Last Christmas. So you’re having a lovely December day of shopping and sipping cocoa and visiting the elderly and then WHAM! This business comes on your radio and you are suddenly in elf-clubbing mode again. I’ll give it to someone special, alright… With my fist.

8. Wonderful Christmastime. Not only does this song ruin Christmas, it almost ruins Paul McCartney. Thank goodness for the redeeming qualities of “Hey Jude.” Which is really more of a Christmas song than Wonderful Christmastime, if you think about it. Meanwhile, someone should take THIS sad song and make it better.

9. Do They Know It’s Christmastime. (Sigh.) Yes, we are ever so mindful of the poor. But to thank God it’s “Them instead of you” is sort of missing the whole Baby Jesus POINT of things.

And, by popular demand…

10. Christmas Shoes. Listen, it’s great that you want to buy those gold shoes for the kid with the dying mom. I’m all for generosity, Christmas time or elsewise. But… a) it’s cheesy, and manipulative. This song tries to make me feel feelings that I don’t have for pretend people, maybe because my heart is 3 sizes too small. And b) it embodies some hard Advent-y realities… Like the truth that we’d rather serve the dying than the living. Or to put it another way: we too often place our faith in ‘meeting Jesus someday,’ rather than living in the impossible paradox of his coming incarnation. We look to a far-off heaven, rather than trying to prepare a place in our midst for the poor, the stranger, or the vulnerable child.

And maybe that’s why so much of our holiday music is so straight up terrible. Because it’s been used to create a deceptively comfortable, cozy environment. In which to shop. When in fact, all is neither calm nor bright. For all its tinsel and shine, the world is not as it should be. And we are partly to blame.

What? I told you my heart was 3 sizes too small…you wanted something uplifting?

How about this: Love is on the way. Hope still sings to us in the night, and joy comes in the morning. There are songs for that, too. GOOD songs. With Muppets. Maybe that’s next week’s list.

Until then — sing on, y’all.

Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Olathe, Kansas. This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME movies

See Which 25 Movies Will Be Added to the National Film Registry in 2014

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This handout photo provided by Universal Studios and the Library of Congress shows Jeff Bridges as “The Dude,” left, hanging out at the bowling alley with his buddies Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi) in "The Big Lebowski." Associated Press

This year's selection brings the total number of films in the registry to 650

Twenty-five films will be added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress this year.

Titles include Steven Speiberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Ethan Cohen’s The Big Lebowski and the original 1971 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The Film Registry chooses movies that are at least 10 years old and which are considered “cultural, historical or aesthetic cinematic treasures.”

“By preserving these films, we protect a crucial element of American creativity, culture and history,” said James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress.

For a full list of the films read more at LA Times.

TIME Culture

I Love This Multicultural Holiday Sweater

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Courtesy of Pia Glenn

The “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd is shaking angry fists at the Internet sky and asking their web browsers, "Is nothing sacred anymore?"

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So-called ugly Christmas sweaters have been a holiday mainstay, both unintentionally (I see you, Great Aunt Hyacinth), and ironically (I see you too, festive hipsters throwing your theme party in your communal artists’ space).

Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that extends to our casual knitwear as well, let’s call them novelty Christmas sweaters. And let’s look specifically at this “multicultural” Christmas Jumper from the Leicester, U.K.-based company that is straightforwardly called British Christmas Jumpers.

I’m sure you know that what the U.K. calls “jumpers” we call “sweaters,” but did you know that this particular sweater has many across the Atlantic hopping and spitting mad? Neither did I, until it was brought to my attention. And even after it was, I was still a bit taken aback. I generally try not to quantify the outrage of those whose views I may not share, but in this case, I’m crying foul.

This sweater, now available here in the U.S., has been referred to as “a blasphemous monstrosity,” a sign that “Political Correctness Really HAS Gone Mad” and “a real turkey,” which is a scathing insult if ever I’ve heard one! [clutches pearls]

Slightly more forgiving online and Twitter comments have included such declarations as “By trying to represent everything you end up representing nothing at all,” while a whole host of people saw fit to simply post hideously elaborate riffs on basic Islamophobia.

The official statement from the company, printed right next to the sweater on the ordering page, is that “Britain has never been more multicultural, so we thought we’d create a Christmas jumper with a twist — something that brings people from all walks of life together in the spirit of love, joy, and festive cheer. We think everyone should be able to wear a British Christmas Jumper and celebrate the festive season — however they wish, no matter what their colour, creed or culture.”

Those MONSTERS!

In sorting through the U.K.’s sweater rage, I didn’t want to stop at the one statement on the British Jumper Company’s online catalog, so I reached out to them and got more details via e-mail. They told me that in setting out to create a design that would “reflect modern culturally diverse populations, they chose the top six religions in the world: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Judaism. Then we chose Taoism for its philosophy and message of harmony, the Peace Symbol as a modern symbol of unity, and the Science Atom to include those who have their belief in Science.”

I learned that British Christmas Jumpers is a family business, founded by an Indian couple who arrived in Britain in 1981 during the race riots. The founders’ two sons are now involved in the business, both of whom were born in the United Kingdom and raised in a Hindu family but went to a Christian school. This is a family that has experienced cross-cultural faith-based interpersonal relations, and lives in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the U.K., infusing one of their products with the diversity that they live.

My first thought in reading about the furor was that we found ourselves at the intersection of secularism and semantics here. Take the word Christmas out of the proceedings, and you’ve got yourself a Multicultural Sweater …oooohh, but wait, there’s a row of Christmas trees occupying prime visual real estate, so it’s clearly a Christmas-based situation. And the name of the company that makes them has “Christmas” right there in the middle, so they’re clearly making sweaters for the Christmas season. Period. I wanted to give the people who are furious the linguistic benefit of the doubt, like it was just the word that was the problem, because the pious superiority, ethnic prejudice, and hateful bias I was reading surely had to have some stronger root cause than the close proximity of the symbols of multiple faiths on a sweater.

Sadly, no. The “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd is pissed, shaking angry fists at the Internet sky and asking their web browsers, “Is nothing sacred anymore?” The Islamophobes are worked up because…I guess because they think like the screenwriters of mid-’80s straight-to-video action movies, and such limited thinking tends to keep the hateful worked up.

And the non-religious are up in arms because political correctness is ruining the world!

Guess what? I’m religious and also against being PC just for PC’s sake, and I still need these folks to have a seat, preferably in something that reclines. I check my religious privilege every time I write about it, because I feel lucky to have been born into a faith that is extremely progressive while honoring certain traditions that have enriched my life. (Episcopalian, or Anglican as it’s sometimes called.) When I was a teenager, my mother’s significant mental illness manifested itself partly as extreme zealotry that was abusive, but I still found solace in the faith in which I was raised and the people at various churches I’ve attended throughout my life.

I’ve had chunks of time when my faith dimmed and I didn’t attend services, I’ve been the disruptive dissenter challenging the clergy, and I’ve also spent time exploring Buddhism. It is not my intention to preach to you, but to emphasize my personal horror at seeing such vile hatred couched as religion as I’ve seen against this sweater — for me, the call is coming from inside the house!

I’m so grateful that I was taught that “[Anglicans] listen carefully to everyone, search for wisdom everywhere, take seriously the secular world and its work, and recognize that contemporary knowledge is not necessarily in conflict with faith and indeed may offer wisdom.” So while it may follow naturally that I would see a Star of David so near a cross and not be concerned that we’re all gonna burn from crossing the streams, I still wish that so many other Christians didn’t perpetuate this narrow-minded foolishness. Such ugliness begs the question of who’s really “ruining” Christmas.

Today, I’m religious enough and also pedantic enough to sincerely think of Christmas as “Christ’s Mass,” and I can also recognize that this sweater is not a threat to that. Not to my beliefs, not to the little baby Jesus, and not to Christmas.

Lots of things do diminish Christmas, of course. I could be one of those people railing away forever about the commercialization of Christmas, the emphasis on material things and partying and all manner of behavior that has nothing to do with a manger. To me, this is not exactly the same issue as the secularization of Christmas. There’s a difference between choosing to sing “Here Comes Santa Claus” and defacing a crèche. There’s a difference between hanging a wreath with no cross and actual blasphemy.

Loads of people celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday, and no, that is not in keeping with the traditional Christian origin tale. But Rudolph and Santa and Frosty aren’t going anywhere and I’m not interested in morphing my religious beliefs into something that seeks to persecute or take joy from others. History is too full of that transgression, and sadly, it endures today. If a non-religious person wants to espouse peace and joy and goodwill more fervently around December 25, and this seasonal sweater company wants to invite them to the holiday party via knitwear, more power to ‘em.

Keeping Christ in Christmas can be lovely when exercised by actually putting Christ first, not anger. When I see people attacking others over secular or mixed-faith celebrations, I want to ask “What would Jesus do?,” but for too many people those have just become words on a bracelet and not a genuine inquiry.

And what of the multitudes of people who don’t celebrate Christmas at all, in any way? Year after year they have to endure this festive societal takeover, and perhaps they feel alienated. Or perhaps someone is part of a family of multiple faiths, or is a proud atheist but wants to put up a tree, or has moved to a place where they’re suddenly in a religious or ethnic minority and feeling especially disenfranchised during the holiday season…which brings us back to the sweater.

Sure, it does bring to mind those “Coexist” bumper stickers that were also made with good intentions and rendered a bit goofy by the passage of time and cynicism. But if there’s ever a time to keep our cynicism just a teensy bit at bay, isn’t this it? Why all the holly jolly hatred?

If someone has a legitimate beef with the religious symbols of faiths that does not celebrate Christmas in its original Christian form, sharing space with crosses and Christmas trees, fine. Don’t wear it, don’t buy it, and re-gift it if you should happen to find one under your tree.

But if you can imagine opening up your sweater to people different from you in one way with whom you still share the common bond of humanity, well…what’s more Christmassy than that?

Pia Glenn is a writer and actress. This article originally appeared on xoJane.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Media

How Stephen Colbert Schooled Americans in Campaign Finance

By having his own Super PAC and 501(c)(4), he could evolve right alongside the campaigns

When I speak at law schools, I am always asked about the Colbert Super PAC “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” and its sibling 501(c)(4), “Colbert Super PAC Shhh.” Almost every time, someone asks, “How did you and Stephen Colbert plan the story line of his coverage of money in politics?”

The assumption at law schools, where law professors create a course by designing a complete blueprint for each subject, is that Stephen’s two years of on-air legal conversations on money and politics issues were planned and scripted in advance. Stephen certainly offered the American public a course in modern campaign finance law, but there never was a master plan for the discovery of the American campaign finance system’s peculiarities. Instead, our serial discussion evolved in wonderful spontaneity, appropriate to Stephen’s belief in the power of improvisation. One conversation simply led logically to another—unless Stephen got that wild look in his eyes and said “What if I did…?” (like “run for President of South Carolina”), and then the dialogue took an unexpected turn.

The 2012 presidential election cycle was a remarkable time in the campaign finance field. Campaigns evolved in real time as they experimented with the new political vehicles known as Super PACs and explored the gray areas of election law. Along the way, Stephen effectively demonstrated the absurdities and workarounds in our campaign finance system through the creation of several legal entities: a non-connected PAC to raise money to influence elections, a Super PAC to raise unlimited contributions from corporations and labor unions, and a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization used to launder contributions to keep donors anonymous.

Finally, he was able to show America the loopholes (or “loop-chasms” as he called them) in the laws designed to regulate coordination between candidates and supposedly “independent” groups. By having his own Super PAC and 501(c)(4), Stephen could evolve right alongside the campaigns—or often be a step ahead of them. His understanding of the possibilities inherent in the legal confusion was keen enough to discover and exploit absurd legalities before it became clear that actual candidates and political activists were doing the same thing.

Working with Stephen, I quickly came to respect his quick and sharp intellect, including that skill so highly prized by lawyers: the ability to ingest and intellectually digest a large amount of information on an unfamiliar subject, distilling it into key questions and insights. The fact that he could do this with unfamiliar campaign finance legal concepts always amazed me; that he could then boil it all down to a 4 ½ minute on-air discussion and make it funny was pure genius. I told him at one point that if he ever wanted a different career, he would make the world’s best Supreme Court advocate. After all, the highest paid lawyers master the factual record of their case, apply a nuanced area of law, and present the breadth of this material to the justices in a digestible and persuasive manner. The only difference is that Supreme Court advocates have 30 minutes and Colbert had 4 ½.

Stephen, if you ever decide to move on from the entertainment industry, I would be happy to refer potential Supreme Court clients.

Trevor Potter, Stephen Colbert’s “personal lawyer” for his SuperPac, is a former FEC Chairman and currently a member of the Caplin & Drysdale law firm and President of the Campaign Legal Center, a public interest law firm.

TIME Culture

This Feminist Twist on ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ Will Warm Your Heart

It's very short

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” may be a classic holiday song, but it’s kind of creepy. She’s like, “no, I have to go,” and he’s like “no, stay for sex purposes” and that’s pretty much the entire song. But the song was written in 1944, before the modern sensitivity to sexual pressure and consent, so it’s no surprise that we’re forced to listen to it in every elevator or glove store against our will.

But here’s a feminist version. It cuts out the creepy stuff, which means it’s very, very short:

TIME Culture

Navajos Buy Back Artifacts at Disputed Auction

France Artifacts Auction
Native American Navajo Nation Vice president, Rex Lee Jim, poses for the media outside of the Drouot's auction house prior to the contested auction of Native American Navajo tribe masks in Paris, Dec. 15, 2014. Francois Mori—AP

The objects for sale included religious masks, dozens of Hopi kachina dolls and several striking Pueblo masks embellished with horse hair, bone and feathers

(PARIS)— When diplomacy and a plea to return sacred ceremonial masks to an American Indian tribe in the United States failed, officials from the Navajo Nation traveled to the Paris auction house selling the items and started bidding for them.

They fended off a French art collector Monday, winning seven masks for more than $9,000. Navajo Vice President Rex Lee Jim said the Navajo delegation was unable to determine the exact provenance of the artifacts but said they had to face the reality of the auction and buy them.

“They are sacred masks … and unfortunately they end up here. Whether that is legal or illegal … we don’t know,” said Jim, a medicine man who offered prayers to the masks that embody Navajo deities. “What we do know is that they are for sale.”

The Navajo Nation took a different approach than its Hopi neighbor in northeastern Arizona, which has seen losses of ceremonial items at auctions in France that were deemed legal to private collectors.

The objects for sale at the Drouot auction house included religious masks, colored in pigment, that are believed to be used in Navajo wintertime healing ceremonies. It also included dozens of Hopi kachina dolls and several striking Pueblo masks embellished with horse hair, bone and feathers, thought to be from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The U.S. Embassy in Paris asked Drouot to suspend the sale to allow Navajo and Hopi representatives to determine if they were stolen from the tribes. But Drouot refused, arguing that the auction was in accordance with the law — and that a French tribunal had previously ruled that a similar sale was legal.

Sales from the auction totaled 929,000 euros ($1.12 million).

The Hopi saw the sale as sacrilege and did not travel to Paris for the auction, said Pierre Schreiber, a lawyer representing the tribe. Only a member of the tribe has the right to possess the items that represent the spirits of their ancestors, tribal officials have argued.

“Hopis were opposed to buying back their artifacts as they did not want to engage in the auction,” Servan-Schreiber said.

Hopi Chairman Herman Honanie said he was appalled by the latest sale.

The Navajo Nation delegation was authorized to spend up to $20,000 to retrieve the masks that typically are disassembled after a nine-day ceremony and returned to the earth, said Deswood Tome, a spokesman for the tribe.

Jim said the objects were not art but “living and breathing beings” that should not be traded commercially. He was set to return to the United States on Tuesday, with the masks to be shipped later to the tribe.

French art collector Armand Hui bid for several masks at the auction but told The Associated Press hebacked down when he saw that tribal members had come in person to buy them.

“I wanted to respect that,” he said.

Tome said it would incumbent upon the leaders of the Navajo and Hopi tribes to discuss how to approach any future sales of sacred items in foreign countries.

“If there are religious items that are sacred in the future, the leadership will have to determine what steps they will take,” said Tome. “Buying these masks here today is a precedent that we’ve set.”

The Associated Press is not transmitting images of the objects because both the Navajo and Hopi have strict rules against recording and photographing ceremonies featuring the items that otherwise are kept entirely out of public view. The Navajo Nation initially included a photo of the masks in a news release but later replaced the photo with one of Jim, saying it was a mistake. The Hopi tribe considers it sacrilegious for any of the images of the objects to appear.

TIME language

Why It’s Best to Avoid the Word ‘Transgendered’

Laverne Cox Transgender Time Magazine Cover
Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME

Katy Steinmetz is a TIME correspondent based in San Francisco.

With a federal LGBT non-discrimination bill in the pipeline, it's a good time to think about the words we use

Last week, Sen. Jeff Merkley announced that he will be introducing a comprehensive LGBT non-discrimination bill in the spring, which means, among other things, that a lot of lawmakers and media outlets are going to be making decisions about how they talk about LGBT people.

Reporting for TIME on transgender issues (particularly for what became the cover story “The Transgender Tipping Point”), there was one maxim that pretty much every person I interviewed seemed to agree on: there is no single story about being transgender that sums it all up, much like there’s no one story about being Hispanic or blonde or short or straight that sums that experience up. But I also came to learn that there are some good rules of thumb to follow when it comes to language.

For instance, if you meet a trans person—someone who identifies with a gender other than the sex they were assigned at birth—it’s generally a good idea to ask which pronouns (he or she, him or her) they prefer and to use whatever that is. If you meet a trans person, you should not ask about the particulars of their body, much as you would likely prefer strangers not to inquire about yours. And if you meet a transgender person, you should not refer to them as “a transgender” or “transgendered.”

Referring to someone as “a transgender” can sound about as odd as saying, “Look, a gay!” It turns a descriptive adjective into a defining noun and can make the subject sound distant and foreign, like they’re something else first and a person second. This guidance is part of GLAAD’s media reference guide, under the heading “Terms to Avoid”: “Do not say, ‘Tony is a transgender,’ or ‘The parade included many transgenders.’ Instead say, ‘Tony is a transgender man,’ or ‘The parade included many transgender people.’” These key language nuances haven’t been consistently adopted by the media. For example, on Dec. 15, the Associated Press listed this story in among their “10 Things to Know For Today:”

4. PHILIPPINE AUTHORITIES CHARGE US MARINE WITH MURDER

Prosecutor says the 19-year-old American is accused of killing a transgender in a hotel room. (The story has since been updated to say a “transgender woman.”)

This is something TIME has done in the past, too.

Of course it’s hard to find a word in identity politics that goes undebated, that is universally panned or lauded as just right. Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, says that older transgender people might prefer and use transgendered when speaking about themselves; in the 90s she recalls that term being de rigueur among trans activists.

But the language people use to refer to themselves, particularly minority groups, changes. Today some people prefer the abbreviated trans or trans*, and transgendered has largely fallen out of favor (though some media outlets are still using it). When I recently asked San Francisco-based attorney Christina DiEdoardo, a transgender woman, how many out of 10 trans people she knows would say they dislike the word transgendered, she quickly answered: “11.”

“The consensus now seems to be that transgender is better stylistically and grammatically,” DiEdoardo says. “In the same sense, I’m an Italian-American, not an Italianed-American.” The most common objection to the word, says Serano, is that the “ed” makes it sound like “something has been done to us,” as if they weren’t the same person all along. DiEdoardo illustrates this point, hilariously, with a faux voiceover: “One day John Jones was leading a normal, middle-class American life when suddenly he was zapped with a transgender ray!”

Moving away from the “ed”—which sounds like a past-tense, completed verb that marks a distinct time before and a time after— helps move away from some common misconceptions about what it means to be transgender.

One is that being transgender might be a choice that involves a person simply deciding to be that way or a result of something that happened to them, like sexual abuse. The majority of trans people I’ve spoken to have said they knew they had feelings of identifying as a boy (when assigned female) or girl (when assigned male) as far back as they can remember—even if they didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding to articulate what was going on—and even if they tried to change or stifle those feelings for half their lives. Imagine how it would sound if one described people as “gayed” or “femaled,” as if there was a point when that wasn’t the case.

Another misconception is that the defining part of being transgender is having surgery, as if a trans person isn’t really trans until they’ve gone under the knife and come out the other side fully “transgendered.”

“There’s a tendency in American culture for entertainment and news outlets to focus on surgery, surgery, surgery,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told TIME in a previous interview. But, she says, while surgery is very important for some trans people, others have no desire to have surgery; they might not have surgery for medical reasons, religious beliefs, financial constraints and so on. There’s an “authenticity issue that trans people face,” says Elizabeth Reis, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon. “People are so focused on whether or not they’ve had surgery, as if that’s the pinnacle of authenticity. Even if they haven’t had it or if they haven’t had it yet or they’re never planning on having it, they still have these feelings about their gender.” Avoiding the ed isn’t going to solve that authenticity issue, but it doesn’t hurt.

However, Keisling also says that focusing on whether the “ed” is tacked on the end of transgender can be a distraction. She believes it’s more important for everyone to be having a conversation about LGBT civil rights issues than to wag fingers at people over terminology. “I don’t ever want to say that communities or cultures can’t have language variations,” she says. “Language is very important and what people want to be called is very important. But we have to have a common language that we can bring people into. We have to have language that they can grasp.” And, she says, just as transgendered has become unpalatable, there’s no telling what will be preferred down the line.

Still, “for now,” Keisling says, “I would use the word transgender. Particularly if you are outside of the family, that’s going to be okay.” (If you have more questions about terminology, the GLAAD media guide is a great place to start.)

Katy Steinmetz is a TIME correspondent based in San Francisco. In addition to writing features for TIME and TIME.com, she pens a feature on language called Wednesday Words and organizes the occasional spelling bee. Her beat is wide but it thumps hardest in the Northwest.

Read next: Laverne Cox Talks to TIME About the Transgender Movement

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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