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Thursday, December 28, 2017

Putting "Christ" Back into Xmas

This time of year, it's not unusual for some Christians to rail against the use of "Xmas" rather than "Christmas," arguing that it is a secular attempt to remove the religious aspect of Christmas by taking the "Christ" out of "Christmas." Such arguments, however, are misplaced. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the letter "X" was used as an abbreviation for "Christ" as early as 1485. It comes from the Greek letter Chi, the first letter of the Greek word Χριστός, which is translated "Christ." It is also found in the labarum (an example is to the right), often referred to as the Chi-Rho, and is a Christian symbol representing Christ.

Moreover, Christmas has never been much of a religious holiday. In fact, it's far more "religious" now than it was in the 17th and 18th centuries. Back then, celebrations got so out of hand that the Puritans passed a law making it illegal to celebrate Christmas and an Anglican clergyman remarked that we do more to dishonor the name of Christ during the 12 days of Christmas than we do in the other 11 months of the year.

In short, then, seldom has "Christ" been at the center of the Christmas season. Not that it isn't a good idea. More emphasis on the plight of a refugee family with no place to sleep strikes me as a welcome change from the current political environment which tends to treat the stranger more as an enemy than as a child of God.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The 12 Days of Christmas Begin Today (or Tomorrow)

This is my annual reminder that the 12 Days of Christmas are not the 12 days leading up to Christmas (December 14th to 25th), but instead are the 12 days after Christmas, either from December 25th to January 5th or from December 26th to January 6th, depending on what tradition one adheres to. Either way, the 12 days culminate on Epiphany (January 6th), which commemorates when the wise men present gifts to the infant Jesus, who may have been as old as two years old when they finally track him down.

When most people think of "The 12 Days of Christmas," they think of the song. The song's origins are unclear, but one story, which has little historical support but is fun to consider, claims that the song originated as a Roman Catholic "Catechism Song" during a time when Catholicism was "discouraged" in England (1558-1829). According to this tradition,
  • The "true love" in the song refers to God, while the "me" refers to those who receive the gifts mentioned in the song from God
  • The "partridge in a pear tree" refers to Jesus Christ whose death on a tree (i.e., the cross) was a gift from God
  • The "two turtle doves" refer to the Old and New Testaments - another gift from God
  • The "three French hens" refer to "faith," "hope" and "love" three gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13)
  • The "four calling birds" refer to the four Gospels, which sing "the song of salvation through Jesus Christ" 
  • The "five golden rings" refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah. 
  • The "six geese a-laying" refer to the six days of creation
  • The "seven swans a swimming" refer to the "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:8-11) 
  • The "eight maids a milking" refer to the eight beatitudes
  • The "nine ladies dancing" refer to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) 
  • The "ten lords a-leaping" refer to the Ten Commandments
  • The "eleven pipers piping" refer to the eleven faithful disciples
  • The "twelve drummers drumming" refer to the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed
For a more scholarly (but almost certainly less entertaining) take on the song's origins see its Wikipedia article.
 
Note: If you add up the number of gifts for each of the twelve days (i.e., one on the first day, three on the second, six on the third, and so on) you get 364, which (of course) is the total number of days in the year if you don't count Christmas (got that from a Hallmark movie).

Monday, December 18, 2017

History in the Christmas Stories?

It's conventional wisdom among many biblical scholars that Christmas stories contain more theology than history. They believe this largely because of the differences between Matthew's and Luke's stories. For example, in Matthew Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem and Jesus is born at home, whereas in Luke they live in Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem for a census where Jesus is born in a stable. And while in Matthew, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt after Herod orders that all male infants two and under be killed and then settle in Nazareth after all is safe, in Luke, Jesus and his family simply return home to Nazareth after his birth. Finally, in Luke Jesus is visited by shepherds, whereas in Matthew he is visited by the magi. Nevertheless, Matthew and Luke do agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, and descended from King David although they trace the lineage through different genealogies.

These differences lead most mainline scholars to conclude that what we find in Matthew and Luke is mostly fiction. For example, most believe that Matthew and Luke say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in order that a prophecy in the book of Micah, which predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, would be seen as fulfilled. However, this strikes me as a bit of stretch since most (but not all) first century "messiahs" didn't come from Bethlehem:
  • Simon of Peraea (c. 4 BCE), a former slave of Herod the Great, who rebelled and was killed by the Romans (birthplace = unknown)
  • Athronges (c. 4–2? BCE), a shepherd turned leader of a rebellion with his four brothers against Herod Archelaus and the Romans after proclaiming himself the Messiah (birthplace = unknown)
  • Judas of Galilee (6 CE), Judas led a violent resistance to the census imposed for Roman tax purposes by Quirinius in Iudaea Province around 6 CE (birthplace = Gamala in Gaulonitis)
  • Menahem ben Judah (?), the son or grandson of Judas of Galilee, was a leader of the Sicarii (birthplace = unknown)
  • Theudas (?–46 CE), a Jewish rebel of the 1st century CE, at some point between 44 and 46 CE (birthplace = unknown)
  • John of Gischala (? after 70), was a leader of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War, and played a part in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (birthplace = Gush Halav)
  • Simon bar Kokhba (also: Bar Kosiba) (?– died c. 135) (birthplace = unknown)
This may help explain why the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, hardly the bastion of theological conservatism, didn't entirely write-off the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In fact, they voted the passage in Matthew, which states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as gray, not black, and although gray passages can be interpreted in different ways, they essentially indicate that although something has been lost in the transmission, they still contain a trace of history. Of course, all this doesn't challenge the claim that the Christmas stories contain less history than they do theology, but it also doesn't mean they we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater either.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

16 Christmas Movies Worth Watching

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (Charles Schultz)

It's been over 50 years since "A Charlie Brown Christmas" first appeared on TV. It's probably the best of the Charlie Brown movies (although "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" is almost as good) and is one of the few Christmas movies that refers to the biblical story. After Charlie Brown asks, "Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?," Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.'"
And then Linus concludes, "... and that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." Yes, that's what Christmas is all about. Note how he lets go of his blanket as he says, "Fear not!" (thanks to the Rev. Walter Taylor for pointing that out).

2. A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees)

There are several great versions of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," but this is my favorite. When George C. Scott's Ebenezer Scrooge yells, "Mr. Cratchit!", there's little doubt that he holds poor Bob in contempt. Plus, Scott is (was) such a great actor. That said, several other versions are worth considering, such as the one starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge ("A Christmas Carol"). When I was kid, I was especially taken with "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." An alternative is listening to Jonathan Winters's reading of Dickens's book, which is also quite good. I can't say that I am too wild about the 2009 Disney version featuring Jim Carrey ("A Christmas Carol"), which I think take too much license with the original story.

3. A Christmas Story (Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon)

Adapted from a memoir by Jean Shepherd (who narrates the film), the movie is primarily about Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley), a young boy living in Indiana in the 1940s who desperately wants a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas and tries to convince his parents, teachers, and Santa that it's the perfect gift for him, while they counter that he'll shoot his eye out. In 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." I confess that it isn't one of my favorites, but I'm clearly in a minority on this point, which is why I include it my list.

4. Christmas with the Kranks (Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Akroyd)

It's too bad that the movie's producers didn't keep the title of John Grisham's book on which the movie is based: "Skipping Christmas" (see picture at right). I think the movie's title leads people to expect one kind of movie when in fact it's something quite different. It tells the story of a couple (Luther and Nora Krank) who, because their daughter (Blair) is going to be Peru for Christmas, working for the Peace Corps, decide to skip Christmas (i.e., don't buy a Christmas tree, hold their annual Christmas party, decorate their house, etc.), and use the money they save to go on a cruise. Their decision to skip Christmas doesn't sit well their neighbors (especially Dan Akroyd), who pressure them to get into the holiday spirit. A battle, of sorts, plays out between the Kranks and their neighbors. Then Luther and Nora get a call from Blair and learn that she's coming home for Christmas after all, and they now have less than 24 hours to prepare for their annual party. How the neighborhood comes together to pull this off and what Luther does with their cruise tickets speaks volumes about the true meaning of Christmas.

5. Die Hard (Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson)

OK. Not your traditional Christmas movie, but it takes place on Christmas Eve, is a battle between good and evil, and includes some traditional (and not so traditional) Christmas songs. It stars Bruce Willis (when he still had hair) as NY police detective John McClane, who flies to LA to reconcile with his wife. He meets her at her company's Christmas party, but while he's changing clothes in the men's room, the party's taken over by a terrorist group (headed by Hans Gruber -- played by Alan Rickman, who a few years later played Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies), which holds them hostage, all except for McClane, who sneaks away before they know he's there. The rest of the movie is the battle between McClane (good) and Gruber (evil) and includes a lot of classic lines ("Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs..." -- see picture above).

6. Elf (Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel)

This movie is too fun. Will Ferrell is great as someone (Buddy) who thinks he's one of Santa's elves but is actually a human being who, through a twist of fate, was adopted by an elf (Bob Newhart) when just a baby. Unfortunately, he's not a very good at elf things (e.g., making toys), and once he learns that he's not an elf, he heads to New York where his biological father (James Caan) lives. There he falls in love with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), helps NY recapture the Christmas spirit, and has a heck of a lot of fun along the way (well, most of the time). The movie is also educational. We learn, for instance, that the four main elvish food groups are candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup. There's also allusions to other Christmas classics like "Rudolph, the Red Nose Reindeer" and "Miracle on 34th Street" (see #12 and #13 below).

7. The Family Man (Nicholas Cage, Tea Leoni, Don Cheadle)

One of my favorites. It's is a cross between "It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol." It tells the story of Jack Campbell (JC = Jesus Christ?; his boss/advisor is named Peter), played by Nicholas Cage, who chooses to spend the year after graduating from college in London as an investment banker rather remaining in New York with his girl friend (Tea Leoni). Not surprisingly, the relationship doesn't last, and when the movie begins (13 years later), he's a very successful investment banker who loves money and fine things, but cares little for women or family. However, when he wakes up one Christmas morning, he's living the life he would've lived if he hadn't gone to London. He's married (to Tea Leoni), has two kids, and works as a car tire salesman (for his wife's father - Big Ed). Although he initially despises this life, he eventually comes to love it more than the one in which he drove fast cars, wore designer suits, and had his pick of women. The movie's climax occurs after he wakes up back in his old life, tracks down his old girlfriend, and tries to convince her not to leave New York to take a job in Paris.

8. Hallmark Christmas Movies (Various)

Okay. There isn't one Hallmark Christmas movie. There's probably thousands. Well, maybe not quite that many, but in 2017 Hallmark produced 33, with a new one premiering almost every night in December. Almost without exception, they're a bit corny and very predictable. They're almost always a love story, and one or other of the couple has sworn off Christmas because of some bad experience (e.g., divorce, death in the family). Moreover, you can pretty much count on them breaking up with about 15-20 minutes to go (usually due to some sort of lack of communication) and then getting back together with only a few seconds left on the clock. However, in a world where bad news feels like the norm (and with a President who seems to be more bent on creating divisions than building community), a lot of us prefer predictability and corny over "real life." As the Washington Post columnist, Monica Hesse, recently put it, "We can’t take any more of 2017, so we’ve turned to the Hallmark Channel in desperation."

9. The Holiday (Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Jack Black, Eli Wallach)

This movie tells the story of two women (Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet) who, suffering from guy-problems, swap homes with each other (they don't know on another -- they "meet" through an on-line home exchange website) where they each meet someone and fall in love. Diaz's character (Amanda) lives in LA, is a producer of movie trailers, and breaks up with her boy friend after she discovers that he's cheated on her. Winslet (Iris) is a journalist working in London, who's in love with someone who wants to keep her around but doesn't want to commit. When she learns that he's engaged to another journalist, she becomes suicidal, but luckily chooses to spend the holidays in LA instead. A side story concerns elderly gentleman (Eli Wallach--the "ugly" from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"), who lives near Amanda and whom Iris befriends. It turns out that Wallach is a widowed and retired screen writer whom the screen writer's guild wants to honor. He doesn't want to attend, but Iris talks him into it. Personally, I think Wallach should have won a best supporting actor for his role. A pleasant surprise about the movie is that shows that Jack Black can actually act. It's too bad he doesn't get more parts like this.

10. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Boris Karloff)

One of the best holiday movies ever (the animated version, that is, not the one that Opie Taylor directed several years later). In it the Grinch, a cave-dwelling creature with a heart "two sizes too small," lives on Mount Crumpit, a steep mountain above Whoville, home of the Whos. His only companion is his faithful dog, Max. Every year from his perch atop Mount Crumpit, the Grinch hears the "clangy" noisy Christmas festivities that take place in Whoville. Annoyed and unable to understand why the Whos are so happy, he sneaks into town on Christmas Eve and takes all of their Christmas presents, decorations, and food in order to prevent Christmas from coming. However, when Christmas morning arrives, the Whos still celebrate Christmas even though all their presents and decorations have been stolen. Realizing that Christmas is more than gifts and presents, the Grinch's heart grows three times in size, and he returns all the presents and trimmings and joins the Whos for the Christmas feast.

11. It's a Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Lionel Barrymore)

I'm not sure how much I need to say about this movie since it is so well known. Briefly, it stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has repeatedly given up his dreams in order to help the dreams of others, and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve (because of a financial disaster not of his own doing) brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), who has yet to earn his wings (he's an angel second class). However, by showing what the world would have been like if George had never been born, Clarence keeps George from committing suicide (and thereby earning his wings). George sees that his life hasn't been a waste but has in fact touched (and improved) the lives of almost all those around him in Bedford Falls. He is, as his younger brother Harry puts it, "The richest man in town." Although the movie opened to mixed reviews, it has become a perennial Christmas classic that captures the true meaning of Christmas. There is a scene at the railroad station when George Bailey learns that his younger brother is not going to take over the family business so that George can go to college. For about 5 seconds, Stewart says nothing; his (i.e., George's) disappointment and frustration only shows in his facial expressions. It's a wonderful example of why Jimmy Stewart is one of the greatest actors of all time. For more on the movie, see the following post ("It's a Wonderful Life").

12. Love Actually (Numerous)

A 2003 British Christmas-themed romantic comedy explores several separate stories involving a wide variety of individuals, whom we learn as the movie progresses are connected with one another. The movie begins five weeks before Christmas and plays out in a weekly countdown to Christmas, followed by an epilogue that takes place a month later. The movie includes numerous British stars, including Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth, Martin Freeman, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Laura Linney, Martine McCutcheon, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alan Rickman. You may be skeptical, but recently FiveThirtyEight called it the greatest Christmas movie of all time ("The Definitive Analysis Of ‘Love Actually,’ The Greatest Christmas Movie Of Our Time").

13. Miracle on 34th Street (Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood)

Although the 1994 remake of this movie, starring Sir Richard Attenborough (as Santa Claus), Dylan McDermott, and Elizabeth Perkins, is decent, it doesn't come close to the original with Maureen O'Hara and a very young Natalie Wood. The story takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day and focuses on the impact of the Santa Claus hired to work at the Macy's on 34th St. in NY City, who claims to be the real Santa and acts accordingly. For example, he some times he ignores instructions to steer parents to goods that Macy's sells like the time he directs one shopper to another store for a toy fire engine that Macy's doesn't have in stock. And he tells another mother that Macy's rival Gimbels has better skates for her daughter. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story (Valentine Davies) and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture but lost to Gentleman's Agreement with Gregory Peck.

14. Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer (Burl Ives)

When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for this to come on TV. I only got to see it once a year, and it was a big deal when it came on. Not just for me, but for most of my friends. Now, of course, you can get it (and virtually any other Christmas movie) on DVD or Blue Ray, or download it from iTunes or Amazon, so it (and other Christmas movies) has lost its "specialness." Nevertheless, I still love watching this retelling of the original Robert L. May story ("Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer"), in which Rudolph's rejection by his peers (for his shiny nose) leads him to run away from home with by a similarly-outcast elf (Hermey) whose dreams of becoming a dentist. These two eventually join up with a prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and after a battle with the Abominable Snowman, they return home to the North Pole just in time for Rudolph to lead Santa's sleigh through a terrible snow storm, thus keeping Christmas from being cancelled.

15. The Santa Clause (Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz)

Tim Allen stars as Scott Calvin, a cynical, divorced, advertising executive for a toy company, who accidentally causes a guy dressed like Santa Claus to fall to his death from his roof on Christmas Eve. Scott and his son Charlie (who is spending Christmas Eve with Scott) discover a sleigh with eight reindeer on the roof, and they conclude that the man must have been Santa Claus. They also find a card in the Santa's suit, instructing that if something should happen to him, that whoever finds the clothes, should put them on and get in the sleigh. Charlie convinces Scott to follow these instructions, and the reindeer take Scott to children's houses around the world to finish Santa's deliveries. After fthis, the sleigh takes them to the North Pole where they learn that Scott is the new Santa (because of the clause in the instruction card they found -- that is, the "Santa Clause") and convince his former wife that he's the new Kris Kringle.

16. White Christmas (Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen)

What more can you say about this one? It's got Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" (not once, but twice); it has Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dancing (several times); it has George Clooney's aunt singing and dancing; and it tells a nice, heart-warming story that some may think is a bit corny. But, to paraphrase Kate Winslet's character in The Holiday (see above), sometimes corny is just what the doctor ordered. The song, "Count Your Blessings" (written by Irving Berlin), was nominated for an Oscar (White Christmas won the Oscar 12 years before for the movie, Holiday Inn), but my favorite (aside from White Christmas) is Snow, sung by Crosby, Kaye, Clooney, and Vera-Ellen on the train from Miami to Vermont (pictured above).

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

I Hope Niner Fans Were Watching

Last year, Dallas Cowboys' quarterback Dak Prescott had a great rookie season, and for the most part, his sophomore season has been going pretty well too. In fact, along with Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback Carson Wentz, who was also a rookie last year, Prescott has had one of best starts that any NFL quarterback has had in their career ("Wentz And Prescott Are The Best Second-Year QBs We’ve Seen In A While"). The last two weeks have been a bit rough for Prescott, though, especially this past Sunday against the Eagles when he had his worst game as a pro, throwing 3 interceptions (including one during garbage time) and registering a QB rating of 30.4. What changed? A key Cowboy offensive lineman, Tyron Smith, was lost to an injury, and the team's star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, is serving a 6-game suspension for domestic violence.

Hopefully, a lot of Niner fans were watching. If they were unaware of Prescott's past success, he might've reminded them of Niner quarterbacks over the past couple of years, all of which emphasizes an important fact: quarterbacks with little or no time to throw seldom experience a lot of success. It also helps when they aren't the only weapon; a talented running back helps quite a bit too. In order for quarterbacks to succeed, not only do they need to be talented, they need to be surrounded by talent. While the Niners need a talented quarterback to lead them out of the abyss created by former GM Trent Baalke and current CEO Jed York ("Win With Class? The 49ers Can't Even Lose With Class"), they need much, much more than that. But now that Baalke is gone, they may have a chance (as long as York keeps his nose out of things).

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Thanksgiving: The American Exodus Story

Beginning in the 1990s, a series of books, sermons, and articles called into question the story of the Exodus as it appears in the Bible. For example, in 1998 S. David Sperling, a professor at Hebrew Union College in New York, wrote in his book, The Original Torah, that the Exodus did not happen. "The evidence," he concluded, was decisive. "The traditions of servitude in Egypt, the tales of wandering in the desert, and the stories of the conquest of the promised land appear to be fictitious." Similarly, in 2001, David Wolpe, a Conservative Rabbi, preached a Passover sermon that called into question the Exodus's historicity. He noted "that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all." Also in 2001, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, in their popular and controversial book, The Bible Unearthed, concluded that "one can hardly accept the idea of a flight of a large group of slaves from Egypt."

As others have pointed out, however, just because there is little to no evidence that supports the Exodus story as the Bible tells it, that doesn't mean that some sort of exodus didn't happen. In fact, in his recently published book, The Exodus: How It Happened and What It Means, Richard Elliott Friedman argues that a considerable amount of evidence exists which suggests that that an Exodus did occur, albeit on a much smaller scale than the Bible says it did. In particular, he contends that a small group of individuals, later known as the Levites, left Egypt, settled in Canaan, joined with the other Israelite tribes, and eventually became their priests. And along the way, their God, Yahweh, became Israel's God, and their story of how they fled Egypt and settled in Canaan, became Israel's story.

While this may strike some as odd, as I have noted in previous posts ("Thanksgiving and American Civil Religion"), it is similar to how the story of the first Thanksgiving became a story embraced by most Americans although few actually descend from the Pilgrims:
In many ways, Thanksgiving is... the American Exodus story. Just like the ancient Israelites, many of whom probably didn't descend from the families that had fled from Pharaoh's wrath but later affiliated with those who did, most Americans don't descend from the Pilgrims. However, just as the Exodus story became the story for all who chose to worship Yahweh, the Thanksgiving story has become the story for most Americans. On the 4th Thursday of every November, most of us sit down with family and friends and either implicitly and explicitly recall the Thanksgiving story.
And like the biblical story of the Exodus, the American Thanksgiving story contains a number of fictitious elements. Nevertheless, retelling it can help us, if only for awhile, transcend our differences as we recall a story of sharing, celebration, and the welcoming of strangers to our table. And given the current political climate, that strikes me as a good thing.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Virginia Polls Missed by More than National Polls Did Last Year (But Few Seem to Have Noticed)


A year ago, a lot of left-leaning voters expressed their anger at statistician Nate Silver because his FiveThirtyEight election model gave Donald Trump "only" a 30% chance of winning. They assumed that someone with only a 30% chance of winning really had no chance of winning. Such a belief, however, reflects the fact that most of us aren't trained to think probabilistically. However, as I noted back then, a 30% chance is actually pretty high ("Don't Blame Nate Silver"). One way to cultivate just how high a 30% chance is, is to have you imagine a scenario in which bullets are placed in two of a revolver's six chambers. How many of you would be willing to spin the revolver's cylinder, place the gun to your temple, and pull the trigger? My guess is not too many even though there's "only" a 33% chance that you'll put a bullet through your head.

Unlike most of us, however, Silver does think in probabilistic terms. In fact, he repeatedly cautioned readers about overconfidence, noting that Clinton's leads in the battleground states were slim and within the range of sampling error, which meant that if the polls were slightly overestimating Clinton's support, the election could break in Trump's favor. Which, of course, is exactly what happened. But many people still blamed Nate Silver.

Silver wasn't the only one who was criticized. Polling agencies were too. However, the 2016 polls weren't too far off. Their average predicted margin of a Clinton popular vote victory was a little over 3.0%, which was only 1.0% higher than her actual (popular vote) victory of 2.1%. For a presidential election, 1.0% miss is remarkably close. In fact, the 2016 polls outperformed the 2012 polls. However, few noticed (or cared) because in 2012 the polls underestimated the Democrat candidate's popular vote share, while in 2016 they overestimated it.

Interestingly, last night in Virginia's gubernatorial election the polls performed worse than the National polls did in the 2016 presidential election. They had Democrat Ralph Northam winning by approximately 3%, but in the end he won by almost 9%. However, hardly anyone has complained (or noticed), and as far as I can tell, no one has blamed Nate Silver (one of the few who has noticed).