We may be two peoples separated by a common language, as Shaw once suggested, but the US propensity to find teeth-grindingly literal explanations for the world around us never ceases to cause the British mirth.
The caricature of a fearful United States where every I must be dotted, and every T must be crossed, where coffee cups warn the the user of hot liquids inside, and where blogs are tattooed with incomprehensible license terms, isn't just the stuff of myth, however. This nit-picking has become the foundation of the nation, one that pitches the established class of nit-pickers (the lawyers) against a new breed of nit-pickers (the technocrats).
But few stories illustrate this derangement are well as the bizarre - but true - story we bring you here. Bear with us.
The United States takes the separation of church and state (and body and mind) with a scary earnestness, so although it's nominally a Christian country, the Christian time of celebration is formally celebrated through a complicated euphemism. Here, it's called "the Holiday Season".
Isn't that a tautology? Hush for a moment. Being the land of untrammeled commerce, this also throws up a few anomalies.
For example, the uptown department store Macy's currently offers what the British call Christmas Trees (here they're called "Holiday Decorations") in a variety of pre-themed categories such as the South Park™-theme and the Barbi™-theme. But we digress.
In a sphincters-held-tight culture such as this, little things mean a lot, so when the giant US big box retailer Wal-Mart recently changed a greeting from "Merry Christmas!" to "Happy Holidays!" it drew complaints.
And here the troubles began.
The emails duly arrived, and a customer-facing rep took it on herself to explain the change with this ill-advised exhibition of learning.
The employee, who we know only as Kirby, launched into a fantastically earnest historical explanation of what the
Christmas Holiday Season™ really meant.
"Christmas is actually a continuation of the Siberian shaman and Visigoth traditions," Kirby replied.
"Santa is also borrowed from the [Caucasus], mistletoe from the Celts, yule log from the Goths, the time from the Visigoth and the tree from the worship of Baal. It is a wide wide world," the helpful Kirby replied, making sure every I was dotted and every T crossed.
All of which is true, but as you can imagine, these weren't exactly the soothing words the complainer wanted to hear.
The Wal-Mart punter simply wanted a reassuring pat, a promise that this sudden switch from religious to secular, didn't actually mean aliens had landed. And she got fairly firm confirmation that aliens had not only landed, but - Worship of Baal?? - actually had their scaly alien tentacles manning the tills. Yikes!
What's a god-fearing literalist to do, except call out the fire brigade?
In this instance, it arrived in the form of Catholic League demagogue Bill Donohue. A boycott was duly summoned, Wal-Mart relented, and heads rolled. Kirby is no longer an Wal-Mart employee, we learn, which is a shame, as in her own painfully literal (and right-on) way, she was only trying to be helpful.
In a flash, the two worlds just shot past each other.
Integrating cultures is always messy, but it's far from impossible, as the successes have proved. France's most notoriously "Arab" city, the port of Marseilles, escaped the recent riots unscathed and in Manchester, England the fireworks that mark Eid, the end of Ramadan, are celebrated by everyone. As is Christmas. The idea of a party seems to be universally understood - and when it is, recourse to weird schematas or diagrams simply doesn't occur to anyone as an option, thankfully.
We just need to loosen a few sphincters, but the USA is a tense place these days. ®