Seven Tasty Podcasts for Cookie Baking (or Burning) Season

December already? Pass the dark humour and pagan history, please.

By Shannon Rupp 3 Dec 2015 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

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The most wasteful time of the year? 'Planet Money' explores the theory. Cookie photo via Shutterstock.

While the rest of you are busy with the little celebrations on the way to Christmas, like Krampusnacht (Dec. 5), St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) or that retro hipsters' drinking event, Saturnalia (Dec. 17), I'll revel in a long-celebrated annual rite known as Cookie Burning Sunday.

It happens in mid-December to mark the suffering of the absent-minded who are forced into holiday baking. Once you slip that first sheet of shortbread into the oven you sit down to read a book until the smoke detector shrieks. Then you run laps between the kitchen and the alarm, waving a towel to clear the smoke -- a ritual colloquially known as The Christmas Jogging. Then you sacrifice the cookies, black and inedible, into the compost as an offering to the winter gods and start again.

But Cookie Burning Sunday doesn't have to be celebrated exactly that way. In recent years, I've replaced the books with podcasts and now I hear that oven timer. While I get less exercise, I produce more baked goods.

So here let me present some festive podcasts to accompany your own baking ritual. Well, festive might be a stretch. But they are all variations on the theme of Yule.

Santaland Diaries

The first time I heard David Sedaris's Santaland Diaries was more than 20 years ago, while visiting an American friend who happened to be a radio reporter.

"You have to hear this," she said, popping a cassette into the stereo the minute I walked in the door. "This is what radio is supposed to be."

Her husband, a TV producer, shoved coffee and cookies in my hands: "Sit! This is the best radio I've ever heard."

I sat. I snacked. They weren't wrong. Sedaris's hilarious tale of his time spent as a Christmas elf working at Macy's is one of the finest pieces ever written in the personal essay genre. It manages to be both hilarious and heart-wrenching. It's also one of those rare Christmas amusements that made the leap to classic almost immediately after it debuted on NPR's Morning Edition in 1992.

It was reworked for theatre in 1996 -- the first production starred a young Timothy Olyphant who went on to TV fame as the star of Deadwood and Justified -- and there's a good chance it's playing somewhere near you this December.

But I've always preferred the long version of the story that aired on This American Life in 1996, and is permanently archived at their site. That's because no actor has ever managed to capture the exquisitely subtle blend of wit and idiocy that makes David Sedaris's writing so funny.

Thanksgiving bells

"Jingle Bells" is one of the most recorded songs in history and the duo behind the podcast Switched on Pop can tell you why. In short: it's deceptively simple, it's easy for anyone to sing, and it's royalty-free. And as musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding tell us, it's actually a clever piece of music.

But Jingle Bells didn't begin as a Christmas song. New Englander James Lord Pierpont penned it in 1857 to celebrate American Thanksgiving. At the time, Christmas was barely on the radar in much of the U.S. -- it doesn't become a national holiday until 1885 -- and Pierpont was looking to write a commercial hit. Which it was: sheet music for Jingle Bells became a big seller.

If you love the song, the podcasters have some insights into why. Or if you hate the wretched Jingle Hell as much as I do, it will give you some appreciation for this staple of kiddie concerts and malls.

Rebranding paganism

There's something about the argument that insists we have to do all sorts of obnoxious things because it's tradition that sends me to check the historical record. Which is probably why I listen to so many podcasts about the past, including the excellent British History podcast.

This chatty take on the events of yore has been running since 2011 and Jamie Jeffers does a great job of sorting out some of the hazier bits of history, while debunking much of what is seen on the History Channel.

His annual Christmas episodes will help you make sense of some of our weirder holiday habits. Like that annoying "12 Days of Christmas" song, which is based on the medieval custom of celebrating Christmas Dec. 25 to Jan. 6. Apparently the peasants got a 12-day holiday too, which puts our two-days off in perspective.

And if you want to know how the whole Christmas mania got going, he'll take you back to the 4th century when the new religion was trying to convert the old pagans by rebranding their many winter celebrations with Christian meaning.

Yo, Saturnalia!

Apparently "Yo, Saturnalia" was the ancient greeting for the wild winter solstice party that ran Dec. 17 to 24 in the Roman Empire. As Katie Lambert and Sarah Dowdy tell us on Stuff You Missed in History Class, we get a lot of our contemporary customs from Saturnalia, including giving potted plants as gifts and drinking till you puke.

They also do an episode that goes into detail about how the Puritans' tried to kill Christmas in the 17th century. They definitely sent the holiday underground after a 1645 proclamation, the Directory for the Public Worship of God. That was a law designed to eradicate pagan customs, and it included fines for businesses that closed on Christmas Day. Puritan police even went sniffing the city air for stealthy revelers who might be roasting meat.

Gifts = waste

We're often told that Christmas is crucial to our consumer economy, but a few years ago one economist threw a wrench into that theory. Joel Waldfogel has an idea that we're actually destroying wealth with our shoddy gift-giving habits. He says that the U.S. alone destroys $13 billion worth of value annually with bad prezzies.

Is it any wonder economics is known as the dismal science?

So Planet Money investigated the ideas behind his 2009 book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents. His theory goes like this: When you spend $50 on a gift, if the receiver doesn't want what you bought, they don't value the gift at $50. Maybe they would be willing to pay $25 for it. That's a $25 loss in value. Or maybe, if it's an ugly Xmas sweater and you couldn't pay the recipient to wear it, it could mean the whole $50 is wasted.

Since most of us value the gifts we get at 20 per cent less than the buyer spent on them, we're destroying wealth with every gift-giving season. Unless we know what our gift recipients really want.

His theory may not be romantic, but it makes sense. And he has some suggestions for how we can stop the madness. (Give charitable donations.) The book is still in print, but it would be wrong -- wrong! -- to pop it into the Xmas stockings of your extended family. Don't ask me how I know: trust me.

But do circulate the podcast. We may have a shot at ending novelty Christmas sweaters, socks, and other Festivus gee-gaws no one really wants.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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