t the core of American civics is good behavior. At the core of all good behavior is Christmas. Gifts give goodness its identity. It’s the prancing horse at the center a century-old capitalist carousel around which paying customers gather as proof of a larger sincerity.
So why so much time spent on advising givers on how to cope with the difficulties presented by being good? Why online advice encouraging gift-givers to minimize in-house squabbles over presents and recommendations that Christmas “celebrants” check in with their therapist before arbitrarily increasing holiday dosages of anti-depressants?
Modesty disappeared from Christmas many decades ago, with bulky demonstrations of affluence taking the place of greeting card aphorisms and head-patting affection. Dickens’ stingy Scrooge presaged the trend. The Industrial Revolution transformed his penny-pinching cynicism into a what-not-to-be marketing tool, Santa included. Children, downtrodden in Dickens’ day, became the beneficiaries of nationwide magical realism.
Gift-giving evolved into a form of ingenuity and later into an economic necessary. Retailers milked sentimentality. The folklore of Christmas conjured up miracles on 34th street and elsewhere, coaxing bucks from the collective anti-Scrooge. A religious gimmick went big-time.
Now, the American Christmas (imitated in much of the Western world since the mid-20th century) is a 50-day festival that permeates culture and manufactures most of its messages by rote. All are made to feel sincere, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
But judging from stress warnings, the social expectation of giving, and giving “effectively,” makes some people nervous. They worry about getting it right. Self-esteem is tied to the right gifts. In the lurch are those who can’t arbitrarily adjust spigots of feeling. Some want in but feel left out; others are arbitrarily in but feel little. Seasonal disorders sprout wings.
Meanwhile, adults are increasingly compelled to satisfy Christmas children who are no longer Dickensian waifs and not inclined to accept good feelings in lieu of things. Once modesty dies, it can’t be resuscitated.
As a child, I cared little for Santa. I instead had a terrible crush on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl. The story spoke for a world that predated gift-giving. Freezing on a street corner, the girl won’t go home on New Year’s Eve because she’s failed to sell enough matches and fears a beating. She instead sits down in an alcove, lights her final matches, and sees beautiful visions produced by exposure. By morning she’s frozen to death.
My holiday goal was to save her. I invariably failed. Andersen’s telling was pitiless. The next morning passersby walk past her frozen body, unaware or uninterested in what’s happened.
The Grimm Brothers rejected Andersen’s hard times sensibility. In their fable, the girl was God-fearing and redeemable. Their version makes her a poor orphan whose charitable deeds yield falling stars that turn into silver coins. Suddenly she’s rich. Her faith is materially rewarded.
I never believed in stars turning into coins, let alone money falling from the sky. Instead, the image of a cold girl in an alcove too afraid to go home and using matches to daydream made melancholy sense. Her magic sadness spoke for the truth of endings, few of them happy, none ultimately preventable, but each sensationally moving in its own way. Above all her tale seemed free of the contrivance that today’s Christmas has come to depend on. It was a story about what happens in an alcove, and those alcoves remain.