Ah, Christmas time, that fecund moment most welcome in the bleak of bitter winter!
Ah, Advent days, so rich, so ripe, so opulent in golden light, while like a pall of poverty the hoary frost and thin-crust snow lie hard upon the cold-pressed earth!
Ah, Yuletide, when for the briefest instant in the rush of loud and cruel commerce¯alas, so brief!¯all the earth may pause and speak again of gentle things in gentle accents, until at last the sentimental glop of the oopy-goopy pseudo-Dickensian Victorian goo finally sickens even the paper on which we try to write it and our abused pencils explode in a shower of angry sparks, red and green, to match the season. "Jeeves was in the other room hanging holly," as P.G. Wodehouse once had Bertie Wooster put it, "for Christmas would soon be at our throats."
But no. No. Just because something is sentimentalized does not mean that it is untrue¯or even that we are wrong to layer it over with sentiment. The distaste for sentimentality begins as a rebellion against false feeling, but it finishes as a rebellion against all feeling. It starts as a plain-speaking person’s refusal to be deceived by a coat of paint, and it ends as a rude person’s refusal to use paint at all. It opens as a wise man’s ability to point out the fool’s gold, and it concludes as a fool’s inability to point out the real gold.
For on this point, we dare not be mistaken: Christmas is the real gold, and all the sentimentality with which we gild a thing already golden, all the evergreens with which we decorate a thing already evergreen, all the holly boughs with which we mark a thing already holy¯all these are not some vain attempt to mask the truth. They are, rather, the tribute that sentiment will always try to pay to true things, on the same principle by which a wife chooses the prettiest wrapping paper for her husband’s most expensive gift on Christmas morning. What need had the King of Kings¯what need had a newborn child in a cattle shed¯for the awful oblation of frankincense and myrrh laid before him by the Wise Men? And yet those men were wise, as we are wisest only in our greatest foolishness.
Something in the Christmas season rightly tempts us to such sentimental gilding, just as something in the Christmas season tempts us¯awk!¯to the chaotic chiasmus of this kind of fake-Chestertonian prose, every sentence an aphorism eased along by alliteration’s artful aid, until the words clot up in a giant Christmas pudding that subsides with a half-baked sigh as it cools upon the table. "I’m sick of Chesterton," F. Scott Fitzgerald has Amory Blaine complain in This Side of Paradise . From January to November, the style of G.K. Chesterton may go down easy. But around Christmas, while the streets jingle with Salvation Army bells and the elevators jangle with Muzaked carols, it’s just too much. Just too much.
And yet . . . well, and yet, how are we to help ourselves? Every one of those jingling bells and jangling carols awakens some remembrance half gone, half recalled, haunting in the middle distance of the mind that had thought itself too mature to be moved again by merely memory. The snows of my childhood winters drift against the house, one year’s memories piled on another’s, until it seems my family must have lived beneath a dome of ice, an igloo of those years arched above us, and Christmas the seal-oil lamp by whose light we children, proper little Eskimos as we always wanted to be, were awakened in the morning by our mother¯who promptly fed us on polar-bear porridge, wrapped us in pale fox furs, and sent us out to hunt the arctic wastes, searching for seals, narwhale tusks, and lost British explorers in need of directions to the magnetic pole. Turn left at the Wilson’s house on the corner, we planned to tell them, then straight on past Canada.
Penguins somehow dwelt among us, too, squawking loudly that they had no business this far north, in that world of imagination now melted, with all its abominable snowmen and angels cast by lying on our backs and waving our arms in the snow, in the hot glare of the passing years. But the penguins did belong there, as all bright, alive, exotic things belonged, for this was Christmas, and Christmas itself was bright, alive, and exotic in the cold: burning like a flame in those days now down beneath the cold snow of memory. And there were aunts and uncles and carols and candies and the hushed, sleepy mystery as we walked back from midnight Mass that made my sister say, "It really is real, isn’t it?"
And I said yes, for it was, and really, it still is, even though this kind of would-be Dylan Thomasy writing¯all run-on sentences and modifiers misplacedly modifying¯makes me want to take up Ernest Hemingway in self-defense. Short sentences. Short sentences. Around Easter, I can read Thomas’ "A Child’s Christmas in Wales." At Christmas, the thought of that prose is enough to make Scrooge return to his original scrooging. This time with a vengeance.
So what’s left? There isn’t a style or a diction I can find to use while writing about Christmas. It all seems so hackneyed, so over-used, so trite. Of course, that never seemed to bother Christmas music, so why should it bother Christmas prose? This year I’m reading to my eight-year-old daughter Charles Dickens, and Dylan Thomas, and the story of that first Christmas in the Bible. And somehow, as she listens, it all seems perfect.