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Review-a-Day
Esquire
Wednesday, December 5th, 2001


 

Merry Christmas! (00 Edition)

by Karal Ann Marling

In Defense of Christmas

A review by Adrienne Miller

GIST: A charming, chatty exploration of the cultural history of the objects that make Christmas "Christmas."

DETAILS: Just published in paperback, Merry Christmas! is an accessible study of the stuff itself, not an academic analysis of the iconographic significance of said stuff. What kind of humbug wouldn't love a book like this? Did you know that in 1900, people (well, women -- Christmas is mainly woman's work, the author reminds us) started wrapping presents in white tissue paper and tying them with a string, sometimes tucking a sprig of holly tucked under the string? (Which led to holly-patterned boxes, which led to holly-patterned paper, which led to our modern wrapping paper.) Or that our contemporary image of Santa Claus came from a series in Harper's magazine in the 1860s by artist Thomas Nast? (Nast was the one who set Santa in the North Pole; call our fat man the Nast Santa.) Or that the first Christmas card, called "the Cole-Horsley card" appeared in England in 1843? And guess where that fancy, filigreed, Christmas-y script on Christmas cards come from: "Historians point to 'Christmas pieces,' or curlicued handwriting samplers sent by eighteenth-century English schoolchildren to demonstrate their aptitude, as the immediate forerunners of the Christmas card."

There's not a whiff of postmodern consumerist critique anywhere in the book, a fact that actually made the grad-student part of this particular reader wish that the author would talk about theory, just a little bit at least. (Sorry.) Interestingly, Karling sort of shuts down when anybody starts criticizing things Christmas. For instance, when writing about those toy-town village collectibles, Department 56 (only someone with a heart much larger than mine wouldn't mock them): "What, in the end, do the villages mean to their owners? Is this just another baby-boomer hobby dedicated to suspending time and staving off the ravages of old age by buying back the nostalgic trappings of childhood? It may be that they find an unaccountable joy in tiny things, a reminder of the tenderness and fragility of life, and the swift passage of time -- the fundamental mystery of Christmas itself."

Indeed, Merry Christmas! can feel a little, well, defensive in its defense of Christmas ("where feelings are involved, definitive answers are hard to come by. And Christmas is about feelings"), but true love does that -- it makes people defensive. The author just loves Christmas! The title's explanation point sort of guarantees that! And yes, this warm, spirited and entertaining book, filled with too many fun factoids to cover here, really would make a good gift. (Had to say it.)

Adrienne Miller is Esquire's literary editor.


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