When consumerism curdles, it's tempting to become an emotional Marxist about Christmas.
Not Karl. Groucho.
"Now the melancholy days have come," Groucho Marx wrote to pal and fellow comic Fred Allen on Dec. 23, 1953. "The department stores call it Christmas. Other than for children and elderly shut-ins, the thing has developed to such ridiculous proportions — well, I won't go into it. This is not an original nor novel observation, and I am sure everyone in my position has similar emotions. Some of the recipients are so ungrateful.
"For example, yesterday I gave the man who cleans my swimming pool $5. This morning I found two dead fish floating in the drink. Last year I gave the mailman $5. I heard later he took the five bucks, bought two quarts of rotgut and went on a three-week bender. I didn't get any mail from Dec. 24th to Jan. 15th. For Christmas, I bought the cook a cookbook. She promptly fried it, and we had it for dinner last night. It was the first decent meal we had in three weeks. From now on I am going to buy all my food at the bookstore."
I found Groucho's grouchy letter in Caroline Kennedy's "A Family Christmas," a selection of songs, poetry, prose, letters and a list of the questions most frequently asked of Macy's Santa.
(Q: Are you lactose intolerant?
A: No, Santa likes all kinds of milk, except buttermilk, although he will use buttermilk in cakes and pancakes.")
The book includes the solemn and sardonic, including this verse from Calvin Trillin, yearning to escape the shopping zoo and endless loop of Der Bingle crooning and "Jingle Bells" jingling:
"I'd like to spend next Christmas in Qatar. Or someplace else that Santa won't find handy. Qatar will do, although, Lord knows, it's sandy."
As a little girl, Caroline had the advantage of being able to ask the bloodhounds on the White House switchboard to get Santa on the line.
"The fact that he had the same soft Southern accent common to many White House workers of the day escaped me completely," she writes dryly.
She includes a letter her father, as president, sent to Michelle Rochon, a little girl in Michigan.
"I was glad to get your letter about trying to stop the Russians from bombing the North Pole and risking the life of Santa Claus," JFK wrote, noting that he shared her concern with Soviet atmospheric testing. "You must not worry about Santa Claus. I talked with him yesterday, and he is fine."
Caroline Kennedy writes that she continues the literary tradition of her mother. Jackie wrote Christmas poems for her mother, and Caroline and John wrote poems for Jackie.
As I read her book, it struck me that everyone must have a holiday tale they could write up and paste into the back of "A Family Christmas."
Mine would be about Trigger.
When I was little, I got one of those wooden horses that bounced on springs for Christmas. I loved him and rode him every day.
One morning, I came down to the porch and the horse was gone. My mom explained that a poor woman and her son had walked by, and the little boy had stopped and stared longingly at the horse.
My mom's world was turned upside down when she lost the father she adored at 12, so she had a soft spot for children who hurt. On a police widow's pension, she was always mailing a few dollars off to St. Jude's or to children she had read about who were hungry or needed an operation.
When she told me that she had given my horse to another child — a stranger — I was crushed. Whenever we fought for the next 16 years, I reminded her of her perfidy.
On my 21st birthday, I came home to find a bouncing horse with a handwritten sign in its mouth. "Hi. I'm back!" It was signed: "Trigger."
I brought the horse of a different era to live with me, as a rebuke about how long it took me to appreciate one of my mom's favorite sayings: "Don't cry over things that can't cry over you."
Her lesson was lovely: that materialism and narcissism can only smother life — and Christmas — if you let them.
In a piece reprinted in the Kennedy anthology, Henry van Dyke writes: "Are you willing to own, that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life; to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness to make a grave for your ugly thoughts and a garden for your kindly feelings? Then you can keep Christmas
c.2007 New York Times News Service