Robert Miller December 9 1985


Robert Miller December 9 1985



Robert Miller

Christmas is a love story, not a fairy tale. And like the traditional Canadian Christmas tree, the event is evergreen —utterly familiar, eternally enchanting. Equally enchanting are the annual celebrations in which more than a billion Christians around the world mark the birth of Jesus. The Christmas holiday season is a time of joy, warmth and light, all of which are particularly welcome in the bleak, cold and often dark landscape that is Canada in late December. And because Canada is largely a nation of people who come from somewhere else, Christmas is also a time for thoughts of home, however distant—for Christians and members of other faiths alike. To celebrate it, and themselves, scattered families reassemble if possible; otherwise they reaffirm their ties via the mail or the telephone. Somehow Christmas transcends distance, shrinks time, heals wounds, revives love. It is an annual miracle.

Magical: By any standard, Christmas has magical qualities—not only for children, with their excited visions of sugar plums and Santa Claus, but for adults. Every year the Christmas spirit manages to triumph over the problems of modern life, bringing out the best in uncounted millions of men and women. In the Christmas season, more than at any other time, people seem willing to embrace the enduring virtues of faith, hope and charity which the Apostle Paul commended to the Corinthians in his First Epistle. The 19th-century English poet Walter Landor eloquently described them as “the three sweet graces.” People reaffirm their faith by flocking to carol services and midnight services. They reaffirm their hope with prayers for peace and their children’s future. And they reaffirm their humanity with spontaneous acts of generosity—ranging from smiling at a total stranger to making a charitable donation.

The Christmas holidays, and the busy weeks leading up to them, are also a time for fun. Parties abound, friendships are renewed, goodwill pre-

dominates even in the crowded shops, and Canada Post will not deliver many of the bills until January—or perhaps later. The festive atmosphere—with its attendant gaily colored decorations, nonstop music, aggressive merchandising, determined jollity and sometimes injudicious consumption of food and drink—regularly draws criticism for being excessive. Some devout Christians deem it inappropriate to a religious celebration; others, perhaps more pompous than pious, find it an annual opportunity to make a speech and wring their hands.

But tradition is a major part of the

perennial appeal of Christmastime. And the tradition of a giant blowout coinciding with the winter solstice predates Christianity by centuries. The ancient Romans called their festival Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, the pagan god of agriculture. According to historians, Saturnalia was a Roman orgy of the first order—with a surfeit of feasting, wine and carnality—during which slaves were granted temporary freedom and invited to join the party. Saturnalia may have been pagan, but it was popular—and when Christianity began to spread through the Roman empire the new religion’s

early leaders wisely made allowances —for at least some of the practices—in order to advance their cause of making converts. The less objectionable features of Saturnalia became acceptable elements in the celebration of Christmas.

Perhaps inevitably, given the practice of exchanging gifts, Christmas has also become a major commercial festival in Canada’s consumer-oriented economy. The so-called Christmas market is responsible for almost 30 per

cent of the country’s estimated $75-billion volume of retail store sales. Every year, designers, manufacturers and merchants strive to offer the public something new to wrap and place under the tree (page 42). And every year some of them strike it rich. But even the successes tend to be fleeting—oneseason wonders in a crowded marketplace. The odds are long against any new product—especially one intended for children—becoming a perennial favorite.

Still, there are occasional breakthroughs. Makers of the Cabbage Patch Kids, a sales phenomenon in 1983, are trying to extend the doll’s appeal by offering such accessories

as playpens and high chairs. And the current best seller, Wrinkles the Puppet (on this week’s cover), is such an endearing toy that it is hard to imagine a future generation of children who would not want one. Certainly, Wrinkles has come a long way in a hurry. In June a young man was selling Wrinkles puppets from a pushcart on a pedestrian walkway just off Toronto’s fashionable Bloor Street. The pushcart was even equipped with a credit card machine. Now, Wrinkles’ makers have rushed 300,000 of the puppets onto the market, and that is not enough to meet the Christmas demand.

Critical: The Christmas market is also critical to the entertainment industry, particularly movies and publishing (pages 44 and 46). No less than 50 per cent of annual Canadian book sales are made during the Christmas season—and the schoolholiday period provides movie box offices with their busiest two weeks of the year.

Because the Christmas story itself is so compelling, Hollywood film-makers return to it regularly. But it seems unlikely that actor Dudley Moore’s new film, Santa Claus:

The Movie, will become a perennial hit. What is certain is that, once again this year, tens of thousands of Canadians will happily watch television repeats of such favorites as 1947’s Miracle on 31+th Street, as well as one or more versions of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, with the parsimonious Ebenezer Scrooge, the long-suffering Bob Cratchit and the indomitable Tiny Tim uttering his universal prayer “God bless us every one!” Indeed, when it comes to Christmas, Canadians overwhelmingly tend toward the traditional, preferring the comfort of familiarity to the uncertainties of experimentation. The turkey and the tree are but two examples.

Tradition: Toys, and the legend of Santa Claus, make the area under the tree the special preserve of children on Christmas morning.

But teenagers and adults also give and receive gifts—continuing the tradition established

by the Magi who offered gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. The Three Wise Men were kings and presumably used to giving and receiving expensive gifts. Similarly, the very wealthy now may exchange lavish presents —or, perhaps, nothing at all. But most Canadians try to shop for practical gift items—with varying success. And if a distant brother has wrapped and mailed a pair of ladies’ gloves the size of hockey gauntlets, most Canadians—aware that many stores are resigned to a crush of postholiday exchanges—have learned to smile and say, “It’s the thought that counts.” And it is. Generosity is the foundation from which the Christmas spirit rises.

Struggle: Still, in a land of plenty the joy of Christmas escapes many —including some elderly citizens on minuscule pensions, the chronically ill, the growing number of homeless people of all ages and many of the unemployed and the working poor. For them, Christmas is at best a struggle, at worst a terribly sad and bitter occasion. But they represent an opportunity for the more fortunate to demonstrate their charitable instincts—not just with a handout but by holding out a hand. Hearteningly, thousands of ordinary Canadians respond —by visiting hospitals, by calling on shut-ins or perhaps by inviting the lonely to share the family turkey.

For millions, whether comfortable or poor, one of the greatest joys of the Christmas season is the music—the carols and hymns learned in childhood and loved for life. The most popular Christmas music dates back at least a century. One notable exception: Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, which the late Bing Crosby first recorded in 1942. Since then, it has become almost as well known throughout the Englishspeaking world as Silent Night and Adeste Fidelis. And in 1985 it is easy to predict that, given “peace on Earth and goodwill toward men,” Canadians will continue to rejoice a century from now to the songs of Christmas currently wafting through every busy shopping mall in the country.