Tinsel Town

Merry materialist Karal Ann Marling unwraps a century of loot and lore

For all its public dimensions, though, Marling reads the holiday as a primarily domestic bacchanal, in which household gods reign supreme. As we ride the escalator to Santa's lair, she recalls one such tradition from her own childhood in upstate New York: "We had an uncle named Louie who was Methuselah-aged. We also had these desperately abused ornaments that looked like two shriveled little plums. We used to call them Uncle Louie's Balls. It was a big honor if you got to hang them on the tree."

On the eighth floor, visitors are channeled through an animatronic exhibit devoted to the Harry Potter series before being granted an audience with Santa. In Merry Christmas!, Marling meditates at length on a similar, highly interactive 1964 Dayton's display based on the work of Dickens, and though she's not as familiar with the current subject matter, the similarities are striking. The scale, she points out, is typical of holiday ephemera like train sets and "holiday villages," which foster feelings of comfort and control by reducing the adult world to a child's perspective of such (Disneyland's appeal is based on a similar principle). The softly lighted scenes are also scattered with food and mythological references: all connections to childhood delights. Marling approves of a three-headed dog named Fluffy, but decides that an adjacent giant is "too big and scary." "There's a cultural element to all this," she muses as preadolescent tykes swarm like a rugby scrum and trade Ph.D.-level knowledge of the Harry Potter oeuvre.

"This little fellow likes the characters because they're just about his size." Marling nods at a blond-haired cherub who is transfixed by the wobbling of an animated magician. "Even if he doesn't know what the hell he's looking at."

Exiting Harry Potter-land, Marling says, "If things are as they should be, there'll be a gift shop around the corner." The cosmos appears to be aligned correctly; we run into a movable feast of merchandising, including everything from Harry Potter computer software to Harry Potter crockery (everything, in fact, except Harry Potter Valium, which is what parents will need when they check the price tags). Marling picks over the flotsam. "The interesting thing is going to be in 15 or 20 years when these are discovered in somebody's attic."

Marling mentions a plastic pirate ship she received as a girl, still a treasured possession. "It's interesting how stuff gets connected with emotions. We feel strongly about our car, our clothes. Material things get infused with nostalgia. There's a tendency to denigrate that. I think sometimes that America is way too present-minded. But there's value in remembering where you came from."

A holiday tune wafting over the store's PA system sets her off on a reverie over a recent Christmas spent in Japan. "They would have mangers with Mary and Rudolph. There would be people singing in phonetic English on the street corners, going from 'The First Noel' to 'Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.' They don't really understand any of it; but they love to give and get presents."

Every so often, of course, some killjoy Dear Abby type will still tell you that there's more to Christmas than material trappings. In Marling's consideration, these people are not to be trusted. Indeed, she makes a compelling case that not only has Christmas always been about stuff, but that stuff has always been the better part of the holiday. "If the items in the glossy holiday catalogs are viewed as so many examples of consumerism run amok," she writes, "then Christmas is a pig's feast of capitalist greed. To look seriously at Christmas is to embrace the possibility that quotidian realities, like pleasure and purchase, might be defensible aspects of the human condition."

I wonder idly what Thorstein Veblen, another keen critic of American mass culture, might make of this. "Veblen was a tough-minded old Swede," Marling says. "I don't think his mother ever kissed him."

After all, she explains as we make our way back through the fragrant aisles of capitalism's cathedral, Christmas is more than the annual Mammon vs. Christ grudge match. The trimmings are so tangled up in our memories that the dream of a perfect Christmas inevitably becomes a reverie for things past. In that spirit, Marling adds to her critical history a Proustian paean to her own childhood idylls. "Miracles are made of warm air on a chilly night," she writes, "trees that tinkle, cards that glitter, boxes that rattle, mysterious lumps under the bed, dancing mechanical bears in a store window."

Then, lest we forget that sentiment and salesmanship always go hand in hand this time of year, Marling reveals that she too is dreaming of a green Christmas: "Incidentally, this book would make a great Christmas present for your mom!"

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