Tinsel Town

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

Like Elvis and God, Santa Claus is dead. We're not speaking metaphorically here; we're talking about real and conclusive death. Santa expires every year, in fact--usually more than once--from a combination of age, overweight, and that 11-month interval spent on the couch with a bowl of spiked eggnog on his lap. Generally, Santa checks out quietly at home. But, given his long and illustrious history, it's inevitable that the Jolly Elf has also nodded off on his throne at some suburban shopping mall while a shy eight-year-old is whispering her desire for a new bicycle in his ear. The year 1998 was a particularly bad one: Casualties included the nation's longest-tenured mall Santa, the White House's official Santa through six administrations, and a retired St. Paul clothing salesman named Doc Johnson whose impersonation was so authentic that he was occasionally mobbed by children in July.

For the kiddies, the above will probably be the most alarming revelation in Merry Christmas!, a new survey of our midwinter saturnalia by University of Minnesota art-history professor Karal Ann Marling. The slightly less innocent reader, however, will likely be more impressed with Marling's comprehensive history of the holiday's trimmings, including a definitive history of wrapping paper, a reading of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as a World War II anthem, and a long-overdue critical reconsideration of the 1984 film Silent Night, Deadly Night, in which St. Nick differentiates between the naughty and the nice by dispatching the former with an ax. Marling clearly has an affinity for this sort of material: She has written previously on Elvis Presley's Graceland and Disneyland, the dual meccas of American mass culture. Santa, one might argue, completes the Holy Trinity.

On an early-December morning, with 17.6 shopping days left until Christmas, Marling herself is making the pilgrimage to Santaland, at the Dayton's department store in downtown Minneapolis. On the sidewalk the previous evening's downy snowfall is fast resolving into a frosting of gray sludge. A Salvation Army bell ringer stationed on the corner bears a striking resemblance to the Elf himself (excepting the ash-tipped cigarette that threatens to set his beard alight, and the fact that his exhortations seem suspiciously slurred for the early hour). Marling, meanwhile, is admiring the store's window dressing, glowing domestic tableaux with featureless mannequins decked out in the latest fashion.

"It's sort of sad," she muses. "The windows used to be something just for the kids. So many holidays have been overtaken by adults. Now I guess it's not safe to bring kids downtown. People used to drive slowly down the street. That's how they'd look at the windows. But you can't do that anymore, either."

The department store is, in Marling's opinion, the bright center of the holiday--the place where public festivities and the essentially private ritual of gift-giving merge--and her history of store-window decoration is particularly exhaustive. As she points out in Merry Christmas!, the opportunity to design these intricate automated spectacles attracted everyone from L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, to Salvador Dali (who, we must assume, was not commissioned to advertise for a watchmaker). "The Christmas window," she writes, "was art for people who didn't necessarily go to museums....The window was art, with all its sensory charms intact, art that was constructed of equal parts color and texture, sight and invitation to touch, wonderment and imagination, order, longing, instruction, and intense, fondly remembered pleasure." Like Disneyland, the windows became a place in which desire was fused with nostalgia for a comforting domestic past: Christmas on Main Street.

The store displays, she says while contemplating a crimson evening gown behind the glass, also represent the modern holiday's inclusiveness. (Nowhere, perhaps, is Christ more efficiently removed from Christmas.) "Christmas is a secular feast," Marling explains. "It's always been about religious pluralism. People used to say there should be menorahs and all that in the windows. I think that's terrible. Santa is for everybody. It's about generosity and goodwill toward our neighbors." Marling ambles past the Santa bell ringer and into the store.

Christmas, she continues while making her way through acres of fur coats and oak armoires, is a peculiarly American invention, which, though harking back to European antecedents, owes most of its iconography to the 19th Century. Santa Claus, for instance, was promoted from an obscure Eastern European folk saint to his current, gelatinous incarnation by two American illustrators, Thomas Nast and Haddon Sundblom (the latter of whom, an illustrator for Coca-Cola, often mixed his mythmaking imagery with product placement). Even the sacred text of Christmas, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, was, according to Marling, filched largely from the writings of Washington Irving. "It's my opinion that most British traditions came from America," she says. "In the case of Washington Irving, he was really setting out to create a tradition, because the country was so new it didn't have any at all."

The ritual decapitation of a coniferous tree, she explains as we weave past the perfume counter, is also an American tradition imbued with a European cachet by 19th-century artists. The first popular image of a family gathered around the Christmas tree was the British royal family, surreptitiously stripped of their regalia by American magazines so as to resemble average, prosperous American burghers. History, after all, can be manufactured and consumed; in the case of Christmas, Americans simply made up traditions to suit the occasion.

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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