Fake Gender Equality In The Christmas Chronicles

The Christmas Chronicles

The Christmas Chronicles is this year’s tentpole festive family movie from Netflix. Directed by Clay Kaytis, the script is written by another two men, David Guggenheim and Matt Lieberman.

The nice thing about The Christmas Chronicles is that a few of the old gender tropes have been inverted. Instead of an adventurous younger brother juxtaposed against a surly teenaged older sister, we have an adventurous younger sister juxtaposed against a surly teenaged brother. Instead of killing off the mother, they’ve killed off the father to allow the kids to go out on their own Christmas Eve jaunt completely unsupervised.

But as I have said before, inversion doesn’t equal subversion.



Writers cannot simply flip a few gender tropes and hope for pats on the back. Writers need to read the damn room. They need to actually listen to women when women say — as women have been saying this entire year, and last year, and all the years before that — that women know our own minds. We don’t need men to know our minds for us.

In The Christmas Chronicles, our adventurous heroine causes Santa to crash his sleigh. On the ground, nobody but the kids believe he’s ‘the real santa’, but Santa manages to pull adults up short by knowing everyone’s names, and also the content of their deepest desires, stretching back to when they were kids. (In storytelling terms, he knows their conscious desires — a certain toy of the year — as well as their underlying desires — their wish to make their families happy etc.) Basically, Santa is a red and white version of an omniscient god. (I’m going to leave the inherent creepiness of that aside.)

In this particular version of a ‘true believers will be richly rewarded’ story, Santa ends up in prison, which allows for a good fish-out-of water comic set-up. Jail is the last place for Santa, right? Santa breaks into people’s homes to GIVE stuff, not to take it away. The writers have made the most of the comic irony here.

The jail sequence begins with a scene completely lacking in 2018 informed sensibility.

The following conversation takes place between the newly imprisoned Santa and a police officer who thinks he’s being pranked. The only way Santa can prove he’s the ‘real’ Santa is by playing the role of a TV psychic. Santa tells the officer things deeply personal things about himself.

Transcript

POLICE OFFICER: You know what I want for Christmas?
SANTA: It’s my job, Dave.
POLICE OFFICER: Okay, then, smart guy. What do I want?
SANTA: Lisa.
POLICE OFFICER: Lisa?
SANTA: Your ex-wife.
POLICE OFFICER: I know who Lisa is. How did you…
SANTA: She left you a couple years ago, and all you want for Christmas is for her to come back.
POLICE OFFICER: Yeah, well, that ain’t ever gonna happen.
SANTA: Yeah, I think maybe. [facial expression suggests the officer is wrong]POLICE OFFICER: Okay, look, pal. You don’t walk in here and talk about my ex-wife.
SANTA: Dave, just… just give her a call.
POLICE OFFICER: She doesn’t wanna talk to me.
SANTA: Yes! Yes, she does! Now, she’s… she’s having second thoughts and… she’s lonely, too. And she really misses you!
POLICE OFFICER: Now I know you’re out of your tree. Will you please stop this?
SANTA: You know who I am! I mean, you’ve always been a suspicious, doubtful type. That’s probably why you’re a good cop. But deep down, you know that I know what everybody wants for Christmas. So, just give her a call, Dave!
POLICE OFFICER: I don’t know how you know all this stuff.

Within the world of this story, Santa knows what the unseen ex-wife really wants because he knows what everyone really wants. The ex-wife wants the man she previously left to just call her.

If stories existed in a completely separate bubble from the real world, this might work fine.

But within the world of the actual real world, when women leave their partners, it’s generally for a damn good reason, and if they give their ex-partners the impression they want no further contact, they damn well mean that. Women don’t need men sitting together in rooms, trying to persuade each other that women don’t really mean exactly what women say.

The notion that women don’t mean ‘no’ when we say ‘no’ is dangerously pervasive, for women. For women, this sometimes means murder. It very frequently means physical or emotional abuse.

When script writers create scenes like this in a movie for children, they are perpetuating the idea that women don’t know our own minds — that men know better. Worse, men *magically* know better. Or they should magically know better. Silly old emotionally deaf police officer, failing to pick up the real situation. Santa is persuading the police officer that he’s got the situation completely arse about. (Because men are emotional dolts when it comes to women — another tired, self-perpetuating trope.)

If a man wants the love of a particular woman, all he needs to do is ‘persevere’, said every stalker ever. Where on earth do they learn this?

Since this character is a police officer, the scene feels even worse, if that’s possible. In family films, police officers are portrayed as the good guys, except when they blatantly are not. The police officer in The Christmas Chronicles is an unambiguous good guy. Like the child viewer, he craved certain toys. (It is implied he didn’t get them — poor him.) Now he’s an adult, all he wants is love. Poor him. It can’t be just any love, though. It must be the love of the woman who left him for reasons known only to herself. Another concerning trope: The myth of the one true love.

Domestic abuse among police officers is even higher than in the general population. This has been known for some time.

Research suggests that family violence is two to four times higher in the law-enforcement community than in the general population. So where’s the public outrage?

The Atlantic, 2014

Once again, an audience is encouraged to take a man’s sexual desire seriously without considering the woman’s side. What a man wants — the love (and possibly the control) of a woman — is prioritised above what a woman wants — to not have that with this particular man.

Since it obviously needs saying, people cannot read minds. Women can’t read minds, either — though women are acculturated into listening to cues, prioritising male desire over our own and picking up on body language, then acting accordingly. Too often, men fail to do the same for women.

Have we not had enough of that this year? Have we not?

Also relevant, family violence spikes at Christmas. The violence is heavily gendered. It’s mostly men trying to control women, thinking they know better than women, thinking their own right to exist in the world takes preference over a woman’s autonomy.

That’s why a scene in which two men discuss the desire of an unseen woman is so hugely problematic.

In case you think, “It’s only a story”, consider this: precisely because it’s only a story, the writers could have given the police officer in The Christmas Chronicles LITERALLY any other desire. It did not have to involve the love of a woman who left the officer for unexplored reasons.

If the writers were really reading the room, the police officer would have been a woman.

My wish for 2019: Keep men away from movies for kids. Hand over the reins.

For audiences: Don’t mistake a sparky, adventurous female lead for genuine feminism in film. The Christmas Chronicles is not it.

#NotAllMen

Matchless by Gregory Maguire

Matchless Gregory McGuire book

Matchless is a fractured fairytale by Gregory Maguire based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. Matchless makes for an interesting case study in storytelling.

First, the brief would have been to create a story for ‘all ages’ — for regular NPR listeners to enjoy with their kids. This ain’t easy. How is it done?

Second, Gregory McGuire has invented his own type of fairytale logic. What can a storyteller get away with?

Third, Matchless is a perfect example of techniques such as empathy for a main character, ‘the overview effect’ and linking an animal symbolically to a character.

Everyone can read along with this one because the entire text is available online. NPR release one every year. This ‘re-illumination’* of The Little Match Girl was also turned into a book. It’s binding suggests it will be mostly purchased as gifts. I was given a copy, and it may interest you to know, I was given this book because my friend, a huge McGuire fan, couldn’t stand this one. Too damn depressing, she said. The world’s biggest Wicked fan said that.

*Re-ilumination is McGuire’s word. (I can see why one might reject ‘fractured‘. Often, these new fairytales are fixing something about the story that now seems broken.)

For the printed book, McGuire sketched his own illustrations. This is an illustrated short story rather than a picture book. The graphic design of the book allows for a lot of blank space (green, rather than white). There are few words on each page of text — sometimes a single sentence. The book is smaller than average size, to reflect the miniature world I mention below, and also, probably, so it can be crammed into a stocking.

STORYWORLD OF MATCHLESS

The Pedersens lived in a couple of rooms tacked onto a herring smoke house on an island in the harbor. From their threshold Frederik looked across the water to the prosperous city on the mainland. The town was bedecked with necklaces of evergreen. Setting out across the low stone causeway that joined island to mainland, Frederik caught a whiff of a goose roasting for a holiday luncheon.

Matchless: A Christmas Story

Especially in stories about death, writers love islands. There are many examples; just yesterday I wrote about I Kill Giants, so I won’t go into the death/island connection again with Matchless.

Because this is a fishing village, birds are hovering around — seagulls, scavenging. Frederik has a special connection with these scavengers — he himself is a bit of a collector, scavenging the wooden spools when thread’s used up and eventually, the ultimate scavenge: the fateful slipper. Birds are also associated with death in stories — in films, a cut to birds flying away is very often symbolic of death. Some birds are so closely associated with death that there can be no other reading — I’m thinking of ravens. Seagulls are known for their scavenging, though. Frederik = a seagull, for narrative purposes. But why? Because seagulls also live by scavenging on the fringe of society, including on dead things sometimes. While seagulls are generally considered annoying — most of us encounter them only when we’re trying to enjoy a picnic — Frederik, too, is linked to death in this story. The link isn’t strong, but it’s there for those who look, adding an extra dimension. This is the kind of depth which makes this a story with a dual audience. (Children and adults alike.)

McGuire changed New Year to Christmas, but this may simply be because he was contracted to write a Christmas story. He could just as easily have kept it New Year.

The most interesting thing about this setting is the mise en abyme effect, and use of the miniature in storytelling. (See below.)

STORY STRUCTURE OF MATCHLESS

Matchless is a short story of 2,792 words, written in third person which varies — close third person for Frederik, deep third person for the match girl, deep again for section four, which ties the story — and all the characters — up.

When setting out to rewrite a well-known tale, a common tactic is to take a minor character and re-spin the tale from that character’s point-of-view. There is a very minor character in Andersen’s original — the boy who steals the match girl’s shoes.

Most terribly cold it was; it snowed, and was nearly quite dark, and evening— the last evening of the year. In this cold and darkness there went along the street a poor little girl, bareheaded, and with naked feet. When she left home she had slippers on, it is true; but what was the good of that? They were very large slippers, which her mother had hitherto worn; so large were they; and the poor little thing lost them as she scuffled away across the street, because of two carriages that rolled by dreadfully fast.

One slipper was nowhere to be found; the other had been laid hold of by an urchin, and off he ran with it; he thought it would do capitally for a cradle when he some day or other should have children himself.

the opening of Andersen’s The Little Match Girl

The urchin is so minor that the reader of Matchless may not even realise the connection. Andersen writes as if the urchin might have run off with the slipper despite knowing it belonged to the Match Girl, but in Matchless McGuire has decided to make him unambiguously sympathetic — the boy finds the shoe but he has no idea who it belongs to. The urchin is also more sympathetic now that he has been named: Frederik. Although Andersen’s boy is a minor character, the detail he did provide is an unusually detailed one, and therefore intriguing if you stop to think on it. We get the sense of a paternal sort of boy, already thinking of a time when he’d be a father. This character provides the perfect opportunity for an author to break down gender stereotypes, by depicting a boy who has a caring nature most often associated with mothers.

In Matchless, the match girl’s grandmother is now changed to mother — Andersen makes it clear that the mother is deceased in the opening paragraph (‘which her mother had hitherto worn’ — in an era when peasants wore footwear until they wore out). This is a good choice for a modern audience, who may not necessarily know their grandparents as well as they know their parents — and makes me wonder why Andersen chose grandmother and not mother. Perhaps in the peasant class, grandmothers may well have been closer to the children than the parents, who were forced to work long hours in the pre-labour law era.

SHORTCOMING IN MATCHLESS

Frederik

The story opens with Frederik and so Frederik becomes our sympathetic hero as well as viewpoint character. He has been written sympathetically in every respect — McGuire gives him a Save The Cat moment when he makes tea for his poor old mother, hoping to warm her up. We’re also naturally sympathetic towards poor people who don’t have money for basics like matches to keep warm. We also quite like ordinary kids. We can relate to them. When McGuire tells us that ‘his fingers were the only clever part of him,’ he’s not only foreshadowing the slightly silly things he’ll do later in the story, but is also creating empathy. Northrop Frye created a hierarchy of ‘relatability’ in characterisation. Frederik falls into the low mimetic category: a human who is just regular. Just to make sure we’re fully on Frederik’s side, McGuire goes that extra mile and has the mother complain about the tea he’s made her. A favour given, returned with a complaint. Frederik is stoic — he offers to boy some more, WITH HIS OWN HARD-EARNED MONEY.

There’s no better way to engender sympathy for a main character. When Tony Soprano takes a stereo system to his old mother in the pilot episode of The Sopranos, the writers make sure we side with Tony. When Skyler complains that Walt has used the wrong bank account to buy stationery supplies, the Breaking Bad writers are doing the same thing. McGuire knew that the reader was coming to this with heavy empathy for the Little Match Girl herself, so he uses every trick in the empathy book to get us to like Frederik.

(Have you noticed the gender of the ungrateful character in each case above? Male main character does something nice for woman; woman complains when he gets it wrong. Audience falls in love with put-upon man. It’s almost like there’s a pattern.)

As is often the case with children in fairytales — and in stories reminiscent of fairytales — Frederik’s biggest shortcoming is his youth, which makes him especially precarious as a member of the peasant class.

Although writers are generally advised to give characters a moral shortcoming as well as a psychological one, this doesn’t always apply to fairytale child heroes, but this boy takes something which may have contributed to a little girl’s death. Though this is a pure accident rather than an act of immorality, it does what any genuine moral shortcoming does to a story — adds an interesting layer. The morality of a character encourages us to ask deeper questions: We don’t have to act out of malice for our actions to affect another person badly. Might something minor we have done have contributed to someone else’s downfall, and we’d never even know it?

The Little Match Girl

I wonder what McGuire’s reasons were for naming the urchin but refusing to name the match girl. Readers with a solid grasp on history will understand the history of erasing women completely from the books, which makes this is an irritating political decision. Naming a character is a heavily symbolic act — the name alone affords humanity.

I can only guess at why McGuire made this decision when writing Matchless, preferencing narrative reasons over political ones; when writers don’t name a character, that character can stand in as proxy for many characters just like them. There would have been many match girls around (if not selling matches then selling baskets, or candles). I’m not sure this argument holds water.

In Matchless McGuire has retained the sense of melodramatic poverty from Andersen’s original, with the descriptions of the abject poverty, exclamations of “Oh!”, ‘wandering this way and that’. If we empathise with Frederik, ’empathy’ is not quite the word for the emotion evoked by the utter misfortune of The Little Match Girl. This character remains one step removed from full empathy — her story is just too terrible. When we read a story about a boy sort of like us who is under-appreciated and underestimated, it’s easier than empathising with Syrian refugees on the six o’clock news, whose misfortune is so heavy as to be unimaginable. The Little Match Girl occupies that space in our minds.

That said, she’s plenty affecting. The Little Match Girl was the most disturbing picture book I owned as a kid. It was the only story I ever heard which ended in a child’s death. I hadn’t realised children could die. (I didn’t see Bambi or Old Yeller or Where The Red Fern Grows — those movies didn’t make it to New Zealand’s TV channels, and if they did I missed them. There was no way of seeing them otherwise.)

Clearly, then, Matchless is Frederik’s story. The Little Match Girl’s section doesn’t let us into her head — not really. It’s not just that McGuire decided not to name her; he decided to hew The Little Match Girl’s narrative to Andersen’s original, which is not about a girl — it’s about poverty. In a story of this length McGuire didn’t have the room to flesh both children out equally. He could either flesh out the girl, or the boy.

There exists a gender imbalance in stories, and a disproportionately large number of stories in which a female character dies to inspire a male character’s arc. However, since McGuire gave us Wicked and has proved himself plenty capable of writing female characters, I will emphasise that this is a general problem with the corpus of literature, not with any individual author, necessarily. Also, you could claim Matchless in its own right is a feminist story: None of the characters are limited by their gender. The boy plays with dolls. That’s the very definition of a feminist story.

DESIRE IN MATCHLESS

For someone in the peasant class, keeping alive is the overriding desire. Homeless people will tell you that just performing the basics of keeping alive takes up the entire day. But have you noticed this desire alone doesn’t make for a complete story? No matter how destitute someone is, writers generally give even the poorest main characters a short term desire. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Without a desire either fulfilled or unfulfilled, the story can have no end. (Well, you can leave off where you like, but to your audience it won’t feel finished.)
  2. A desire which is more specific than food/water/shelter individualises a character.
  3. Readers like to see characters rise bravely above their poverty and hope for something more. I’m not sure what this says about us as a culture. Optimistically, I’d say we like to see poor people as human, and perhaps this allows us to see ourselves as poor. Pessimistically, I’d say we find it supremely uncomfortable to imagine what it’s really like to be poor. We don’t want to go there; we don’t want to imagine ourselves as poor. I try doing the thought experiment where I have absolutely nothing. I find myself thinking, “But I have an education and I could probably go back to a salaried job.” I have to force myself to imagine if I didn’t have the benefit of an education. “But I’m healthy. I could clean people’s houses.” But what if you weren’t healthy? The thought experiment where you spiral right down is not easy to do.

Frederik wants to keep his family warm; he wants to eat (fish), but McGuire has given him this side hobby — an endearing one — in which he collects discarded items to create his own miniature world.

Now this is interesting for a different reason, and relates to the overall setting: The reader is reading a book in the real world about a sub- fairy-tale world which includes an even smaller imaginary world… This is a mise en abyme effect — the kind you get in a dressing room, with mirrors on three sides. This world goes on forever — at least, the illusion goes on forever. McGuire will use this mise en abyme effect later to tie up the story. When he talks about the stars, we are encouraged to regard the entire world as just a small sub-world within something much larger. Astronauts who view Earth from space all describe the psychological effect of seeing the entire world in one view:

The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface.[1][2][3][4][5][6]

It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.

The Overview Effect, Wikipedia

McGuire demonstrates in Matchless how authors can attempt a cognitive shift in their audience by making use of the miniature technique.

There’s a universal ideology running throughout narrative, and throughout our culture — that an abundance of imagination trumps abundance of toys. We are universally charmed by characters living in difficult circumstances who make the most of their situation by delving into their minds. McGuire spends a paragraph describing Frederik’s miniature world:

On the planks of the attic floor waited Frederik’s secret: a town hunched on an island, a heap of netting that had washed into his path once when north winds drove the waves clear across the causeway. The houses were made of empty boxes that he’d lifted from merchants’ rubbish bins. Frederik cut out windows and folded the cardboard: perfect hinged shutters. He built eaves out of slates that the wind had liberated from real roofs. He planted trees by poking sprigs of balsam into dollops of boat caulking. Best was the customs house: A gold-papered chocolate gift box sporting a porcelain dome — an upturned bowl of chipped blue china.

We admire Frederik for this even though he seems to subscribe uncritically to the dominant culture’s established hierarchies: In his attic ‘he was not fish-thief, but governor’.

This is basically a quest story — Frederik wants a particular item — he wants a boat for his toy people. (The slipper.) Of course, this slipper represents so much more to Frederik; if his little people aren’t lonely, he won’t be lonely either, up there in his poverty-stricken attic that smells of rotten fish.

OPPONENT IN MATCHLESS

Some stories are clearly hero versus baddie. Other stories contain a more balanced web of opposition, in which characters each have their own competing goals (desires). No one acts immorally; fate takes its course. Matchless falls into the latter. Our hero, Frederik, is also the key opponent in the little match girl’s downfall.

Who opposes Frederik? His mother is a cold, unhelpful character who serves as token opposition even though she’s probably doing the best she can for him. The mother’s opposition is clearly shown — she’s a member of the working class, at the beck and call of royalty. It’s interesting that McGuire has humanised the Queen. We don’t normally learn of personal details such as a tendency to step on one’s hems. Royalty in story is often presented as next to god. And the Queen herself is not deliberately evil — she offers Frederik and his sisters food in an act of charity which is nonetheless completely underwhelming. (If she really wanted to help she’d pay his mother more.)

This is an interesting dynamic in its own right: We make token gestures to make ourselves feel better. We take our reusable bags to the supermarket and feel good about saving the environment. We donate ten dollars to the SPCA and imagine we’ve saved a puppy. A child audience won’t necessarily read all that into the scene with the queen, but it is this kind of detail which appeals to a dual audience.

PLAN IN MATCHLESS

Frederik’s plan is to keep his eye out for something that will do for a boat for his dolls. But he realises somehow that the slipper has been lost. Unable to read, he asks his mother to read the tag.

This is what I mean by weird fairytale logic. It makes sense that she would keep her key in her slipper I guess. However, didn’t women’s clothes from the 1800s contain pockets in the apron? But why The Little Match Girl’s key have an address on it? I suppose this works to our modern minds; the address is written on the key in case it gets lost, which it has. People used to do that a lot more often, I think. (Now I’d avoid it — it’s kind of like writing your passcode on your phone, right?)

This is what Alfred Hitchcock called a ‘refrigerator moment’, because I honestly did not think of this at the time of reading this story. I was perfectly happy with this and glossed past it. It’s only coming back that I notice all this and wonder about it. In short, the label on the key did its job. It’s my own problem that I came back later for more musings. Did it work for you?

In any case, now Frederik plans to return the key and the slipper to its rightful owner. But when he arrives he finds the girl frozen solid and the family quietly grieving, intercepted by a neighbour. This scene reminds me very much of Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party.

Frederik’s mother puts the sick baby to her breast. So, I can get past the address on the key thing, but this bit of invented fairytale logic is more egregious because it gets biology wrong. And there is a long, long history of getting female bodies wrong which continues to this day. Women aren’t physically capable of suckling a baby just like that. It requires prolactin. The only possible way the mother could be feeding that hungry baby is if she were employed as a wetnurse, but she’s employed as a seamstress. Perhaps she just meant to comfort the baby, despite the absence of milk. However, comfort alone wouldn’t save them. In early modern times people thought differently about ‘nature’ — what is natural, what is unnatural. It was considered natural for women to have children and breastfeed, but it didn’t have to be their own babies. Our sensibilities have changed around that, though the newish industry of sold breast milk is changing that culture again.

BIG STRUGGLE IN MATCHLESS

The big struggle scene of The Little Match Girl: When Frederik sees a lost slipper, he is so excited he pounces on it, and doesn’t hear the girl telling him to give it back.

Frederick’s Battle: Finding his way home in bad weather, which we already know can kill.

ANAGNORISIS IN MATCHLESS

He is guided home by stars twinkling at him which, to the superstitiously inclined, must be meant for him and him alone. McGuire guides us carefully towards this interpretation. This is a Christmas story after all, so Christian ideas about life after death and Heaven, and loved ones looking down on us, guiding us, is part of the ideology.

NEW SITUATION IN MATCHLESS

When Frederik invites his two step-sisters into the attic to play with his toys we know he has accepted them as family, with help from the dead girl, who would also be family if she hadn’t died of hypothermia. Symbolically, in the attic, they are closer to Heaven and closer to the dead sister. The attic has been transformed from a forgotten, unpleasant space for paupers to a special place closer to paradise.

For more on attics, see Symbolism of the Dream House.

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs

Father Christmas Raymond Briggs

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story.  Earlier in the month I looked at a wordless picture book, The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at Father Christmas, a seasonal picture book by the same author-illustrator. It’s not Christmas here, but it’s never wintry at Christmas Down Under. I prefer to read wintry books in our actual winter. This is just as much a winter tale as it is a Christmas one. Father Christmas is also a very British tale. You’ll soon see why.

At first glance, this picture book also seems to break the main rules of storytelling. It works because it is short. Father Christmas is partly making use of a comedic structure rather than classic dramatic structure.

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs 1978

STORY STRUCTURE OF FATHER CHRISTMAS

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

Father Christmas.

What’s wrong with him?

Sometimes the foreign translations of a picture book give you extra clues about the story. The Japanese title means ‘Father Christmas The Cold-blooded Creature’ (or ‘Person who feels the cold easily’). The Japanese publishers put the thing that’s wrong with him right there in the title. More specifically, this is his shortcoming. He doesn’t like the cold. But I’d say his shortcoming is a little different.This is not your usual Jolly Santa, the guy most kids are exposed to — the man who lives to give. This Father Christmas’s shortcoming is that he’s grumpy by nature.  Or is it really a shortcoming? Is he really that grumpy?

This is a comment on a specific cultural milieu — this old man is proficient in the art of grumbling. He is cranky as a matter of habit, not because he has all that much to complain about. This is grumbling almost as a mantra to self, a reminded that although things may be terrible now, they may get better later. Father Christmas is grumbling to no one in particular, but he is drawing us in with his grumbling. We are invited to grumble along with him as a form of phatic communion. At the end of the story he has broken the fourth wall by directly addressing the reader, so we know we were supposed to hear him grumbling. He was inviting us to feel the cold with him, creating the weather as the mutual enemy to bring two characters (him and us) closer together.

This feels very British to me.

WHAT DOES FATHER CHRISTMAS WANT?

Father Christmas wakes up dreaming of a summer beach so we know right away that he wants to be on holiday somewhere. Sure enough, in another book in the series, Raymond Briggs takes him off on holiday. I haven’t read that one, though I’ve no doubt he grumbles about everything while on holiday, too.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs 1978

His opponent is the cold weather. Father Christmas expends a lot of energy just keeping warm — tending to the fire, looking after the animals (who can’t be out in the elements), filling his belly with hot cups of tea.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

goodbye cat goodbye dog

We already know what Father Christmas does at Christmas time because this is a well-known cultural narrative. He delivers presents to children all around the world. We watch him do this, but Raymond Briggs’ new spin on it: Father Christmas considers this work, just like anyone else doing shift work on a freezing cold night would feel like they are doing work.

BIG STRUGGLE

As you can see already, this is another mythic structure, in which the main character goes on a journey. This is not your classic mythic structure, however. Father Christmas is a modified version of that — known as a home-away-home story. A character leaves home, has an adventure, then returns home again. This home-away-home story usually takes place over a single day, and the child (or childlike) character usually goes to sleep at the end.

In general, a series of minor big struggles end in a big one. But sometimes, when there’s no fight or argument or near-death experience, the story includes something that stands-in for a big struggle.

In Diary of a Wombat, Jackie French used the ‘accumulation’ technique, where several objects pile up/come together.

Raymond Briggs uses a variation on that. After visiting a number of ordinary houses to deliver presents, including a caravan which he has trouble getting into, Father Christmas visits the Palace of Westminster, presumably to deliver presents to the most important children in the land. We have an accumulation effect going on, but it isn’t a piling up of objects. Instead, it goes from ‘ordinary to extraordinary’, or ‘ordinary to grand’. This stands in for the big struggle scene, which exists to let us know the journey is coming to an end.

WHAT DOES FATHER CHRISTMAS LEARN?

Nothing. Because this story is comedic, not dramatic. Father Christmas is the ultimate recurring character. He appears year after year and never changes. Therefore it makes sense if he doesn’t change. It also makes sense if he’s a bit grumpy about that. Which is the gag.

However, the story still works as a complete story. Why?

In lieu of a character arc, in which Father Christmas learns something, we see Father Christmas on an emotional arc. When Santa gets up he’s grumpy because there’s so much work ahead of him. But over the course of his day he overcomes many small hardships, stopping in between to enjoy his snacks. Finally at the end he is happy to be home, but before bed he’s unhappy again, because he knows he’ll have to do it all again next year. The unrelenting nature of work would appeal to adults more than to children, I’m guessing. This story therefore appeals to a dual audience. Young readers also know what it’s like to do something they don’t want to do, and everyone (in most parts of the world) knows what it feels like to be uncomfortably cold.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

It won’t, but Father Christmas is home safe in bed, which is enough to close the story on. It’s not original, but it works, time and time again.

FURTHER NOTES ON THE STORY STRUCTURE

Did you pick up the main ways in which this story is not typical dramatic structure?

  1. The only opponent is the weather. Usually there is a human opponent, or a monster as well.
  2. The main character doesn’t learn anything.
  3. His life won’t be any different from before. He’s basically an automaton.

This is because the story is a comedy. Here’s the thing about comedic structure: It only sustains its audience for 5-10 minutes before we tire of it. That’s why comedic structure can work in picture books. They’re short. When Father Christmas was adapted into a short film, and by short I mean over 20 minutes, the script writers wisely decided to combine two of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas books. There is simply not enough in this picture book to sustain 20 minutes’ worth of entertainment.

Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor by John Cheever

Charles Spencelayh - Perplexed

At first, “Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor” reads like a comical tale but this is a Cheever story, so expect a sombre turn before the end.

WHAT HAPPENS IN CHRISTMAS IS A SAD SEASON FOR THE POOR

An elevator operator complains of how lonely he is to all who enter his realm. Each passenger regales him with a story of their own kind of loneliness. Over the course of Christmas Day, it turns out each of the residents has prepared a present and a dinner with dessert for Charlie, who can’t possibly eat all of it, and spreads it across the floor of his locker room.

After drinking too much of the liquor that has been gifted to him over the course of Christmas Day, he gives one lady a fright by joking with her:

“Strap on your safety belt, Mrs. Gadshill! We’re going to make a loop-the-loop!” Mrs. Gadshill shrieked.

This gets him fired. To make himself feel better about the day, he puts all of his presents into a burlap sack and takes them to his landlady, who has many children and not much money. (“There was an old woman who lived in a shoe…)

The landlady accepts the gifts on behalf of the children, but when Charlie has left, the narrator tells the reader that in fact these children have also received many presents all day and aren’t quite sure what to do with more.

So the landlady plans to regift the as-yet unopened ones to a family she feels is even less well-off than herself.

Page from a 1936 trade catalog, Erwin Geyer, Lauscha, Germany, illustrating Christmas ornaments
Page from a 1936 trade catalog, Erwin Geyer, Lauscha, Germany, illustrating Christmas ornaments

STORY WORLD OF “CHRISTMAS IS A SAD SEASON FOR THE POOR”

Place

Charlie works on the Upper East Side but lives on the Lower East Side. This isn’t the first short story Cheever wrote about and near Sutton Place (also known as York Avenue).

Cheever does a masterful job of painting a picture of what it’s like to get up for work in darkness, believing that you’re the only one in the world who has to suffer this drudgery, because everyone else is enjoying their time and you are not.

Of all the millions of people in New York, I am practically the only one who has to get up in the cold black of 6 AM. on Christmas Day in the morning

Notice how well Cheever integrates Charlie’s psychological state with his surroundings:

He dressed, and when he went downstairs from the top floor of the rooming house in which he lived, the only sounds he heard were the coarse sounds of sleep; the only lights burning were lights that had been forgotten. Charlie ate some breakfast in an all-night Iunch-wagon and took an Elevated train uptown. From Third Avenue, he walked over to Sutton Place. The neighborhood was dark. House after house put into the shine of the street lights a wall of black windows. Millions and millions were sleeping, and this general loss of consciousness generated an impression of abandonment, as if this were the fall of the city, the end of time.

The lights that are on have been forgotten; Charlie, too, feels that he has been forgotten. The sounds of sleep sound ‘coarse’ to him, because the sleepers aren’t the least concerned with how early he’s having to get up. The phrase ‘all-night lunch-wagon’ sounds slightly comical, since lunch happens in the middle of the day, not during the night. This serves to emphasise the feeling that he shouldn’t be up. The houses in Sutton Place form a ‘wall’ to Charlie, because although he is on the periphery of the lives of these rich people, he will never truly be admitted into their lives. This feeds into a theme of the story: For Christmas Day only he is indeed admitted, somewhat, into the lives of the rich, but there is still a wall, because it cannot continue. The abrupt end of the day is emphasised in the plot, since Charlie gets the sack — the ultimate punctuation on good cheer.

Time

Set in the late 1940s (most probably), around the time of publication.

Since drinks and food go through fashions, it’s interesting to read about what the characters enjoyed at this point in history: Martinis, Manhattans, Old-Fashioneds, champagne-andraspberry-shrub cocktails, eggnogs, Bronxes, and Side Cars

As presents in the late 1940s, rich children received ‘dolls and musical toys, blocks, sewing kits, an Indian suit, and a loom’.

Milieu

Then as today, New York is full of the very rich with the poor living side-by-side. That said, it would be interesting to know how many Charlie Learys are able to afford to live in the Lower East Side in New York these days, now that New York’s property is more expensive than ever. (New York’s first 100 million dollar apartment was sold this year.)

As I was reading this story I wondered if the poor were more visible back in the 1940s. People who live in expensive apartments no longer have to hear the sob-stories of their elevator man, precisely because there are no more elevator men (except perhaps in the odd place, as an anachronistic marketing feature). A lot of low-wage manufacturing jobs are now done offshore in Asian countries, namely China. So who do the upper middle classes come into contact with these days, who are so much poorer than themselves? Apparently there are two things that are ‘cheap in New York’: dry-cleaning and nail salons. But a closer look into nail salons show that modern-day slavery is still happening, right under the noses of New York residents. (Listen to the Selfish In Thailand edition of the Double X Podcast.)

CHARACTER

Charlie Leary – The main character of the story, an elevator operator. Though this is not the first of Cheever’s stories in this collection to operate an elevator, I’m only just now moved to look up exactly what this entailed. At the time of this story, there was indeed some necessity for an elevator operator: Manual elevators were often controlled by a large lever which would cause the elevator to stop or run and sometimes also regulate speed, and typically required some skill or sense of timing to be able to consistently stop the elevator level with the doorway of a floor. So I expect it required a similar sort of skill to that of the refuse collector, who must know exactly where to brake in order to bring the machinery down upon our kerbside bins.

Some poor fictional characters are humble and glad for what they have; others are not all that poor at all, but complain about it constantly. The former can be found in Cheever’s “O, City Of Broken Dreams”, and the latter can  be found in The Pot Of Gold. Charlie Leary is a bit different again, because he genuinely doesn’t have much, but his complaining is probably just his way of making conversation.

Charlie’s fundamental problem that hurts him so badly that it’s ruining his life is that he is surrounded by people far richer than himself and is constantly weighing what might have been against what is. He, too, could go on a holiday to Bermuda if he used all the kilometres he’d travelled inside the elevator to get there, he calculates. It is precisely because he feels so trapped that he takes the miscalculated risk of giving one of the residents a big fright, ending in his getting fired.

He, Charlie, was a prisoner, confined eight hours a day to a six-by-eight elevator cage, which was confined, in turn, to a sixteen-story shaft. In one building or another, he had made his living as an elevator operator for ten years. He estimated the average trip at about an eighth of a mile, and when he thought of the thousands of miles he had traveled, when he thought he might have driven the car through the mists above the Caribbean and set it down on some coral beach in Bermuda, he held the narrowness of his travels against his passengers, as if were not the nature of the elevator but the pressure of their lives that confined him, as if they had clipped his wings.

Charlie Leary’s goal in the story is to make the best of his lonely Christmas Day. Though what happens to him is unplanned — he didn’t seek out all of the gifts and the Christmas dinners — he kind of ‘overshot his target’ by saying the same thing to every person who came into his elevator.

The rest of the characters in the story are minor, sufficiently varied in circumstance and personality to create a realistically populated New York apartment building.

I’m not sure if ‘Leary’ is an aptronym on ‘leery’, meaning someone or something you’re suspicious of. But knowing a bit about Cheever, it might be, or it might be a name designed to evoke a slight misapprehension and mistrust in our main character.

THEME

On charity:

One way of feeling a little bit better about your own circumstances is to focus on those worse off than yourself rather than on those who are better off.

The realization that he was in a position to give, that he could bring happiness easily to someone else, sobered him. He took a big burlap sack, which was used for collecting waste, and began to stuff it, first with his presents and then with the presents for his imaginary children. He worked with the haste of a man whose train is approaching the station, for he could hardly wait to see those long faces light up when he came in the door.

There is an uncomfortable power dynamic involved in charity.

A beatific light came into her face when she realized that she could give, that she could bring cheer, that she could put a healing finger on a case needier than hers, and-like Mrs. DePaul and Mrs. Weston, like Charlie himself and like Mrs. Deckker, when Mrs. Deckker was to think, subsequently, of the poor Shannons-first love, then charity, and then a sense of power drove her.

It is difficult to know what to do about the poor when you’re not poor yourself, but you want to do something.

The rich residents of the apartment block where Charlie works are not to know that he’s lying about having children in order to garner more sympathy. But to them he is ‘worthy’ of their gifts; he works hard, getting up early. And, they see him daily, so he is not the ‘invisible poor’ — the truly poor, who would never make it to this part of town.

Unfortunately, this is a timeless theme, even more relevant for today’s America than ever before.

On lying:

If you find yourself lying to people for no particular reason your conscience will eventually catch up with you, if not karma.

The excess of food and presents around him began to make him feel guilty and unworthy. He regretted bitterly the lie he had told about his children. He was a single man with simple needs. He had abused the goodness of the people upstairs. He was unworthy.

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

How do you think John Cheever felt about Christmas?  I’d suggest that Cheever felt a little jaded by all the goodwill which is limited to just one main day per year. He saves this observation for the very end of the story, which always gives added weight to a sentiment:

“Now, you kids help me get all this stuff together. Hurry, hurry, hurry,” she said, for it was dark then, and she knew that we are bound, one to another, in licentious benevolence for only a single day, and that day was nearly over.

Note that the landlady has to rush, because the gift-giving can only happen on Christmas Day. After that, handing presents on to people you consider poor would just be… weird. (So why isn’t it weird even on Christmas Day, seems to be the subtext.)

Dark and Light Symbolism

As you read, take note of the ways in which Cheever makes use of light and dark. In previous stories in this collection, Cheever has no problems using the weather to convey character emotion; this is another kind of pathetic fallacy, in which something in the environment is supposed to be meaningful in the context of the story.

STORY SPECS

First published in the New Yorker, 1949. You can probably guess which month. 4,100 words

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Contrast with the more saccharine The Gift of the Magi. Miracle on 34th Street and Dickens’ The Christmas Carol also fall into this category.

Mookse and The Gripes compares this story to one of David Foster Wallace’s stories, “The Devil Is a Busy Man,” because they both concern the nature of charity and whether true altruism is really possible.

Richard Yates published an entire short story collection about loneliness, into which this story might easily have fit: Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness. But is Charlie really all that lonely? For all we know, he could be bullshitting about that, too. Rather, the character sketches of the minor characters and their various types of loneliness — or what they call loneliness — are more interesting. After all, Charlie isn’t all that upset about being fired. This could be because he is sozzled, and is off to do a good deed, or it could be because he gets fired regularly, moving from one elevator job to the next.

I would compare the structure of this short story to a fable such as Chicken Licken. In Chicken Licken, we see a chicken going around saying the same thing over and over to a bunch of different birds.

“The sky is falling!”

“Christmas is a sad season when you’re poor. I don’t have any family. I live alone in a furnished room.”

The comical tone reminds me of this story of Cheever’s. But like Chicken Licken, Christmas ends with a sharp shock. Chicken Licken is these days used as a fable for children. So the refrain of Charlie Leary makes him seem childish.

Note that Cheever has made use of another classic fable in his earlier O City Of Broken Dreams, which is a kind of inverted Country Mouse fable.

WRITE YOUR OWN

Is there any day of the year that makes you feel out of sync with the rest of society, be it Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, ANZAC Day etc? Why do you feel differently about it?

Maybe this isn’t a cultural event but a family or religious one.

Using an old fable, are you able to take some of the classical structure and weave it into a modern tale such as this one?

Header painting: Charles Spencelayh – Perplexed