Accent on Living

IT SEEMS to be pretty well established that Christmas — the Christmas of one’s earlier years — is the touchstone of the good old days. Those were the Christmases when everything was better and much simpler; when there was snow that crunched underfoot and ice on the ponds for the new skates; when the turkey, the pies, the presents, the tree, and the whole effect of the day were far superior to what we experience nowadays. No sordid commercialism or mawkishness intruded. A fine spontaneity sparked the giving and receiving. No one was worn out by the preparations; in fact most of the decorating and wrapping and cooking and hospitality took care of itself. None of it cost very much, either.

That is the image, and a powerful one it is, which the bygone Christmas seems to evoke. How far bygone, how old, the image has to be in order to qualify as part of the good old days is debatable. There are some for whom the good old days ended with the administration of William Howard Taft, yet there must be others who even now are beginning to find nostalgia in the period of Mr. Truman.

And always there persists an even stronger recollection, warranted or not, that one’s old-time Christmases were real upcountry Currier & Ives stuff. A man who never in his life so much as split a stick of kindling tends to redream himself, along toward Christmastime, into a childhood of farmhouse kitchens and ice-in-the-washbowl. My own Christmases were entirely urban, comfortably heated, and generously supplied in all respects, yet I have trouble in resisting the notion that I was somehow a son of pioneers, whose neighbors traveled in pungs, a stalwart little figure in gum boots and a fur cap, inhabiting a mise en scène straight from the easel of Grandma Moses.

If the recollection of the bygone Christmas is indeed so potent, it becomes plain that every Christmas, including this one and the next, is a seedbed of nostalgia to come. It’s a rather embarrassing idea, when one looks around at the December scene in, for example, Nirvana Heights, to reflect that innocent children are even now storing it in memory, not necessarily fondly — not yet, at any rate— but nonetheless vividly.

Nirvana Heights is justly proud of its shopping area, where rigid zoning and building regulations have achieved a Colonial effect. It’s a little later than Early American; and if the filling stations don’t reach quite back to John and Priscilla, they are at least the sort of places where the Virginia burgesses would have bought their gas. The supermarkets and shops could sit down comfortably among the struct tires of 1955 Colonial Westchester or Fairfield County. No buckles on men’s shoes, no churchwarden pipes, but plenty of brick and white paint, primly maintained.

Throughout these final days of the Christmas rush, Nirvana Heights is bathed day and night in the peculiar orange glow from countless multicolored lights festooned over Main Street. The street itself is packed solidly with motor traffic; it is impossible to find a parking place or get out of one; the cross streets arc plugged just as solidly. A fair amount of horn-tooting is constant. From the cupola atop the Nirvana Heights branch of the Nirvana Trust Company, a loudspeaker is blasting forth Christmas hymns. Across the street, at Burdock’s, booms an enormously amplified recording of The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Further down, where Main Street intersects Nirvana Avenue, is the municipal Christmas tree, ablaze with park department lights and flanked by huge plaster effigies of Wise Men, camels, gnomes, reindeer, etc. (An investigation by the city council of the terms on which these objects were purchased is expected early next year.) The park department’s loudspeaker is playing Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.

Indoors as well as out, the 1955 Christmas is carried on by all sorts of servo-mechanisms, electronics, and power-assists. From radio and TV in the home come the transcribed Christmas greetings and “personal” messages from the actors, sponsors, agency staff’s, and announcers. Incidentally, it is now possible for an announcer to come clown so lightly on the word “transcribed” in this festive context that the word is virtually blanked off, as if one heard it not at all. Disk jockeys send their greetings; and in the freezer, meanwhile!, the entire Christmas dinner is agate-hard in the frost, awaiting as it has since last July the holiday thaw.

It will be the same dinner that the family had on Thanksgiving. Nothing will be better or worse, because all its components came from the same batch in the big Foodorama sale at the supermarket. That’s the beauty of the frozen things: they’re always dependable, and the family knows exactly what to expect. Nothing clutters the kitchen, either, when these bake’n-serve meals reach the table in their original containers. The whole dinner is scarcely more trouble than a ham’n-eggs breakfast. And if the turkey is prestuffed, there is now a fine prestuff’ed Christmas stocking which must do away with all sorts of fol-de-rol; one stocking with a special assortment for boys and another — quite different, too — for girls.

It may seem impossible to translate all this into tunneling in the snow from the woodshed to the barn, and hitching up old Bob to the doublerunner, but given fifteen or twenty years, that is how it will eventually seem to have been.