by Katherine Anne Porter
When she was five years old, my niece asked me why we celebrated Christmas. She had asked when she was three and when she was four, and each time had listened with a shining, believing face, learning the songs and gazing enchanted at the pictures which I displayed as proof of my stories…..
…then she told me she had a dollar of her own and would I take her to buy a Christmas present for her mother.
We wandered from shop to shop, and I admired the way the little girl, surrounded by tons of seductive, specially manufactured holiday merchandise for children, kept her attention fixed resolutely on objects appropriate to the grown-up world. She considered seriously in turn a silver tea service, one thousand dollars; an embroidered handkerchief with lace on it, five dollars; a dressing table mirror framed in porcelain flowers, eighty-five dollars; a preposterously showy crystal flask of perfume, one hundred twenty dollars; a gadget for curling the eyelashes, seventy-five cents; a large plaque of colored glass jewelry, thirty dollars; a cigarette case of some fraudulent material, two dollars and fifty cents. She weakened, but only for a moment, before a mechanical monkey with real fur who did calisthenics on a crossbar if you wound him up, one dollar and ninety-eight cents.
The prices of these objects did not influence their relative value to her and bore no connection whatever to the dollar she carried in her hand. Our shopping had also no connection with the birthday of the Child or the legends and pictures…..
Christmas is what we make of it and this is what we have so cynically made of it; not the feast of the Child in the straw-filled crib, nor even the homely winter bounty of the old pagan with the reindeer, but a great glittering commercial fair, gay enough with music and food and extravagance of feeling and behavior and expense, more and more on the order of the ancient Saturnalia. I have nothing against Saturnalia, it belongs to this season of the year: but how do we get so confused about the true meaning of even our simplest-apprearing pastimes?
Meanwhile, for our money we found a present for the little girl’s mother. It turned out to be a small green pottery shell with a colored bird perched on the rim which the little girl took for an ash tray, which it may as well have been.
“We’ll wrap it up and hang it on the tree and say it came from Santa Claus,” she said, trustfully making of me a fellow conspirator.
“You don’t believe in Santa Claus any more?” I asked carefully, for we had taken her infant credulity for granted. I had already seen in her face that morning a skeptical view of my sentimental legends, she was plainly trying to sort out one thing from another in them; and I was turning over in my mind the notion of beginning again with her on other grounds, of lines between fact and fancy, which is not so difficult; but also further to show where truth and poetry were, if not the same being, at least twins who would wear each other’s clothes. But that couldn’t be done in a day nor with pedantic intention. I was perfectly prepared for the first half of her answer, but the second took me by surprise.
“No, I don’t,” she said, with the freedom of her natural candor, “but please don’t tell my mother, for she still does.”
For herself, then, she rejected the gigantic hoax which a whole powerful society had organized and was sustaining at the vastest pains and expense, and she was yet to find the grain of truth lying lost in the gaudy debris around her, but there remained her immediate human situation, and that she could deal with, or so she believed: her mother believed in Santa Claus, or she would not have said so. The little girl did not believe in what her mother had told her, yet her mother’s illusions must not be disturbed. In the moment of decision her infancy was gone forever, it had vanished there before my eyes.
Very thoughtfully I took the hand of by budding little diplomat, whom we had so lovingly, unconsciously prepared for her career, which no doubt would be quite a successful one; and we walked along in the bright sweet-smelling Christmas dusk, myself for once completely silenced.
Photograph: Brown’s Christmas 1940s by
Doug Loudenback – photobucket