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What the Partridge in the Pear Tree Wrought : Ho-ho-ho doormats and battery-driven ornaments are mere symptoms of the inflation of Christmas.

December 08, 1993|JENIJOY La BELLE | Jenijoy La Belle is a professor of literature at Caltech and author of "Herself Beheld: The Literature of the Looking Glass" (Cornell University Press, 1988).

This is how Christmas used to be, at least in the glow of memory's transforming flame. Your father brings home a tree. The house smells like the woods. Your mother's fingers tie red ribbons. There are cookies shaped like bells. You hang up a stocking. You can't sleep. In the morning, toys wait under the tree. They are for you.

Was Christmas simpler or does it just seem so? These days, Santa Claus comes to town too soon, stays too long and his knapsack is crammed to excess. Whereas once we decked the halls, now the whole house gets decked--a wreath in every window, fronds framing the doors, garlands in the garage. And most of this greenery, like the sentiment, is faux. I don't wish to be kissed beneath plastic mistletoe.

Where, when the holiday has passed, do families store all these trimmings? What happens to the poinsettia afghans, ho-ho-ho doormats, merry mugs, Mrs. Claus oven mitts and "Yes, Virginia" sweat shirts? What about those people who display what the catalogues describe as "life-size lighted angels" (just how tall are angels anyway?) on their front lawns? Giant candy canes along the driveway? Entire Nativity scenes in the garden? Reindeer on the roof?

In the past, much of the Yuletide paraphernalia was used up. By the end of December, some ornaments were broken, the stockings were back on our feet, the candles had burned low and the tree and fruitcake were thrown out. Now, there are permanent trees with hinged branches and ornaments of unbreakable polystyrene. The stockings are velvet and must be stored, not worn. The candles can be refilled with votives. The dreaded fruitcake may indeed be dumped, but each year we save the reusable tin.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas"--with all those drummers drumming and swans a-swimming--may be to blame; it encourages accumulation until Christmas amasses everything but meaning.

Why must Christmas swell in sheer quantity? Consider, for instance, Santa Claus's mode of transport. In early pictures, St. Nicholas, in a scarlet robe, rode on a goat, a humble donkey or a white horse. At the beginning of the 19th Century, he was shown in a one-deer open sleigh. By 1823, with the publication of Clement C. Moore's "The Night Before Christmas," St. Nick had acquired eight flying reindeer with ridiculous names. Red-nosed Rudolph joined the herd in 1939. Now, anything goes and Santa goes in anything--trains, cars, jets, even on a surfboard.

Similarly, in moving from saintly to jolly, Father Christmas himself has expanded. He is fast becoming a personification of Gluttony, consuming more than giving. It's not that I am anti-Santa, but the bigger the body, the smaller the impact on the child's imagination in us all. Santa Claus has become, in the words of the poet Howard Nemerov, "this overstuffed confidence man . . . pregnant with possessions."

Like Santa, the Christmas tree has also grown out of all proportion. I remember how the dark tree used to stand in the bright room. Then the boxes of decorations were brought down from the attic--the string of lights, shiny balls, paper chains, tinsel, angel. Afterward, a bright tree stood in a dark room. Silent, fragrant, expectant. Today's trees seem frenetic and noisy with their lights blinking on and off. The ornaments no longer hang like jewels, but move and rotate and require batteries (not included) or concealed computer chips that play "Frosty the Snow Man" and "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

Yet, in spite of the inflation, Christmas and what it stands for continue to touch the heart. In the Chicago fire of 1871, a little girl saved her dog, her favorite doll and her copy of "The Night Before Christmas." In our recent wildfires, a woman in Eaton Canyon grabbed a bottle of Scotch, photographs of her dead mother and some Christmas decorations. A 16-year-old girl in Altadena whose family lost their keepsakes cried over her burned Christmas stocking. We save or mourn what matters most, and Christmas still matters.

This year, when the world is too much with you, your nerves are jangled by "Jingle Bells" and you feel an attack of Santa Claustrophobia coming on, let recollection and imagination lead you to a quiet peacefulness. Let the past be your best present. Yield to Christmas. Think of a single star in the sky. A silent night. A blessed babe. Or perhaps just a simpler Santa.

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