Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"Open Before Christmas"

As I mentioned yesterday, John D MacDonald seems to have published only two "Christmas" stories in his career. One is the mystery "Dead on Christmas Street" (which really isn't a Christmas story at all) and the other is the mainstream "Open Before Christmas," appearing in the December 1956 issue of Woman's Home Companion. It was MacDonald's only story to appear in that long-running magazine, and it came in the next-to-last issue before folding. In fact, by the time the issue hit the stands the magazine had already laid off it's entire staff just before Christmas that year, leaving over 2,700 workers without jobs or severance. Merry Christmas!

"Open Before Christmas" is a typically unsentimental tale told by an author who evidently didn't think much of the holiday. The story's main character, Benjamin West, is a suburban husband and father of two children, fifteen-year-old Kathy and twelve-year-old George. Three weeks before Christmas he makes a family "policy decision," and calls the clan together one Sunday to announce it. He prefaces the meeting with his nervous family thusly: "Understand me now, I am not saying Bah, nor am I saying Humbug." It is time, he says, to "get off the old-fashioned type Christmas kick." He wants to eliminate what he feels is the excessive ostentation of the holiday, " look at the whole thing objectively and knock off the pointless parts of the routine. We'll have plenty of Christmas spirit. We'll be surrounded by it. We shouldn't ever as a family let ourselves get trapped into too much tradition."

The "big monster tree" is to be replaced by a little table tree; brown paper will replace gift wrap; the "do-not-open-until routine" is out the window; turkey dinner will be replaced by steaks, and "the old Lionel Barrymore records" are to be dispensed with. Oh, and no red Christmas ribbon on the cat! He puts it to a family vote: his wife Helen abstains, Kathy votes with dad, and George doesn't care one way or the other, as long as he gets a new bike.

Of course, things don't quite work out the way Ben had planned. The boxes of ornaments that were to have remained packed and unnecessary for the new tree end up festooned along the fireplace mantel. The presents purchased by Helen come beautifully wrapped by the store where she purchased them, leaving Ben's wrapping looking "so terribly brown." The steaks are forgotten when Helen wins a turkey -- "about the size and consistency of a harbor mine" -- at the supermarket. George walks around "with a curious listlessness."
The story doesn't end quite the way one might expect, although considering the author, perhaps it does. And while Ben is nothing like the character who originally said "Bah humbug!" he does seem a bit gruff and distant. He continuously addresses his son George as "boy," seemingly unaware of how ugly that must sound. It's not clear if MacDonald wrote Ben that way or if he himself thought "boy" an acceptable way to address one's son. The ending is a happy one, if a bit subdued, where Ben realizes there are some things that shouldn't be changed.

MacDonald himself grew up with a distant, withdrawn father who apparently passed on some of his traits to his son. Hugh Merrill quotes an old journal entry where JDM recognized some of those similarities: "He appears most often when I catch a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror... it always makes me despise myself instantaneously..." Yet Merrill also quotes from an old school paper written by JDM's younger sister Doris, where she reveals that Christmas was the one time of the year when the senior MacDonald came out of his shell:

"... he dressed as Santa Claus and created great excitement, especially the time when, pretending to be climbing out of the chimney, he touched the draft and got covered with soot. The fact that his children have grown up doesn't lessen his Christmas paradise at all. He does his shopping after office hours, carefully hides all the packages in a back room and spends hours wrapping them. Attached to each gift is a poem, and the jokes of the entire year appear in that poetry. The family sits around the dining room table on Christmas Eve. Each one is requested to read his poem aloud and then celebration is always a howling success -- not to mention that father's voice usually leads the chorus."

Merrill doesn't speculate whether this is fact or pure fiction from Doris, accepting it at face value. Doris ended the piece by claiming that, behind his gruffness, Eugene MacDonald sometimes had "a twinkle in his eye." Then Merrill writes, "Maybe she saw it, but his son never did."

"Open Before Christmas" was anthologized once, in a collection published in 1960 by Llewellyn Miller and titled The Joy of Christmas. I purchased a copy in a used book store many years ago, but I still see used copies pop up now and again on the Internet. It's a nice collection, containing works such as A Christmas Carol (condensed), "A Visit from St. Nicholas," Robert Benchley's humorous "Christmas Afternoon," works by Dorothy Parker, Lincoln Steffens, Ogden Nash, and the wonderful "The Night They Gave Babies Away" by Dale Eunson.

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