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MARTHA ALLEN: Repeating a holiday cliche

December 4, 2008
Lake Placid News
I am sitting here at my iMac, stymied by the season.

There are the same things to say about the holidays, always, and every year the same things are so large and heavy, so emotionally freighted, and yet so cliche.

But then, I think, why be surprised at that? Cliches became household information, or misinformation, for a reason. Any enduring cliche must satisfy some deeply felt need in the human heart. People must want to believe a cliche, to set it up there with the knickknacks and the good china and every so often take it down and polish it up a little.

“Yep, that’s the way of it.”


“You’re durn tootin.”

The most pervasive Christmas cliche, mother of a whole tribe of little cliches, is that everyone is happy in the heart of a convivial family at Christmastime. The cliches of Christmas, while heartwarming, can be a heavy burden, especially when one’s life isn’t reading like a Hallmark card at the moment or looking like a television advertisement. Comparing their own lives to those idealized in the media, people often feel pressured to keep up. It can be quite overwhelming.

I remember one December, when I was grieving the loss of someone I loved, an ad for coffee just about brought me to my knees. I think it was some long-lost family member coming through the door with snow on his jacket, and his mom made up a big pot of coffee, and...well, it doesn’t sound like much, I know. But at the time it really got me. The holidays do bring it all back home to people who have lost family members.

I have often suspected that the creators of big scale advertisements — not the local, “We must be crazy! Our merchandise is flying out the door!” kind—are diabolically conscious of the subliminal messages they send. Do ad agencies retain psychoanalysts as consultants? I have a nephew who works in advertising in Oregon. I’ll have to ask him.

There is one holiday cliche that few people ever question — the firm conviction that small children must be duped into believing for as long as possible that Santa Claus is real, and that he brings them presents. I would think that when the kids finally discover the truth they would resent being made to feel like patsies and stooges.

“So — all that time, YOU KNEW?” they should be asking their parents. “You knew, and you just strung me along?”

I think a study should be conducted at a major university to determine whether a paranoid thread running through the collective American consciousness can be traced to this mass insistence on lying to infants about Old Saint Nick.


I mean it. Babies and toddlers are immune from the printed word. They may attack the paper and destroy it, possibly eating segments or at least gumming them, and get ink all over their hands and faces, but since they can’t read they will not suffer from the dreadful words I am about to write—unless someone reads this column to them, a deed so lowdown and mean that it is difficult to imagine anyone who would do it.

There is no Santa Claus.

Wow! I feel better after typing that. Better, in the sense of being relieved, but also scared. I’m going to be looking over my shoulder from now until New Year’s, let me tell you. Adults don’t like the truth to get out.

I might not have thought about the Santa issue much, but, on the Christmas Eve when my daughter was three years old, I was having trouble getting her to go to sleep. A common problem, right? I naturally attributed her wakefulness to excitement, and so I kept repeating the old cliche, “You have to go to sleep so that Santa Claus will come. Santa won’t come until you’re asleep...”

Then Molly set me straight. Eyes blazing, hands on hips, sounding for all the world like one of the Appalachian hill people on her father’s side (you could imagine a pint-sized shotgun in her hands), she declared emphatically, “I don’t want that little man comin’ down my chimney!”

To allay her fears, I spent the next hour or so assuring her that Santa Claus is just pretend — no, Molly, there are no such things as Santas. After which she fell blissfully off to sleep.

Have a good week.



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