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Today, guest blogger and advice columnist Pious Petunia is back to offer a little sensible comfort and joy for those wearied by the weirdness of the season.
Dear Miss Petunia: I would like to prepare during Advent for the coming of Christ by sustaining an attitude of quietness and prayer. But as usual, I’m overwhelmed everywhere I go by Christmas kitsch and noise. What should I do?
PP: Well, you describe a peculiar spiritual burden, one many of us bear in late-stage post-industrial capitalism. We shall simply have to be brave and endure the onslaught until the storm passes once again and we enter the relative calm of January white sales.
One could decamp to a quiet cave for the duration—which, come to think of it, is exactly what the Christ child did. One wonders if Mary and Joseph found room at the inn after all, but decided to flee to the stable instead when they heard the jangling strains of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” blaring over the inn’s sound system. (Or worse, “Mary Did You Know.”)
Short of a convenient, quiet cave wherein to observe Advent pieties, you will have to slip into a nearby closet now and then for an hour’s peace. Take a pillow and a Bible (or phone with Bible app), and barricade the door against any small, excited, Santa-obsessed children who may be lurking about.
When forced to venture out into the wilds of consumerist holiday cheer, Miss P suggests donning the breastplate of good humor. Everywhere you may observe that the arc of consumer culture is long, and it bends toward absurdity. Christmas catalogs alone, arriving daily by the tonnage in Miss P’s mailbox, feature enough extreme silliness to keep her snorting merrily through New Year’s Day.
Consider this two-page spread from the Pottery Barn catalog, for example. Evidently, to set a fashionable dining table this year, one must not only purchase the Pottery Barn’s fine products—the table, the chairs, the dishes, the plaid napkins—but must also slaughter an elk and several sheep. The headline on this layout is “Reindeer Games,” which sadly misrepresents the poor creature who gave its antlers in the cause of elegant dining.
Miss P happens to have her own personal deer consultant, who not only expertly identified the elk antler but also analyzed the Pottery Barn’s purported “Silly Stag” dinnerware collection, only to conclude that our friends at PB suffer from (in his words) a “confused Cervidae taxonomy.” The term “stag” only applies to European red deer, a species to which only two of the items in the collection could possibly claim to belong. The rest of the “stags” featured are reindeer, moose, or white-tailed deer, which are called bulls or bucks, depending. Fortunately, a small but vocal Cervidae lobby has evidently protested to Pottery Barn; according to the website, this dinnerware is “no longer available.”
In this year’s catalogs, one senses a certain boredom among merchandisers with the usual Christmas routines and thus a desperate need to invent new things for us to purchase. Other spreads in the PB catalog suggest that one could—perhaps by pressing bewildered visiting relatives into service as interior painters—redecorate one’s entire living area in black and white for the holidays. Or one could dream of a “blush Christmas.”
Or perhaps one could ignore the children’s carefully penciled wish lists and instead spend several times their toy allowance on a single, glittery display. Calculated cost for this one: $1260, not counting the table ($1199) or the mirror ($429).
How about blowing another fortune on your front door? This display will set you back about $1030, not counting the lighting affixed to the house. Don’t forget tax and shipping.
If you have more sense than to lavish thousands of dollars on tangly, delicate items that will spend most of the year quietly dropping glitter inside boxes in your attic or basement, you could spend somewhat less on seasonal pillows. Miss P has noted, during her rare and furtive bricks-and-mortar shopping adventures, that seasonal pillow displays now occupy aisles upon aisles of warehouse-style racks in discount home goods stores, pillow-stuffed to the ceiling like sandbag levies. The only explanation is that, if you festoon a sofa with enough pillows, there will be no room for visiting relatives and the crew will have to descend on someone else’s home.
In all of this, Miss P would like to note that she is not made of stone. Like anyone else, she feels a pleasant dopamine thrill when paging through gorgeously staged catalog photos of imaginary lifestyles. The lavish, candlelit tables! The New England cabins full of beautiful, vaguely racially diverse young people in flannel plaid! The merry sledding holidays in the woods! The adorable Labrador puppies! And the gadgets!
Speaking of gadgets, let us turn our attention to the Sharper Image catalog. From the products featured here we can surmise the most pressing issues faced by wealthy Americans in their later years. For example, when those rambunctious grandchildren arrive for their ritual holiday visit, one must keep them entertained and out of the way. This requires virtual ping pong, a giant piano mat, and/or other battery-intensive toys with price points of at least $99.99. Meanwhile, even rich older people suffer from aches and pains, not to mention stray hairs, all of which require electronic solutions. Miss P herself is sorely tempted by a selection of no fewer than thirteen devices designed to soothe, massage, soak, and warm tired feet. Prices range from $49.99 to $179.99.
Brie en croute
Luxurious gadgetry is one path to absurdity, but there are cheaper roads to travel. Even Trader Joe’s, an otherwise fine purveyor of moderately priced upscale food goods, occasionally crosses the silliness line. In their monthly circular, among loving descriptions of brie en croute and fig goat cheese log, one finds such frivols as a “super festive cypress grump tree” ($8.99), pre-decorated with “a whimsically weighty ornament” that “causes the tree to slump over to one side.” One is supposed to “delight in the playfulness of this curmudgeonly conifer” until after the holidays, at which time one can remove the bauble, stick the traumatized plant in the ground, and allow it to straighten itself back to vegetative dignity.
Since Miss P is prescribing mildly cynical good humor as an antidote to what we might term crapadosis noella, she has to confess admiration, however ambivalent, for a catalog whose motto is “Remember not to take yourself too seriously.” The catalog’s snappy copy, along with products such as the “millennial snowflake wrap dress,” suggest that this company is deploying bad taste like a harmless stink bomb in the culture wars. One may cringe over men’s briefs with strategically placed images of a shark mouth, a white-tailed deer face, a bald eagle face, or (yikes) a nutcracker (no photo this time; use your imagination). But cheekiness has its place. Also, the company’s HQ is in Boulder, Colorado, suggesting that recreational marijuana may help explain their holiday product line.
Miss P apologizes to her patient readers for losing herself temporarily in this holiday catalog fun house. Indeed, we have not even considered other intrusive cultural sources of kitsch, noise, and consumer overstimulation: internet ads, grocery store muzak, urgent coupon notices binging on one’s phone. The cheese selection at Costco alone could send one into a tailspin.
Meanwhile, every day, alongside the catalogs come the annual donation pleas, sliding jewelry and jolliness up against the worldwide refugee crisis, food insecurity, low-income housing shortages, climate change, mass incarceration, and a world of ills. The juxtaposition brings us to red-alert levels of absurdity.
Miss P, therefore, offers a few words to recite as needed:
God, grant me the serenity to ignore whatever Christmas frenzy I can,
the sense of humor to deal with what I cannot avoid,
and the wisdom to keep my holiday expectations moderate to low.
And then this wish: May you take shelter as you are able this season in good worship, beautiful music, and a lovingly prepared meal or two on whatever dinnerware and placemats you already have on hand. May you be a blessing to those in pain near and far. May you enjoy friends and loved ones, even those wearing ugly Christmas sweaters. And may the holy absurdity of the Incarnation bless your cave with peace.
Thanks to Dr. Timothy Van Deelen of the University of Wisconsin-Madison for deer consultation.
Also, just how many Mongolian fauxs had to die to make this stool?
The arc of consumer culture is long, and it bends towards absurdity. Choice.
I giggled over this…thank you!
Ah, the last paragraph says it all. Thank you for the fun and good advise.
“at which time one can remove the bauble, stick the traumatized plant in the ground, and allow it to straighten itself back to vegetative dignity.” my fave of so many delightful phrases in this brilliant and fun essay. Thank you!
You know a disturbingly lot about this stuff, PP. Wondering….
Miss P does her research. Of course.
Dear Pious Petunia,
Thank you for your thought-provoking piece re: the commercial misuse of this holy Advent season: “Pious Petunia Does Christmas by the Catalogue!” Your included photos were particularly emotionally charging.
Dear Ms P, I would love you to write a piece titled, “Pious Petunia Does Christmas by Amazon Prime.” What is your response to Christian folk who avoid doing their own Christmas shopping “on foot,” and; instead, overwork their blue collar brothers and sisters at Amazon.com? (Search “working conditions at Amazon.)
Your sister in faith,
Amazon Prime member,
Miss P says: should the Lord tarry, perhaps next year. Thank you for the suggestion. Romans 3:23.