The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

Points of Sale

December 24, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

Christo, Red Store Front (Project), collage, 1965, 40" x 48" x 2”, pencil, charcoal, enamel paint, wax crayon, wood, fabric, Plexiglas, and electric light. Image courtesy Craig F. Starr Gallery

Notes on shopping and giving.

I used to get coffee at Pret a Manger almost every morning. It’s a noisy and bustling shop in Union Square, the sort of high-impact environment that teaches people how to shout at one another without sounding unfriendly. (“No, I said I would not like cream cheese!” he yelled at the cashier, smiling with his eyes.) The staff there has been rigorously trained, and no matter how large the crowds are, you can expect to get in and out in just a few minutes. Obviously this is because you’re gently shepherded through the stages of a scripted consumer experience, with the store’s layout, color scheme, music, temperature, and copywriting all doing their part to vectorize you. Later I would learn that Pret, which has more than 350 locations worldwide, holds its employees to stringent standards of affective labor, demanding that they touch one another frequently and display signs of authentic happiness, but I was only intermittently aware of this when I visited regularly. Usually I emerged (my coffee cup snug in its cardboard sleeve, to keep my hand from burning) with the prideful sense that I’d mastered the form of the transaction, with its nested sets of thank yous and predetermined courtesies. I knew the questions the cashier would ask, always with a brittle rictus of corporate-mandate cheer, and I knew the exact order of the questions, and how to answer them. The only bumpiness came at the end of the script, after I’d declined a receipt and the cashier had said, “Thank you, have a great day.” For a while, I responded, “Thanks—you, too,” and the transaction ended there. But I discovered that a slight tweak to this response could advance the dialogue to a third, hidden stage. If I said “You, too—thanks,” the cashier would say, “You’re welcome. Come see us again.”

I tried for several months to find some rejoinder to this, something to elicit some unscripted reaction. “Count on it!” Or, “Don’t mind if I do!” Or, “You know I will, you see me here every morning, five days a week!” Even my best efforts got me nothing but canned laughter (very lifelike canned laughter, it must be said) or another perfunctory exchange of thank-yous. But I was after a human moment. I wanted to parry one rote cordiality against another until the cashier, at last, gave in and acknowledged the ruse. “Look at us,” he’d whisper, “dragooned day after day into this hollow pas de deux of late capitalism.” Then we’d go rob a bank together. Read More >>

And to All a Goodnight

December 18, 2015 | by

Easy there, big guy.

The Paris Review’s offices are close to a small square of green space called Clement Clarke Moore Park, at West Twenty-Second and Tenth Avenue. Moore, a scholar and theologian, owned the piece of land—he donated a large part to the General Theological Seminary, which still stands there—and indeed, his forebears had owned the estate simply known as Chelsea. And of course, Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is essentially responsible for our contemporary notion of Santa Claus: “a right jolly old elf,” drawn by reindeer, who arrives on Christmas Eve to swoop down your chimney. Moore is said to have been inspired by a local Dutch handyman—this 1926 New York Times piece explores the creation legend. Read More »

Holiday Travel

December 18, 2015 | by

The night crowd.

I grew up in a Manhattan apartment whose view encompassed sky, clouds, and other apartments. For a while I kept a pair of binoculars on the windowsill. I used them before going to bed, a kind of voyeuristic nightcap. Most of the pleasure I got came from noting which lights were on and which were off in other people’s apartments. I would sometimes wonder if somewhere out there, in one of the unlit windows, perhaps, there was a kid with binoculars looking back at me. 

Once, when we were thirteen or so, a friend in the building and I took his massive telescope to the roof. This was before all modes of entrance and egress in Manhattan apartment buildings and hotels were locked down and wired with alarms. We probably almost died getting the tripod up the fire ladder. Once we were up there, we took turns slowly rotating the telescope across the landscape as we peered through with one eye closed. We did this on a few occasions, and only once achieved the semi-nirvana of seeing a naked woman. She was sleeping on her stomach. A sheet covered most of her. But enough of her back, and a bit of leg, was visible to infer that she was naked. The question was if she would wake up, or at least roll over. We stayed up there for a long time, waiting. I don’t think she ever woke. Read More »

Holiday Spirit

December 17, 2015 | by

Photo: cyclonebill, via Flickr

When my grandmother was alive, she would make rum balls every Christmas. Hers were the standard heavyweight confection: Nilla wafer crumbs and pulverized nuts, mixed with cocoa and bound with corn syrup and raw rum, then rolled into truffle-like spheres. They arrived as leaden bundles wrapped in foil, and they were always a cause for celebration, heralding as they did the holiday season, and evoking her other Christmas traditions—the jolly Santa drawn in glass wax on the bay window and the collection of little elf figurines at the center of the table.

But it must be said: they never tasted very good. Read More »

Better to Give

December 16, 2015 | by

Ludwig Blume-Siebert, Ein Herzensgeschenk, 1888.

It may be “better” to give than to receive, but for some of us, it’s also easier. To give is to retain some measure of control, even power, in the dynamic; one who gives does not need to worry about expressing enthusiasm or responding in kind or anything other than sitting back and accepting accolades. When you receive, you want to express pleasure—you want to give them that—and this is exhausting. Gracious gift receiving is very hard, and I’m not just talking about things you don’t want. Read More »

Oh—Tannenbaum …

December 16, 2015 | by

Christmas trees have served as political lightning rods for nearly as long as Americans have been decorating them.

Viggo Johansen, Glade jul, 1891.

In 1937, the Federal Writers’ Project interviewed Junius Quattlebaum, who’d grown up enslaved in South Carolina, about his Christmas memories. He spoke of gathering around the Christmas tree to take his share of the

candy, apples, raisins, and nuts for all de chillum … Christmas morning, marster would call all de slaves to come to de Christmas tree. He made all de chillun set down close to de tree and de grown slaves jined hands and make a circle ’round all … missus would stand in de middle of the de ring and raise her hand and bow her head in silent thanks to God. All de slaves done lak her done.

Frederick Douglass denounced such parties as being “among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection … These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.” The white South Carolinian William J. Grayson rhapsodized in his 1856 poem “The Hireling and the Slave” about the “smile and bow” and “abundant cheer” of the slave’s Christmas: “No ennui clouds, no coming cares annoy, / Nor wants nor sorrow check the Negro’s joy,” for “In all his master’s joys he claims a part.” Yet for all their paternalism, slave owners betrayed a suspicion that the pleasure in Christmas wasn’t mutual, and that slaves might not be satisfied with raisins: Christmas was the time when white Southerners spread the wildest rumors of slave insurrection, restocked their ammunition, and built hiding places in the woods. Read More »