(Thoughts Recollected in Tranquility Amidst the Chaos of a Trans-Continental Airplane Journey at Christmas)
In an early episode of Happy Days—seen, apparently, by no-one ever but me—it’s Christmas. The Cunninghams excitedly immerse themselves in celebrating the romantic myth of post-war American prosperity, stability, morality, and community. Fonzie gives gifts to everyone at Al’s, making it known that he loves Christmas; when asked his plans, he talks proudly about going to his cousin’s place, where they’ll have a big tree, presents, lights, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, the whole Norman Rockwell/Charles Dickens extravaganza—with the most important detail being that Fonzie has family, that somewhere he’s welcome and included.
But after Richie and his dad stop in to Fonzie’s shop to fix a spark plug, Richie, unobserved, sees Fonzie heating up a can of soup on his hotplate in the garage. Dad, says Richie, I don’t think Fonzie has anywhere to go for Christmas. We learn that there are no cousins, no family that Fonzie is a part of; it’s just Fonzie alone with his soup and a tiny little tree, but he’s too proud to let anyone know, to have anyone feel sorry for him.
Of course, Richie can’t let his friend be alone, and we viewers can’t bear the thought either. Mr. Cunningham is reluctant to share his vision of cozy nuclear-familial cheer with the always-suspect Fonzie—but Mrs. C and the kids get a little misty-eyed and wobbly-lipped, and the family conspires to get Fonzie to stay while letting him save face about having nowhere else to go. Under the pretext of needing his help with the Christmas lights, Fonzie is drawn into the family circle, and we all bask in a vision of community and generosity.
The story is told in a pretty simple, unsophisticated fashion (ah, nostalgia for tv from the 70s that was nostalgic for life in the 50s!), but I was marked for life by that particular episode. I can’t be sure of the full extent to which my developing psyche was influenced by childhood tv-viewing, but I know that my sentimentality about Christmas was strongly influenced by all the specials broadcast at the time. Of course, there’s A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and Merry Christmas Charlie Brown—all narratives that very transparently and didactically celebrate the integration of the individual into the community. (I suppose someone could do a conference paper on how Dickens’ personal trauma, shaped by a combination of culturally-specific forces in the 19th century, came to dominate our collective understanding of a mystical religious celebration—but we can save that for another day.) For me, those narratives became far more powerfully influential than any Sunday-school lessons—I know that lurking not very far beneath the surface of my urbane, sophisticated, persona—just like Fonzie—I take “Christmas spirit” very, very seriously. And—as with Fonzie (somewhere my poor devout Nana is apologizing to an angel for how tv became my reference point instead of the teachings of the good Reverend Faraday)—it’s not all the chestnuts or eggnog, the roasted bird and puddings that really matter. Rather, what no amount of critical inquiry, of cynical, arch, erudition can dispel, is that there is something terribly, existentially, basically wrong about being alone at Christmas—and (as Dickens reminds us throughout most of his work)—about being alone in general.
In addition to the ubiquitous heavy hitters of the holiday-special line-up, there were several others that seem to have been unique to my generation’s Canadian childhood, including The Happy Prince, and the Selfish Giant (both by Oscar Wilde—check them out on YouTube if you need a cathartic experience). These weren’t especially Christmas-themed, but someone at the CBC saw that they had something in common with the more canonical Christmas narratives; and in fact, since all the trappings of the Christmas celebration weren’t present, the didactic element was all the more forceful. What the stories of lonely Princes, Giants, and greaser mechanics all had in common was a central character who is full of kindness, generosity, and fellow-feeling—and yet is somehow isolated from his community—an outsider, a non-conformist, even, to some, a menace or a monster—and is consequently profoundly alone. Long before the denouement of each story, when the character’s true, loving nature is discovered and he receives love in return (but sometimes too late!) I start getting misty-eyed, and wobbly-lipped, and watch the whole thing with tears in my eyes. It started with Christmas specials, but the effect really did extend far beyond them. I never got over these stories—I have the same reaction with Wall-E, or when we learn of Huck’s backstory on the ridiculous Scandal. What gets me, what I find heartbreakingly painful, is how misunderstanding and difference create isolation and loneliness. The figure who is full of love, and has to endure a life where no-one loves him or her back—touches me like almost nothing else.
It’s unfashionable to be earnest and sentimental, especially in secular circles, as though strong feelings are symptoms of excess credulousness. We intellectual types can critique the hegemonic forces that use mass-media narratives to create conformist docility in the individual, blah blah blah. Yeah, we all live in the panopticon, whatever. The point here is this: I come from a small, not-particularly-extroverted family, with far-flung and rarely-seen uncles and aunts and cousins. In recent years, I’ve become one of the far-flung, living thousands of miles from the nearest relatives. I’m single, I don’t have kids of my own. And, never able to forget the Tragedy of the Solitary Fonzie (or prince, or robot, or Scrooge), there is something in me that hates to see another person drift to the margins of society, because of misunderstanding or difference; and it’s one of my greatest fears, that that could happen to me too—because it can so easily happen to any of us. In our culture, that puts so much emphasis on self-absorbed achievement and self-gratification, it’s too easy to let the connections slide. Like Mr. Cunningham, if we have family, we turn inwards towards them and tend to leave the more difficult work of hospitality, generosity, and inclusion to others.
For several years now, my secret project has been to very deliberately build my family outwards, to make connections with friends of varying degrees of closeness, which I hope will be very long-lasting. I suppose that those who come from large, tightly-knit families may not need to join the project, though they’re welcome to—but partly from self-preservation and partly from plain old sentimental fellowship, I want as many people in my life as will fit. Is that a fond and foolish thing to confess in a blog post? Sorry—the damage of popular culture has long been done—those instructive tales of Christmas spirit lasting all the year through did their work. My family, which as far as I’m concerned includes those related to me by a shared interest in dumplings and dance classes as well as by blood, includes some prickly members, many of whom aren’t easy to get to know (I might be one of them, depending on the day); we aren’t always noble and good; we might be inconsistently affable. But taken as a whole, we all share the same needs, for generosity, and community; and we can all give the same gift, over and over again, of welcoming one another in, so that each of us has somewhere to go, and people to be with.