Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In William Dean Howells’ short story “Christmas Every Day,” a little girl asks her father to tell her a story. The father begins, significantly, with one about a little pig, and the child stops him: “she had heard little pig-stories till she was perfectly sick of them.” She wants a story about Christmas, and he offers to tell one about a Christmas so magnificent that it occurs every day. The child is enthralled; what a magnificent concept! When the father begins again, however, he slips and says, “Very well, then, this little pig...” The little girl will scarcely let him get away with that, and he excuses his mistake by saying “I should like to know what’s the difference between a little pig and a little girl that wanted it Christmas every day!” This, of course, is the point of the whole story. Children’s perceptions of the perfect Christmas are built on greed, and greed carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.
The first day of Christmas is perfect, of course. The presents are opulent, the tree gorgeous, the dinner first-rate. The little girl eats too much candy in the morning and plum pudding and nuts and raisins and oranges in the afternoon, and as a result gets a stomachache. The father remarks, as many fathers do under such circumstances, that next year is going to be calmer, or else. In short, like all wonderful Christmases, it is so hectic that the little girl in the story is exhausted by day’s end.
But she is awakened at the crack of dawn the next morning by her brothers and sisters, clamoring that it’s Christmas Day. The child is less than enthusiastic to get up so early two days in a row. Worse, the presents from the previous day are cluttering up the room, augmented by the new unopened ones, and the child’s mother can’t figure out how she is “to dispose of all these things.” The little girl again eats too much candy in the morning and plum pudding and nuts and raisins and oranges in the afternoon, and again gets a stomachache. The adults become crosser than ever.
The following day it is Christmas again, and every subsequent day as well. It wreaks havoc with the economy: “After a while turkeys got to be awfully scarce, selling for about a thousand dollars apiece. They got to passing off almost anything for turkeys—even half-grown hummingbirds. And cranberries—well, they asked a diamond apiece for cranberries. All the woods and orchards were cut down for Christmas trees. After a while they had to make Christmas trees out of rags. But there were plenty of rags, because people got so poor, buying presents for one another, that they couldn’t get any new clothes, and they just wore their old ones to tatters. They got so poor that everybody had to go to the poorhouse, except the confectioners, and the storekeepers, and the book-sellers, and they all got so rich and proud that they would hardly wait upon a person when he came to buy.”
Note what Howells has done. The consequences that follow from all this fantastic indulgence are perfectly logical; indulgence does bring poverty. Finally, of course, the child in the story begs for the spell to be undone; she doesn’t want it to be Christmas ever again. But, of course, this isn’t right. We all need, occasionally, to celebrate; we all need a time to give more of our bounty than may be frugal and prudent. It just can’t be every day. Eventually the perfect bargain is struck, and Christmas returns to its proper time and place—the twenty-fifth of December, once a year.
“Christmas Every Day” can be found in a book of the same title.
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