Pop Culture

Toward a Theory of Magic

Every month has its sun sign, its birth stone, its question. December’s question is (to paraphrase Katy Perry): Does life ever turn out the way it does in the movies? Does life ever live up to the way it looks in magazines and picture books and fairy tales? Do the Christmas cookies ever look so perfectly iced as they do on the cover of Martha Stewart Living? Do impromptu Christmas fundraisers for truly good people ever happen like they do at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life? Do hooves and sledge blades ever really clatter down on our rooftops?

Such conduits for cheer, after all, would have us believe that the holiday season is the time of year when magic really does happen. Really does—such an elegant turn of speech, a phrase bearing an economy of language slimmer than Cinderella’s heel. Really and truly get bandied about quite a lot during the holidays. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And then the true meaning of Christmas came through, and then the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches—plus two! Put the Christ back in Christmas. In December, the world is plunged into a postmodern bath and scrubbed behind the ears. Christmas, you see, is open season on literal meanings and linguistics.

In childhood, December throbbed with magic. Maybe that’s because knowing you’re in for the mother lode of all payoffs on the twenty-fifth of the month generates a kind of trickle-down excitement. The real meaning of Christmas has something to do with love, sure. The real stimulus behind Christmas is that promise of a pile of stuff, and our Pavlovian response to all the signifiers of its imminence. Those little white lights, conifers strapped to cars, the artificial smell of pine from a guttering Yankee Candle on the mantel. Claymation snowflakes, glossy bows, the plaintive yowls of a festively-in-love Mariah Carey. And lo, these stars, which we see in the east, go before us, and lead us to a big pile of stuff on Christmas morn.

Our modern Scrooge, Jonathan Franzen, disdains our love of signifiers of love:

You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. Mine include the wedding industry, TV ads that feature cute young children or the giving of automobiles as Christmas presents, and the particularly grotesque equation of diamond jewelry with everlasting devotion. The message, in each case, is that if you love somebody you should buy stuff.

Of course, the diamond doesn’t really mean devotion, but in whirlwind romance of marketing, we forget that. And if there were a gift you could give that would actually, literally, truly guarantee lifelong fidelity, that fidelity wouldn’t mean nearly as much. That wouldn’t be fidelity—whose power lies in choice—at all.

Take the Christmas morning out of Christmas. Leave behind all the little plastic candles in the windows and the ugly sweater parties and the shuffling through airports to fly to inconveniently located hometowns to visit relatives we don’t even like that much. Would December still stir the same flutter of excitement in our hearts, that dimmable but unextinguishable flutter that persists despite the inevitable onset of maturity and our transition from primary gift receiver to primary gift giver? Does the magic exist without the materialism? Does magic really, truly ever exist?

I like to think that it does. But, as with fidelity, one has a choice. Happy holidays.

Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.