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The Publisher's Desk

The Publisher's Desk

On Christmas.


In the genre of Christmas movies, the stop-motion Rankin/Bass Christmas special Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970) occupies a special place in my heart. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) is my favorite, of course, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) must be the one everyone knows best, but the Burgermeister Meisterburger and the Winter Warlock I like to imagine as rival professors of ethics.

These two petty lords contend with the young toy maker Kris Kringle and force him to develop a series of ad hoc customs that become the basis of the Santa Claus myth. The show’s plot is more complicated than you may think wise for a fifty-minute holiday special, but we need recall only a few details here. Sombertown, the center of our story, is a brutal authoritarian burg run by the Burgermeister, a man who hates happiness, toys, and children’s joy. (Mary Kate Skehan recounts her meeting with a somewhat less tyrannical municipal authority figure on page 30.) Outside Sombertown the woods are terrorized by the Winter Warlock, who spreads misery and scares all the baby animals. Santa Klaus (known as a child here as “Kris Kringle”), we learn, was delivered as a foundling to the Burgermeister, grows up in the town’s “Orphan Asylum,” and later ventures outside its borders into the Warlock’s woods. (Another fictional tale of supernatural goings-on appears on page 57, from Ree Brannigan, winner of our Christmas ghost story competition; a true one, of a well-documented haunting that comes down to us from a nineteenth-century American frontier priest, is on page 29.)

In one scene, when Kris Kringle is a young man traveling through the Warlock’s woods, he is ensnared by a tree the Warlock has bewitched. The Warlock appears, cackling, and prepares to do the young Santa in. He only pauses when Kringle requests a moment to get something from his bag, and, shocked, watches as his victim produces a gift: a choo-choo train for the icy villain. Whereupon, never having received a present before, the Warlock’s icy exterior literally melts. Left behind is a much smaller and sadder looking old man in silly clothes standing in the woods with Kris Kringle.

WINTER WARLOCK: My icy heart... it’s melting! Suddenly, my whole outlook has changed from bad to good! Ah, but will it last? I really am a mean and despicable creature at heart, you know. It’s so difficult to . . . really change.

KRIS KRINGLE: Difficult? [chuckles] Why, why look here. Changing from bad to good’s as easy as . . . taking your first step.

Goodness, Kris Kringle knows, is not a single isolated thing done in an instant, but a constant habit, like walking. Becoming good is like learning to walk—
difficult at first, yes, but done over and over again until it is thoughtless, natural. We become more ourselves by doing it. The hardest work of learning any subject, or acquiring any habit, is in its very earliest repetition; it is the task of teachers to help students through this difficulty. From our infant days learning to walk and talk, to our schooldays learning geography, to the most important things we learn at home and at church, we can see the fruits of our efforts as we can do, or know, without trying to. We simply know the thing, we have the habit, we are good. (See Gerald Russello’s reflections on teaching catechism to young Catholics, 19).

By contrast, for the tin-pot tyrant of Sombertown, the Burgermeister, good and evil do not seem like human categories at all, but transcendental qualities. He hates toys, so he bans toys, and the word of the sovereign is its own morality. When Kris Kringle brings a gift to the Burgermeister, he is overjoyed—until he is reminded that he is breaking his own law. The toy is duly destroyed. Toys are bad, and thus against the law; they are against the law, and thus bad. The people who live under that law are an afterthought.

Of course, if it is simple to change from bad to good, it is all too easy to do the reverse, too. Habits considered generally do not have moral character; they have to be directed toward something good. You can learn to walk well or badly, to hold doors for old ladies or let them close in their faces. Sometimes, as with the tragic Mr. Stevens in The Remains of the Day, we can be overcome by our habits—people so set in their ways, even good ones, that we do not see what good end they were formed to serve. (See Peter Tonguette’s review of a memoir by James Ivory, who directed a classic film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel on page 47.)

Habits that enable us to do good are virtues. As Catholics we are all familiar with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and with the Seven Capital Virtues of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, kindness, patience, and humility, and with the corresponding Seven Deadly Sins of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, wrath, and pride against which the practice of the former will surely defend us. (For an illustration of each of these virtues in the life of a parish church, see Kenneth Wolfe’s moving history of Old Saint Mary’s in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. on page 8.)

Some habits are simply vicious. (For an amusing treatment of Anthony Burgess, a habitual offender against the theological and Cardinal virtues alike, see Roger Lewis on page 54.) Others are neutral: capable of being more obliquely oriented toward the good but in themselves neither virtuous nor vicious. It is likely that most habitual activity falls into this broad middle category, from water-cooler conversation to basketball to the drinking of alcohol. (Nic Rowan on page 60 introduces readers to the time-honored but morally dubious practice among poor young scribblers of selling advance review copies of new books sent by the publisher and using the proceeds to purchase other volumes.)

Many habits, of course, are acquired in childhood, and they are most familiarly modeled by members of our families. (For Frederick Sandefur’s beautiful memoir of his brother, see page 32.) Habits are formed not only by our parents and siblings, but by other relations, by friends, teachers, and by our earliest reading. Saint John Henry Newman’s own favorite childhood book was a version of the Arabian Nights. (David Bentley Hart reviews a new translation of one of his—and our editor’s—favorites on page 49).

All of these reflections are of course very heady for a column that began with an assessment of Rankin-Bass Christmas specials. As Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney reminded us, “You never will get where you’re going / If you never get up on your feet / Come on, there’s a good tail wind blowing / A fast walking man is hard to beat.”

Merry Christmas.

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