I ran across this story a couple of weeks ago written by Frank Sullivan. It was published in 1933 in a book titled “A Pearl in Every Oyster.” Given that Thanksgiving is the kickoff of the Christmas season, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on what the people of the past thought a modern Christmas might look like. Sullivan was one of the original contributors to The New Yorker magazine the year it launched in 1925 and his influence as a humorist was bolstered by his involvement in the group called the Algonquin Round Table. I’ll let you be the judge of how close Sullivan came to what Christmas now looks like in his short story, “The Christmas of the Future.”
Discussion questions and resources for teachers are located at the bottom.
The Christmas of the Future
by Frank Sullivan
There is every reason to believe that the old haphazard and unscientific methods of celebrating Christmas are slowly dying out and that the Christmas of the future will be observed with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum loss of energy.
In the past Christmas as a holiday has often been fraught with danger to life and limb, but science is making rapid strides in the direction of making the Yuletide safe for democracy. An example of this: I had heard only the other day of the admirable work a prominent inventor is doing to combat the holly menace. There are few of us who at one time or another have not received flesh wounds—not serious, to be sure, but non the less painful—as a result of sitting unawares on barbed holly left in chairs by frenzied Christmas tree trimmers. Such lesions will soon be a thing of the past. I am not authorized to give details but I understand that within the year this inventor I speak of will have a serviceable and cheap rubber holly on the market, guaranteed not to puncture
Other time-honored Christmas features seem to have outlived their day. You no longer find Christmas trees festooned with ropes of popcorn. Those of us who are in our forties can remember when days were spent popping corn and stringing it into yards of trimming for the Christmas tree. By the time the tree was taken down at Twelfth Night the popcorn had hung long enough to acquire an attractively gamey tang, with a flavor of tinsel dust, lint and dried evergreen needles. It was considered quite a delicacy by the small fry of those times. For years hot buttered popcorn seemed quite tame to me by comparison. This eating of mummified popcorn, and the wholesale consumption by tots of Christmas tree candles were probably, with the recent depression, the main factors in producing the dyspepsia which is so marked a characteristic of the generation of the present writer. Popcorn and wax candles have joined the dodo and the Yule log. The children of today must find some other means of acquiring acute indigestion. They are resourceful and ingenious, and will no doubt have little trouble doing so.
Another Christmas reform impends. I am told that within a year or two science will have stripped the kiss under the mistletoe of its terrors. For some time past experiments have been proceeding with a new automatic antiseptic mistletoe. The leaves are of sterilized green satin and the berries are made of indurated milk. It will function on the principle of the automatic sprinkler, in this manner; Two kissers approach the mistletoe in a spirit of holiday lust. As they square off under the mistletoe the heat generated by their fondness for each other releases hundreds of tiny sprinklers concealed in the mistletoe “berries” and a spray of healing formaldehyde sifts gently down upon them like a benison, destroying all coryza, grippe, influenza, pneumonia or tetanus germs that may be lurking about the kissers’ kissers.
Of course, the antiseptic mistletoe is only a temporary measure. Eventually the kiss under the mistletoe must go, bag and Baggage. It is unhygienic, sloppy and sentimental; and it breeds unscientific thinking. It has no place in our modern life.
The Christmas of the future will be a triumph of science over waste. Energy now frittered away in futile holiday pursuits will be conserved for more constructive purposes. For one thing, Christmas will be made to end immediately after dinner on Christmas Day, thus eliminating the demoralizing Christmas afternoon, the most depressing few hours in the Christian calendar. I refer to the period from about three o’clock on, when reaction from the hysteria of trimming the tree and opening the presents has set in and all the world seems dark and dreary; when the fruit cake is irrevocably inside the celebrant and has made unmistakably clear its determination not to merge with the port wine, walnuts, oyster stuffing, cranberry sauce and the rest of the Christmas viands. It is the time when the kiddies begin to do battle for the possession of the few toys that remain unbroken; and it is the time when Daddy, called upon to fix the electric train, trips over the track—or the baby—and plunges headlong into the Christmas tree, ripping off the electrical trimmings and causing a short circuit. Christmas afternoon must go.
In the Christmas of the future the gift problem, with its associated problems of shopping, mailing, wrapping, exchanging, etcetera, will cease to be the bête noire it is today. Everyone will cooperate. Christmas cards will be mailed earlier and earlier until the bulk of them will have been delivered about the time the second income tax installments begin to clog the mails. Parcels will be wrapped more and more securely as the years go by until he will be a fast worker indeed who gets his presents all unwrapped by the second Sunday after Epiphany.
Shopping will not be the bedlam it is today. It will be controlled. The energies of American women will be harnessed. There will be national leagues of shoppers. Teams from stores like Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Marshall Field, Filene’s and Wanamaker’s will compete with each other in shopping bouts under the rules now governing wrestling. It will be no time at all before controlled Christmas shopping has developed a hardy, buxom race of American woman shoppers which might well serve as a first line of national defense in case of emergency. Perhaps it may eventually be said of the United States that our victories were won on the notion counters of Gimbel’s.
One of the worst psychological effects of Christmas on people is the rage that follows when a person gives a friend a gift and the friend fails to reciprocate. This will be eliminated in the Christmas of the future by the Declaration of Gift. This will simply be a public notice of every citizen’s Christmas intentions. Early in the fall everyone will be required by law to file a list with the Collector of Internal Revenue of the persons to whom he proposes to give Christmas presents, with the nature of the planned cost of each gift.
These lists will be tacked up at the post office and department stores of each city for public scrutiny. Each person can examine the lists, find out what his friends are doing, and act accordingly. If I have you on my list for a necktie or a compact and I find from the public list that you have not put me down for anything, I can just cross you off my list. Or, if a citizen thinks he has a right to expect a present from a friend who has failed to declare to that effect, the injured party shall have the legal right to apply to the courts for a writ of mandamus compelling the defendant, or recalcitrant donor, to show cause why the aforesaid present should not be given to the plaintiff, or piqued donee.
Two people who find that they are giving each other presents of equal value can pair off like Senators voting at Washington and cancel both gifts, taking the will for the deed. This practice will be called phantom giving.
As Christmas becomes more and more scientific and less encumbered with sentimental flubdub children will play less and less part in its celebration. The heaviest burden of the Christmas celebration has always fallen on the tots, for it is the season of the year when parents have to be coddled and humored more than at any other time. The child has to simulate an unfelt curiosity in the mysterious packages that arrive during December and are whisked furtively to the attic. Children have to compose letters to Santa Claus to placate Christmas-crazed parents and they are hauled off to department stores where they are expected to display glee at the sight of a Santa Claus in palpably fake whiskers.
All this is too much of a strain to place on their little libidos. It fills their subconsciousnesses with impressions that pop out twenty or thirty years later in the most bloodcurdling manifestations. In the future it is probable that Santa Claus will be required to be clean-shaven and that only Dr. Freud will be allowed to continue wearing a beard.
So it will go. As we progress scientifically we shall slough off the antiquated customs and leave off saying “Merry Christmas” or drinking wassail (of slight nutritive value and totally lacking in the essential vitamins). The celebration of Christmas will become more and more efficient until it will at last be so efficient that it will become unnecessary to keep Christmas at all.
The elimination of New Year, Thanksgiving and Halloween will follow as a matter of course and those who have chanced to read this glance into the future may live to see the day when we will just skip from Labor Day to Lent.
Questions for Discussion
- What depictions of a modern Christmas from Sullivan’s story have actually come to fruition?
- What did Sullivan get wrong?
- This piece is an example of satire. It pokes fun at the truth. What does using humor allow the author to do that being serious wouldn’t?
- Do you think that the story is more memorable because of the author’s use of humor?
- Humor is often dependent on juxtapositions. In “The Christmas of the Future” are the juxtapositions explicit or implied? For juxtapositions that are implied, do you think they lose power as the culture shifts away from what it was?
- Take an event that we take for granted today, something that involves some sort of tradition, and imagine what it would look like one hundred years in the future. Write a piece of creative writing that depicts what you envision.
- Write a five-paragraph essay on why you think using humor helped or hindered the story Sullivan was trying to tell in, “The Christmas of the Future.” Be sure to include three examples to support your statement.
- Write a letter back to Frank Sullivan explaining to him what the Christmas of the future actually looks like.