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A Christmas Story: The Ever-Tangled Knot

Luke F. Davis

Madonna University


Over this holiday season do you scream with glee at the first sign of snow? Do you bake every

cookie with love, do you go to war with your neighbors to see whose house can be brighter, do

you milk your wallet for every penny just so your children with truly cherish one of the many

presents you bought them do you indulge with the season? Christmas is surrounded by the

warmth of joy and love, or at least it is until you take a closer look.

Keywords: holiday, warmth, love


A Christmas Story: The Ever-Tangled Knot

On December fourteenth, 1981, The New Yorker released issue 2823 of its weekly

magazine. To build a context, The New Yorker is a magazine company that has built a

particularly varied array of skills and talents that have been the apple of both the artistic

communitys eye as well as the intellectuals. It discusses politics, international affairs, popular

culture, science, business, along with poetry, humor, fiction and cartoons. Due to the date of this

issue cover and the spirit of the holidays, I found myself locked upon a subliminal meaning of

what this issues cover could possibly represent.

The issue cover is, for the most part, bleak and without flavor. This era of artistry is such

to trap its admirer in its muted dull colors and overall fuzziness or lack of definition. But with

most art, or at the very least some art, the message and/or beauty of each piece is found more so

in what it doesnt show rather than what it does show. What it does show, that is, is a spacious

canvas of white and at the center of this sea of blank space is a man. The man is presumably a

father, if not a father then most definitely a middle aged man judging by his balding head, his

glasses, the pipe in his mouth, the shape of his body (or lack thereof), and his wardrobe.

The man is struggling with a rather overwhelming bunch up of what appears to be wire,

to which there are miniature bulbs of color attached. The monstrous blob of green wire and

varied color specs get larger and larger leading up to what could be inferred to be a white box.

The repetition of loops and swirls communicates a sense of chaos, complication, intricacy, and

overall tortuousness. The covers admirer could come to the conclusion that this knotty mess of

festively colored lights would most likely be the lights any average American would use to

decorate his Christmas tree. This knotty mess of Christmas lights lead into a box bigger than the

majority of the mans torso. But regardless the man shows no visual facial expressions that

would commonly display a sense of anxiety. In fact, one could argue that the man is sparsely

showing any facial expressions at all. The blandness of tone accumulated in the color of the

cover and in the definition of the art displayed in the cover conveys a sense of unfitting boredom.

Unfitting because of the typically cheerful environment surrounding December and collectively

the entire holiday season. It whispers a begrudgingly quiet message into my ear: that this man

has been here before. This man has handled this knotty mess before, and is unbothered and

unphased by the menacing task that falls before him. Hes working at untangling this blob of

knots, which you can see in the fact that to the right of his hands, and in the direction hes facing,

is a single strand of lights whereas the mess of lights is before him and all to the left of him

leading up to the big white box.

The box, bigger than most the man, holds his current source of challenge. It waits

patiently for him. The quietness of the cover screams to its viewer an appropriation of anxiety.

The circuitous array of colors within the Christmas lights coddle the viewer with the faintest

memory of cheer, but is overpowered by an overarching lack of interest. To many, the holiday

season is a time for glee and bliss, but to a greater many that spirit seems to have been drowned

out by the repetitive songs, traditions and rituals that namely surround Christmas. To what do we

owe such a soberness of heart? Most likely the conceiving and bearing of children, but, that is

besides the point. The point is that there has been a distinct loss of happiness surrounding what

Andy Williams calls the happiest season of all. The man does not appear to be happy, the color

scheme does not appear to be happy, the cover just simply does not embody the kind of

happiness one would expect from a Christmas themed magazine cover. Every color

communicates an emotion blue being that of sadness, red being that of passion, yellow being that

of glee, green being that of jealousy, but white is a void of color. The sea of white that engulfs

this New Yorker cover is nothing but a sea of void. The emotionless man, the box that contains

this emotionless mans current struggle, and the emotion and festiveness found in the knotty

mess of lights they are all surrounded by a literal sea of void.

The void that Im assuming the white is purposed to represent is the vacuum of emotional

emptiness that is seemingly surrounding the holiday season today. The only festive indication in

this issues cover is the christmas lights, ergo one could refer to the representation of christmas

in this cover as a thing as an object, a usable and possessable material. I feel that, simply put,

the image is shining a light on the material perversion of American holidays. We tell our children

to be good for the holidays in order to earn gifts, or at least we tell them to be good and behave

or else they wont receive the gifts that this magical story creature named Santa has made for

them. A gift, in theory, is naturally defined by it not being merited. If a gift were merited then it

wouldnt be a gift, it would be a reward. We reward children, peers, parents, or whoever you

spend your holidays with material possessions that are subliminally replacing human worth with

a dollar sign. Of course, you could knit a sweater or build something as a gift to someone, but

either way that is beside the point of what I see in this image. I see in this image a materializing

of a holiday that is in spirit a particular embodiment of kindness, joy, love, and togetherness. I

am willing to go deep enough into this message that the artist may very well have been

personifying the action that Americans (namely) have put price tags on human worth. Now, there

is no money showed in the image, but if you break the image down literally we see a man willing

to put labor into untangling this giant knotty mess of christmas lights. Is it because of the pure

love pouring from his heart for his family? That is very well possible, but he isnt showing love,

enthusiasm, or any typical emotion that is identifiably festive. Like the average member of the

workforce, any workforce, we dont typically put excitement and enthusiasm into our mundane

day-to-day jobs. We go through the motions, unphased and almost in agony. This man looks

unphased, and almost in agony. Now to apply this connection, it begs me to ask: why would he

untangle these christmas lights? Is it just so that he can decorate his house with festive lights?

Again, thats a possibility but that is unlikely to me, given that people naturally do things for a

reward. Is his house looking bright and colorful reward enough for him to force through the

grievance of untangling this cord of lights? Or does the true reward lay in the response he may or

may not receive from his wife and kids? That seems more likely.

But I want to take this train of thought a step or two farther, and focus on his hypothetical

children. Is there a zero percent chance that part of the reason his children get excited by the

festive lights on their house is because they know that means christmas is coming, and that

christmas means gifts (or not gifts, but rewards because the gifts are technically merit based

because if the children are naughty then they get coal in their stockings)? When American

children think christmas, they equally think presents, toys, treats, and such. Not only

will his children think this way, but most likely at some point in this mans life that would have

also been the connotation behind the holiday season. Now, if you go farther and farther back in

this mans lineage Im sure that connotation would become less and less, and more and more

about peace, joy and love (like what the holiday season was originally intended to be). As time

goes on, Ive noticed an ever more materializing society in America. Which makes sense because

of this ideology of doing good things will merit material rewards (presents) that weve built up

surrounding the holidays, and in turn weve built rewards as our sole motivation of being good,

decent and loving towards others. We see this in the mans willingness to untangle this cord of

lights, because he most likely wouldnt do this daily for his family but he does it because of the

holiday season.

In conclusion, I see in this image that the holiday season has become less of a time for

good deeds and love towards humankind, and more of a time to do mundane tasks in turn for

reward. Which turns good deeds and love towards humankind, in a way, a mundane task.

Christmas time (which is the embodiment of the time to love all) has become this knotty mess

tangled with the spending of money, the begrudging discipline to do whats good and right, and

ritualistic repetitiveness. The modern story of christmas is becoming this ever-tangled knot that

we pull out of our giant white boxes once a year to untangle and display. We display it to our

loved ones, to our neighbors, and to the world. We display that the time to be genuine and be

loving and show a kindness to all humankind comes only once a year, and that we only do this

mundanely and with the purpose of seeking reward. In a way, we are all this man. So to finish, I

want to conclude with a question: are we willing to pull out our big white boxes every day, in

every situation, and in every interaction we have with any fellow human being? Or are we going

to shove that big white box back into our attic again on January first just like every other year?