John E. McIntyre, of the Baltimore Sun, laments the use of cliché when writing about the upcoming season even as his cautionary tale relies on so much holiday hokum you might expect a candy cane (sans yummy red stripes) to pop out at the end of an article that wouldn’t be without them. Many a writer has violated the fine line between meaningful tradition and meaningless overuse, but is John’s advice all that and a plate of sugar cookies?
Let us begin with the footnote of his article: “The modern, saccharine, holly jolly Christmas, which can barely wait until the post-Thanksgiving-dinner Alka-Seltzer is swallowed, has essentially effaced the original. Do not try to swim against the current.” This, he tells us, after telling us how to swim against the current – by forgoing every cliché from Jack Frost and jolly old elves to tweezing the ’twas from any headline. How might a writer do this and leave the reader with any sense of the topic?
As a military spouse and writer, one of the things I pack most carefully with every move is that which represents our traditions, to include all things cliché – the whole holiday kit and caboodle, as it were. I take great offense to John’s insistence that I therefore have a sworn enemy lurking between my dishes and duvets.
I am not alone in my lack of good will toward men, er, man.
Stars and Stripes columnist Terri Barnes likens John to the Grinch. “His rant reveals one of those hearts two sizes too small. While decrying the very mention of their names, he resurrects those spirits of Christmases past he most wants to bury with stakes of holly through their respective hearts. Apparently, he considers himself the literary guardian of all things festive, and his remedy for the perceived ills of holiday writing is ‘Blog it out!’ What is any tradition but a cliché with a warm heart? Give Dickens a rest, indeed. Someone needs to remind him that whatever the month, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ Not even curmudgeons. (See also ‘Scrooge’.)”
Military spouse and The Indiana Gazette columnist Lisa Molinari roasts a few of John’s chestnuts. “He is like a grumpy old man who goes on and on about how he walked up hill four miles in the snow to and from school. If Christmas is coming, writers are going to write about it; and how on earth are they going to do that and avoid mentioning time-honored traditions. I would like to see him pen an essay about the Christmas holidays, following all of his don’ts and market it to a mass audience.”
I attempted to address Lisa’s concern and meet John’s criteria: “It was a stark and valueless night. As a lone light bulb burned, obligatory presentations were made. Brother Billy pinched the cat and spitballed a potted plant. Meanwhile, in the back of the house, mother wept at the idea of centering the main meal around ramen noodles. Uncle Phil drank heavily while Aunt Myrtle hit on cousin Claire’s fiancé. Claire shot Myrtle. The policeman’s flashing lights illuminated the leaf-strewn snowman in the front yard. It was surreal. And to all a pleasant enough evening.”
Terri responds, ”Your depiction of a post-modern American holiday is completely without pretense, a tribute to your unsentimental refusal to pander to meaningless tradition. You have completely failed to warm the cockles of Mr. McIntyre’s heart, freeing him from the necessity of looking up ‘cockle’ to see what the heck it is. Mr. McIntyre would thank you, but alas, it’s been done.”
John concludes about the use of clichés, “Some readers (and, sadly, some writers) lap up this swill. It is familiar, and the complete lack of originality comforts them. It is for such people that television exists.” Yes John, there are people who lap up what they can when they most lack what they need: a job, transportation, food to put on the table, the opportunity to give and/or give back. If reading articles written by those who understand how much this means to them makes them feel better, what in the Charles Dickens is it to you?
Meanwhile, somewhere amid the smoldering remains of a warehouse fire that destroyed the household goods of 97 military families just in time for the holidays, every reminder of their traditions bearing any number of seasonal clichés becomes a memory. Rest assured, John – their televisions no longer exist.