For an unsentimental take on Christmas, and a view of not-so-loving, cat-and-mouse relationships between adults and children, I went back to Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. In this scene the young Augie is in the Chicago department store where he has been hired as one of Santa’s helpers for the Christmas season:
Painted and rouged with theater greasepaint and dusted with mica snow, Jimmy and I marched around the store with tambourines and curl-tongued noisemakers, turning somersaults in our billiard-felt jester’s suit, and we gathered a gang of kids to lead to the third floor where the Swede Santa Claus sat in his sleigh, with reindeer artfully hung from the ceiling, the toy trains snicking and money baskets mousing swift and mechanical on the cables to the cashier’s cage. Here we were in charge of a surprise-package barrel done up in red and green paper, hollies and diamond powder and coils of silver bristles. These Christmas packages sold for two bits, and Jimmy decided that no inventory of them was possible and began to pocket every tenth quarter. For several days he didn’t tell me this, only stood me to lunch. Then he let me into his secret as the volume of business got heavier. We were supposed to carry the money to the cashier when we had accumulated ten dollars. “She dumps it straight in the sack with the rest of the change,” he said. “She doesn’t mark down where it comes from because she’s too busy raking it in, so why shouldn’t we take a cut?” We had many discussions about it and raised the percentage to two quarters in every ten. There was a great thriving noise and glitter; all minds were dispersed into this Christmas tinkling, whirring, carols and signal chimes, and what we were doing in secret with our hands wasn’t observable. We stole considerable money.
Augie’s criminal initiative ends up badly, but the scene is a good illustration of the commercial side of Christmas and the way it can appear to Santa’s little helpers.
– Catherine Vigier, Zeteo contributing Writer
Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March, in Bellow: Novels 1944-1953. New York, The Library of America, 2009.
Photo by Thomas Nugent on Wikimedia Creative Commons