One Christmas Eve by Langston Hughes, 1933
The magic trick:
Showing how typical, happy white Christmas activities of the ’30s could take away from the black Christmas experience
Just as we saw in Chekhov’s masterful “Gooseberries,” Langston Hughes reminds us that everyone functions as part of a community. The things you enjoy – even the seemingly innocuous pleasures of Christmastime – can have negative consequences for someone else.
In “One Christmas Eve,” the white characters of the story don’t commit any crimes; they don’t show any egregious hate beyond the norm of their 1930s American society. And yet their actions limit the Christmas cheer for the story’s black characters.
The family for whom Arcie works is late coming home from shopping, keeping Arcie away from her son on Christmas Eve. The Missus doesn’t have Arcie’s promised pay. Societal segregation keeps Arcie and her son, Joe, from fully enjoying the splendor of the town decked out for the holidays. When Joe innocently wanders into the white movie theatre, he is shooed away by the white man dressed as Santa Claus.
Hughes makes this point abundantly clear throughout the story by describing the scenes with positive adjectives. The tree is “lovely;” the snow is “pretty;” the children look “happy.” These descriptions contrast directly with the way in which Arcie’s point of view is related. She is stressed, angry, embittered, and world-weary. Nights like this, we are made to see, will soon do the same to young Joe as well. It is a sad, but important, side of Christmas in the 1930s. And that’s quite a trick on Hughes’s part.
“O-oo! Lookee…,” little Joe kept saying, and pointing at things in the windows. How warm and pretty the lights were, and the shops, and the electric signs through the snow.
It took Arcie more than a dollar to get Joe’s mittens and things he needed. In the A&P Arcie bought a big bag of hard candies for forty-nine cents. And then she guided Joe through the crowd on the street until they came to the dime store. Near the ten-cent store they passed a moving picture theatre. Joe said he wanted to go in and see the movies.
Arcie said, “Ump-un! No, child! This ain’t Baltimore where they have shows for colored, too. In these here small towns, don’t let colored folks in. We can’t go in there.”
“Oh,” said little Joe.