‘Christmas Poem’ by John O’Hara

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Christmas Poem by John O’Hara, 1964

The magic trick:

Pushing what appears to be a bitter critique but then pulling back and offering a surprisingly sweet conclusion

Merry Christmas! I hope you are enjoying a wonderful holiday season.

Today, we have a surprisingly sweet story of family. I say surprisingly only because I usually find O’Hara to write with a particular venom and cynicism. And here, that need to relish in the lesser qualities of human nature rises to the surface early.

We see a family home together for the holidays talking about assorted plans. They are entitled and status-driven. Then we follow the college-aged son, Billy, out for a night with his friends. The portrait gets worse, as we see his gang’s attitudes and actions bounce between immature, selfish, money-hungry, ignorant, and misogynous.

So why would I post such a story on Christmas day?

The redemption, obviously.

Billy rejects his friends. He rejects these values. Or at least he postpones them temporarily and returns home. There he finds his father, and without spoiling the story, I will just say that his father is engaged in an act that completely wipes out the money-focused, surface-oriented values that have hung about the story. It’s a very tender act, a very tender moment, and because it redeems a previously salty story, it’s a moment that doesn’t play as over-sentimentalized. It’s just right. And that’s quite a trick on O’Hara’s part.

The selection:

“Who could she possibly mean?” said Billy. “I opened one present, because it came from Brooks Brothers and I thought it might be something I could wear right away.”

“And was it?” said his mother.

“Yes. Some socks. These I have on, as a matter of fact,” said Billy. “They’re a little big, but they’ll shrink.”

“Very snappy,” said Barbara.

“Yes, and I don’t know who they came from. There was no card.”

“I’ll tell you who they were from. They were from me,” said Barbara.

“They were? Well, thanks. Just what I wanted,” said Billy.

“Just what you asked me for, last summer,” said Barbara.

“Did I? I guess I did. Thank you for remembering. Well, goodnight, all. Don’t wait up. I’ll be home before breakfast.”

They muttered their goodnights and he left. He wanted to—almost wanted to—stay; to tell his father that he did not want a Marmon for Christmas, which would have been a falsehood; to tell his mother he loved her in spite of her being a nitwit; to talk to Bobby about Roger Taylor, who was not good enough for her. But this was his first night home and he had his friends to see. Bobby had Roger, his father and mother had each other; thus far he had no one. But it did not detract from his feeling for his family that he now preferred the livelier company of his friends. They all had families, too, and they would be at the drug store tonight. You didn’t come home just to see the members of your family. As far as that goes, you got a Christmas vacation to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, but except for a few Catholics, who would go anywhere near a church? And besides, he could not talk to his family en masse.

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