Christmas reading with Ring Lardner

December 3rd, 2012

With the holiday season upon us, we recommend this old chestnut on a timely and timeless subject: Ring Lardner’s tale of an “Old Folks’ Christmas” powerfully exposes the tension between tradition and change, the past and the future, and giving and receiving. It’s a great, though sad, story to read and discuss with others—especially family. 

Every society, although bent on the future, is a gift from the past. We did not make the world we inhabit; it is a monument to our ancestors. How, then, should we regard—and what do we owe—our past, our traditions, our inherited institutions, our families of origin? These enduring human questions are all the more poignant in American society, given the rapid rate of technological and social change, our embrace of youthfulness and prosperity, and our passionate devotion to “what’s new.”

In the story (1929) by Ring Lardner (1885–1933), the overindulged young people, indifferent to tradition and heedless of family ties, care only for immediate enjoyment with their friends; the parents, heedless of the effects of social and cultural change, naively assume that their children will be like them.

What went wrong here, and why? What is “old” and what is “new”—and what is “American” and what “Christian”—in this American family’s Christmas? What would you do differently, as one of the parents or as one of the young people? What are the proper attitudes toward past and future? How do you change a tradition while also preserving its meaning?

Tom and Grace Carter sat in their living-room on Christmas Eve, sometimes talking, sometimes pretending to read and all the time thinking things they didn’t want to think. Their two children, Junior, aged nineteen, and Grace, two years younger, had come home that day from their schools for the Christmas vacation. Junior was in his first year at the university and Grace attending a boarding-school that would fit her for college.

I won’t call them Grace and Junior any more, though that is the way they had been christened. Junior had changed his name to Ted and Grace was now Caroline, and thus they insisted on being addressed, even by their parents. This was one of the things Tom and Grace the elder were thinking of as they sat in their living-room Christmas Eve.

Other university freshmen who had lived here had returned on the twenty-first, the day when the vacation was supposed to begin. Ted had telegraphed that he would be three days late owing to a special examination which, if he passed it, would lighten the terrific burden of the next term. He had arrived at home looking so pale, heavy-eyed and shaky that his mother doubted the wisdom of the concentrated mental effort, while his father secretly hoped the stuff had been non-poisonous and would not have lasting effects. Caroline, too, had been behind schedule, explaining that her laundry had gone astray and she had not dared trust others to trace it for her.

Grace and Tom had attempted, with fair success, to conceal their disappointment over this delayed home-coming and had continued with their preparations for a Christmas that would thrill their children and consequently themselves. They had bought an imposing lot of presents, costing twice or three times as much as had been Tom’s father’s annual income when Tom was Ted’s age, or Tom’s own income a year ago, before General Motors’ acceptance of his new weather-proof paint had enabled him to buy this suburban home and luxuries such as his own parents and Grace’s had never dreamed of, and to give Ted and Caroline advantages that he and Grace had perforce gone without.

Behind the closed door of the music-room was the elaborately decked tree. The piano and piano bench and the floor around the tree were covered with beribboned packages of all sizes, shapes and weights, one of them addressed to Tom, another to Grace, a few to the servants and the rest to Ted and Caroline. A huge box contained a sealskin coat for Caroline, a coat that had cost as much as the Carters had formerly paid a year for rent. Even more expensive was a “set” of jewelry consisting of an opal brooch, a bracelet of opals and gold filigree, and an opal ring surrounded by diamonds.

Grace always had preferred opals to any other stone, but now that she could afford them, some inhibition prevented her from buying them for herself; she could enjoy them much more adorning her pretty daughter. There were boxes of silk stockings, lingerie, gloves and handkerchiefs. And for Ted, a three-hundred-dollar watch, a de-luxe edition of Balzac, an expensive bag of shiny, new steel-shafted golf-clubs and the last word in portable phonographs.

But the big surprise for the boy was locked in the garage, a black Gorham sedan, a model more up to date and better-looking than Tom’s own year-old car that stood beside it. Ted could use it during the vacation if the mild weather continued and could look forward to driving it around home next spring and summer, there being a rule at the university forbidding undergraduates the possession or use of private automobiles.

Every year for sixteen years, since Ted was three and Caroline one, it had been the Christmas Eve custom of the Carters’ to hang up their children’s stockings and fill them with inexpensive toys. Tom and Grace had thought it would be fun to continue the custom this year; the contents of the stockings—a mechanical negro dancing doll, music-boxes, a kitten that meowed when you pressed a spot on her back, et cetera—would make the “kids” laugh. And one of Grace’s first pronouncements to her returned offspring was that they must go to bed early so Santa Claus would not be frightened away.

But it seemed they couldn’t promise to make it so terribly early. They both had long-standing dates in town. Caroline was going to dinner and a play with Beatrice Murdock and Beatrice’s nineteen-year-old brother Paul. The latter would call for her in his car at half past six. Ted had accepted an invitation to see the hockey match with two classmates, Herb Castle and Bernard King. He wanted to take his father’s Gorham, but Tom told him untruthfully that the foot-brake was not working; Ted must be kept out of the garage till tomorrow morning.

Ted and Caroline had taken naps in the afternoon and gone off together in Paul Murdock’s stylish roadster, giving their word that they would be back by midnight or a little later and that tomorrow night they would stay home.

And now their mother and father were sitting up for them, because the stockings could not be filled and hung till they were safely in bed, and also because trying to go to sleep is a painful and hopeless business when you are kind of jumpy.

Click here to continue reading Ring Lardner’s “Old Folks’ Christmas.”

RelatedWSPWH editor Amy Kass leads a discussion on the story at the Hudson Institute. Click here to listen to audio of the event. 

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