from The Stories of John Cheever
First published in The New Yorker in 1949, “Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor” takes Cheever out of his suburban milieu and into the heart of New York City; atypically for the author, the story focuses on a protagonist from a working-class background, though the social mores of the privileged gentry are never far from the narrative’s surface.
The story centres on Charlie, an elevator operator in a tony Manhattan building, who claims at the outset to be “practically the only one who has to get up in the cold black of 6 a.m. on Christmas Day in the morning” to go to work. Charlie describes himself as “a prisoner, confined eight hours a day to a six-by-eight elevator cage, which was confined, in turn, to a sixteen-story shaft.” A pronounced streak of self-pity infects Charlie and his reactions to the well-heeled tenants he ferries from their apartments to the street and back again; Cheever accentuates the social disparity by locating Charlie explicitly in the confines of the elevator car and the bowels of the building’s dank basement, while the dwellers above bounce around in brighter, more airy surroundings.
As Charlie picks up his passengers, each one in succession wishes him a Merry Christmas, to which he responds with some variation on the same refrain: “I think Christmas is a very sad season of the year. It isn’t that people around here ain’t generous – I mean, I got plenty of tips – but, you see, I live in a furnished room and I don’t have any family or anything and Christmas isn’t much of a holiday for me.”
Charlie’s pinched and straitened existence is implicit in his living conditions and claustrophobic work environment; he is also repeatedly associated with mechanical devices – the elevator itself, of course, and the building’s heating plant, which awakens with “a regular and profound vibration” that does nothing “to lighten his loneliness or his petulance.” He repeats his sad-sack tale (which displays elements of a con artist’s spiel) to the denizens of the building, who respond by offering him gifts of food and liquor, along with clothing and toys for the fictional children he has spoken of forlornly.
A satire about charity and the illusion of altruism, “Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor” has been interpreted as an American riff on “A Christmas Carol,” though Cheever inverts Dickens’s template by shifting the attention away from the wealthy property owners and onto the Bob Cratchit figure of Charlie. Simon Lavery points out echoes of Dickens’s language in the litany of charitable handouts Charlie is presented:
There were goose, turkey, chicken, pheasant, grouse, and pigeon. There were trout and salmon, creamed scallops and oysters, lobster, crab meat, whitebait, and clams. There were plum puddings, mince pies, mousses, puddles of melted ice cream, layer cakes, Torten, éclairs, and two slices of Bavrian cream. He had dressing gowns, neckties, cufflinks, socks, and handkerchiefs, and one of the tenants had asked for his neck size and then given him three green shirts.
There is more than a whiff of conspicuous consumption here, and Cheever underscores the power imbalance between Charlie and his various benefactors, each of whom finds validation in the idea that he or she is the only one magnanimous enough to offer Charlie a share of Christmas spirit. The clear demarcation of a rigid class system operates alongside an unspoken power struggle among the tenants themselves to prove which of them is the most generous and altruistic.
Not that Charlie is himself immune from feelings of social superiority. Leaving work one evening he witnesses a woman walking along Fifty-ninth Street with a girl in tow. The little girl is in tears, and Charlie convinces himself that she is crying as a result of having seen the twinkling window displays of toys she knows she will never own. There is no good reason to assume this, but Charlie concocts a narrative that allows him to displace his feelings of inferiority and unworthiness onto the anonymous passers-by.
As is often the case with Cheever, these negative emotions are closely tied to the idea of material wealth. Charlie loses his job after taking one of the building’s tenants on a joyride in his elevator; in a previous encounter, Charlie had reacted badly to the woman’s assertion that she could be sympathetic to his situation because she had no family and was equally lonely at Christmas. “Maybe she was lonely,” Charlie thinks, “but she had a ten-room apartment and three servants and bucks and bucks and diamonds and diamonds, and there were plenty of poor kids in the slums who would be happy at a chance at the food her cook threw away.”
If Dickens’s story is a fable about the miser Scrooge discovering not only the spirit of Christmas, but also the means to a more authentically charitable life, Cheever’s story subverts these themes by pointing a satirical light on the self-involved motives behind the act of seasonal giving. Far from an altruistic desire to improve the lives of their fellows, the gift-givers in Cheever’s narrative feel moved by what is referred to late in the story as a “licentious benevolence” – a means of wielding power over others rather than an attempt to truly better them. Moreover, these acts of manufactured beneficence are sanctioned for only one day of the year, after which generosity and fellow-feeling retreats into the normalcy of social stratification and indifference.
In its focus on materialism and the exigencies of consumer culture, Cheever’s story is clearly more cynical than Dickens’s seasonal fairy tale, though its satirical tone may ultimately be more honest in its jaundiced assessment of human nature, and the submerged venality and self-absorption that drives supposedly selfless acts.