This article was originally published on November 23, 1990.
Once upon a time, and not so long a time ago it was, there was a child and a windy night and the child asked for a story - a self-referential, post-modern, self-consciously disruptive, non-patriarchal, interactive story of the kind she loved best - but also a special story custom-made for the jolly season, for it was only two or three shopping months left 'til Christmas.
The hour was late. All of Scrooge's ghosts would have long finished their work and been back in their coffins resting comfortably. As the child lay on her bed, her Alphabet blanket to her chin, her stable of Little Ponies gazed blankly from a shelf, while on the bed, a receiving line of pert Barbie dolls sat, their backs stiff against the wall, their chests thrust out like an eight-way tie at a cleavage festival. Figure- skater Ken, in his powder blue sleeveless jumpsuit, one skate missing, was toppled on his side, smiling idiotically at his good fortune to have so many pretty girl friends. Outside, the sleet spit against the windowpanes, but inside was as cozy as a bunny-shaped bedroom slipper.
"Once there was a mean old man," began the father, "who always said 'Humbug' when anyone said, 'Merry Christmas.' " (The literary canon, despite its controversial reputation, is useful when you've dried up.) The child groaned: "Not the one about Mr. Spacely and the Christmas ghosts," she said. The father recalled that The Jetsons cartoon show had beaten him to the act of appropriation, in an episode called A Christmas Space Carol in which Mr. Spacely was Scrooge, and Astro the Robot Dog filled in for the crippled Tiny Tim. He plunged forward, deflected, but unstymied.
"So George Jetson, the mean man's helper, had to stay late, and his daughter Judy wanted to go to the Intergalactic Mall to visit Santa . . . .
"I want Barbie in it," said the child loyally.
"So Judy and Barbie went to see Santa Claus . . . ."
"What about Rudolph?" asked the child.
"Just then, up in the sky, Judy and Barbie saw a light . . . ."
"I know - the Baby Jesus star," said the child.
"Good guess. But no, it was Rudolph, and he flew . . . ."
"And Santa got his bum stuck in the chimney and couldn't get out," said the child, succumbing to waves of giggles at her own interpolation. The father breathed a deep breath and outside, in an outburst of pathetic fallacy, the wind howled and rattled against the windows. In the aftermath of the frisson, the father saw daylight; and, as football announcers like to say, he ran for it.
"And Rudolph shone his nose down the chimney and showed Santa the way out while Barbie and Judy pushed from below, and Santa thanked them, and he gave them all presents and . . . ."
"No," said the child emphatically. She had anticipated this attempt at premature narrative closure, and was determined to block it: "Santa Claus couldn't get out. All winter. He just . . . stayed there." She gave a c'est-la-vie shrug of her shoulders, like a Vietnam vet recounting a particularly nasty encounter with Charlie. The father muttered the name of the Blessed Savior.
"All right. They all sat around and had a party until Santa got thin . . . .
"You know what? That's just like the time Pooh ate too much honey in rabbit's hole," said the child.
"Similar," said the father.
"Tell the story," said the child.
"So they had a party and everyone came and they, uh, ate cake and icecream, and good stuff like broccoli, and Santa got thin . . . ."
"Did Peter Pan come?"
"And Mickey, and Minnie, and Donald and Daisy and Hughie, Louie and Dewie and Goofy?"
"And Dorothy and Toto?"
"Dorothy and the Little Mermaid, and everyone came . . . and they ate . . . and they . . . ."
"Not the Little Mermaid. She couldn't leave the ocean, remember? Was she sad she missed the party?"
The answer was lost in a gurgle beneath the waves, where his father's eyes were pearls and the grinning Great White Shark grinned and scraped against him, while off in a circle of light, a milky wavering mermaid beckoned and a tear slid down his cheek as the little planet they had loved so well, receded to the size of a tiny blue marble, to a speck of light against the inky void and they were doomed to wander. The plaintive voice, right in his ear, pierced him like a hook, and hauled him gasping and squirming to the surface of the archetypal sea.
"Wake up," she said. "Wake up, Daddy, and finish the story."