Frederik Pohl was a science-fiction pioneer and a social critic—and also a communist sympathizer despite his deep skepticism that social engineering can bring about utopia. And nothing better encapsulates Pohl in all his complexity than a short story he penned in 1956, Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus.
Anyone who has ever shaken their head at a Christmas display in August, or who mourns the fact that the second day of Christmas is now merely “the day after,” will immediately smile at the dystopia Pohl describes. It’s a world where Christmas is nothing but a great commercial extravaganza: “last-minute” shopping takes place in September, and trees are decorated with credit-card applications. Hallowed Christmas hymns have been stripped of their original words and turned into advertising jingles and paeans to consumerism.
The story is amusing today; 60 years ago, it was prescient. In 1956, Christmas still had a solemn aspect to its public celebrations, and the “Christmas season” was still largely confined to the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. That year, the first Christmas ads did not appear in Life magazine until mid-November.
Pohl has been called “a significant critic of the bland optimism of Eisenhower’s America.” But Pohl—unlike, say, Annie Leonard or Naomi Klein—does not fit neatly into the category of leftish social critics. In fact, that might be a reason he has mostly been forgotten.
George, the main character of Happy Birthday, does more than walk around the department store where he works and nonchalantly observe the desecration of the sacred holiday. He is, in fact, utterly unaware that it is a sacred holiday. But that begins to change when Lilymary Hargreave, a young and qualified but rather odd new hire, shows up.
First, she asks to take Sunday off, a request for which George cannot imagine a reason. Second, he learns that the Hargreave family has no telephone. Third, he falls in love with her. The courtship, however, is halting and awkward. Attracted as he is to Lilymary and to her indescribably odd and endearing way of living, he cannot win over her father, who, we learn, is a Christian minister.
The trouble begins when George goes to the Hargreaves’ for dinner. Lacking a television and radio as they lack a phone, the family entertains George with singing and piano performances. Feeling pressured to offer his own entertainment, he recites something “appropriate to the season” that he remembers from his childhood. (Thus we learn that society is at least several decades into this brave new Christmas.) It is here that Pohl works in a wickedly funny rewrite of “The Night Before Christmas”:
’Tis the season of Christmas, and all through the house
St. Nick and his helpers begin their carouse.
The closets are stuffed and the drawers overflowing
With gift-wrapped remembrances, coming and going.
What a joyous abandon of Christmastime glow!
What a making of lists! What a spending of dough!
So much for the bedroom, so much for the bath,
So much for the kitchen—too little by half!
Come Westinghouse, Philco! Come Hotpoint, G.E.!
Come Sunbeam! Come Mixmaster! Come to the Tree!
So much for the wardrobe—how shine Daddy’s eyes
As he reaps his Yule harvest of slippers and ties.
So much for the family, so much for the friends,
So much for the neighbors—the list never ends.
A contingency fund for the givers belated
Whose gifts must be hastily reciprocated.
And out of the shops, how they spring with a clatter,
The gifts and appliances words cannot flatter!
The robot dishwasher, the new Frigidaire,
The doll with the didy and curlable hair!
The electrified hairbrush, the black lingerie,
The full-color stereoscopic TV!
We are told that there is more, but Lilymary’s family isn’t having any of it, and George pretends to forget the rest. Flabbergasted, he concludes that they simply lack Christmas spirit.
In reality, they object not only to the reduction of Christmas to a purely commercial celebration, but even to the idea of the Christmas “season.” As far as Minister Hargreave is concerned, Christmas begins on Christmas Day. George cannot grasp any of this—nor can he grasp a rant by the minister about how he is “perverting the Christian festival” and “selling out the Savior.” One finally gathers that in this world, religion is not hated or marginalized, but simply forgotten. It is a curiosity of which people are vaguely aware, but it is as strange and distant as, say, the Hare Krishnas must have been to 1960s suburbanites.
But George’s confusion never puts him off from Lilymary. By the story’s end, she has resigned from the department store, but George is still after her. Some sleuthing in her neighborhood leads him to discover her and the minister in the basement of a derelict community hall, where he believes they and an assembled crowd are having a “singing party”:
I couldn’t recognize the words—Adeste fideles, Laeti triumphantes. Venite, venite in Bethlehem. … I recognized the tune then; it was a slow, draggy-beat steal from that old-time favorite, Christmas-Tree Mambo.
Lilymary sees George and sneaks out of the service. He proposes to her, she says yes, and she invites him back in to pray. He doesn’t much know what prayer is, but he declares, “Lilymary coached me through the words; and I prayed. And, do you know?—I’ve never regretted it.”
A little more, perhaps, than one would expect from a communist.
To a modern, secular liberal, half of Pohl’s message is expected and half is not. The same will be true for many modern conservatives, only the halves are reversed. This is because Pohl understood his critiques of capitalism and his sympathetic portrayal of religion and traditional families to be inextricable from each other. For him, capitalism, especially consumer capitalism, was an irreconcilable enemy of tradition, morality, and spirituality.
This is evidenced by little details like a curious, passing reference to “conditional” marriage and to falling in love “impetuously … like a teenager after his first divorce.” These referred to his 1952 work The Space Merchants, whose plot centers significantly around conditional marriage, which expires after one year but may be renewed and made permanent. It was a notion ahead of its time, and if anything was too conservative. (On December 24, 1956, Life reported—describing it as a significant increase over previous decades—that 2.3 percent of adult women were divorced.) Pohl believed that the forward march of consumerism as an all-pervading way of life would render impossible the endurance of human relations as anything other than a variant of commercialism.
Pohl did often touch on themes of class, and he was also something of an environmentalist. But at heart he believed that consumerism was incompatible with virtue. Financial profligacy, he understood, could only end in moral bankruptcy. This insight has mostly escaped both the Christian-leaning right, which did not understand the mortal threat capitalism presented to its vaunted “traditional values,” and the progressive left, which has steadfastly opposed consumerism but mostly for secular, materialist reasons.
Christian conservatives, secular anti-capitalists, and everyone else too, may enjoy, identify with, and be surprised by Pohl. And as forceful a critic of consumerism as he was, he probably wouldn’t mind if you gave one of his novels or short-story collections as a gift this Christmas.
Addison Del Mastro is Assistant Editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.