I generally believe in the commercialization of Christmas.
It’s not a very popular opinion, so I don’t go around expressing it. But when the annual grumbles arise over department stores’ exuberant holiday decor – usually something along the lines of, “but the jack-o-lanterns were just here!” I stay quiet, grinning on the inside.
“But c’mon,” I would say, were I bolder. “Aren’t the plastic reindeer kind of cute? Don’t you get unbearably excited at the opening bars of ‘Sleigh Ride?’ Or how about trees? Giant, gaudy trees? Does your black heart not melt at the sight of them?”
This all goes unsaid because of valid retorts I am not fully equipped to deflect. Namely: what if my How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Christmas-edition Starbucks, and repeat plays of Michael Buble: Christmas are trampling all over someone’s celebration of Jesus’ birthday? Or conversely, someone else’s winter religious celebration that is not Christmas?
in a divided world where we can trust so little… perhaps a 100% secular holiday isn’t so bad.
In both cases, I am tempted to argue that in a divided world where we can trust so little – for example, the exact date of Jesus’ birthday – then perhaps a 100% secular holiday here in America isn’t so bad. Maybe there’s a potent spirituality to be had in giving people things they probably don’t need, but making them feel good about being fussed over anyway. The ritualized gift gathering in stores all over town, while molded Santa heads grin maniacally from fake-snowed perches and Bing Crosby croons overhead – isn’t this weirdly good for us? If it at least gets us out of our own heads for a little while?
It’s an argument that skirts dangerously close to this one: the one true religion of Americans is capitalism. As well as this: Americans think everyone, especially cultural newcomers, should act just like them.
Already, all this “America” talk in an essay of my own design has me worried. Because is that what I believe in? In sacred capitalism and American solipsism?
No. What I believe in is Muffy the Bear.
Who is Muffy the Bear, you ask? Only the most underrated character of the holiday season ever.
I got to know Muffy via my honors math teacher, who took pity on me for a) failing all of my math tests, and b) this in spite of rigorous study sessions with her during lunch. Miss Wisakowski tried with all of her might to illuminate the world of trigonometry for me, but to my brain, this branch of mathematics was (and remains) a dark island of mystery and despair.
What I believe in is Muffy the Bear
To cheer me up, she offered me a paying, one-time gig during the holidays at a chichi boutique where I would play Muffy the Bear. To this day, I’m still unclear on the connection between Miss Wisakowski and said boutique – but no matter. I would get paid! My only gainful employment up until that point was table bussing at EZ’s, and in comparison playing a fictional holiday character seemed very glamorous. Very bourgeois.
When I arrived at the store the manager handed me my costume, weighing approximately one thousand pounds.
“Here!” she said, thrusting a giant bear head into my arms. “You’ll put on this,” gesturing to the enormous bear body stuffed into a Queen Victoria-style holiday gown, “and put on the head last. It’s too big to fit in the neck hole otherwise! Haha!”
Because you could fit about eight people inside the costume, I didn’t have to get changed. I just stood in the middle of the store and stepped right in, street clothes and all.
“Who is Muffy?” I squeaked from inside the bear head. The nose was made of a slightly see-through black screen, which served as vision.
“Who is Muffy?” the manager repeated, genuinely incredulous. “Muffy VanderBear is—”
A thorough explanation was clearly needed, but we had no time. The boutique doors jingled and in walked our first customer, a tiny girl holding her mother’s hand. When she saw me, she hid behind her mother’s skirt.
“Don’t be scared,” said the mother. “It’s Muffy VanderBear! You love Muffy!”
I gestured to her to come toward me, toward what appeared to be my designated seat. It was a chair placed primly next to a catalog-ready Christmas tree and an antique end table, with an embossed card that read, “What would YOU like for Christmas?”
“Who is Muffy?” I squeaked from inside the bear head.
The little girl crawled up into my lap, and I pointed to the card.
“Hi,” she whispered.
I nodded in return. For some reason, I thought Muffy/I shouldn’t do any talking.
“Go ahead, Katie!” her mother nudged her.
“I would like a Polly Pocket,” she mumbled shyly. Another understanding nod from Muffy.
“And…Power Rangers,” she said, looking at me meaningfully.
“Power Rangers! Why that’s just silly,” her mother cried. “Your brother is getting Power Rangers. Oops! I mean Santa knows to get your brother Power Rangers! Don’t you want some cute new Cole Haans, honey?”
The girl reached up to my “ear,” located a foot above my actual face.
“I would especially like the yellow one,” she whispered, and returned down to my lap. Through my nose mesh, I could see this was a very serious request. I didn’t know what to do, so I wrapped my big bear arms around her.
The little girl stayed on my lap as her mother wandered around the store, the conversation drifting from things on her Christmas list to her life in general. She liked Fruit Roll-Ups. Her best friend just moved. One of her ears was bigger than the other, and she moved her hair back to prove it.
One by one, more kids entered the store, and this same pattern repeated itself: a kid would hop on my lap, the parent would stand there for a few minutes, then drift off to study French ribbon-embellished wreaths or ceramic nativity scenes. Meanwhile, the kid and I would “talk,” by which I mean they would chatter, and I would offer a vague series of body language: the nod, the shoulder shrug, the disapproving headshake (“for Christmas I want my baby brother to die”), and the hug. A few kids looked through my nose mesh, and once the jig was up, called out frantically to their parents: “MOMMY! There is a person inside here!”
The reason you probably haven’t heard of Muffy the Bear is (among many reasons) that she is purely a commercial creature, unelevated to the mythical status Santa Claus enjoys. Also, I’ve looked at the VanderBear website, and it appears that the marketing team abandoned ship a long time ago.
But I think about this job all the time, and I think it’s because it symbolizes what I’ve come to think of as “Christmasy:” there we were, the kids and I, surrounded by the tree and the red garland and the twinkle lights, discussing presents. Familiarity is soothing whether it takes the form of chintzy physical trappings or deeply embedded social convention, and talking about what you want quickly gives way to just…talking. I miss being a thousand-pound, mammalian listener.
talking about what you want quickly gives way to just… talking
I think we can all agree that a multi-cultural America is a beautiful America (paging Woody Guthrie) and also, that Christmas can be about more than just presents. But being Muffy made me more than ok with ludicrously early light-up snowflakes and animatronic elves; ok too with the cliché train sets and Macy’s signs declaring cheesy directives like “Believe!” It made me ok with all of it. Because when you’re a cog inside the inner gears of Christmas, the resulting emotions should probably be cynicism, joylessness, despair for the human condition; instead though, the job made me oddly merry (as more than one Christmas song would say).
Why? Because the props are so easy to set up. It’s even easier to get drunk on Christmas nostalgia, on a sweet time that maybe only existed in Charles Dickens’ imagination, but which suggests a deeper want than a Power Ranger or a Polly Pocket. A want to have a shared history, a want to feel prosperous even if we’re not, a want (brace yourself, fellow Texans) for snow. These desires are romantic, sometimes a bit silly, and if you’ve ever been a holiday character worker very commercial – but heartbreakingly human, too. Even if it takes a bear suit to remind you.
This article originally published in The Gather Issue of Citygram Austin Magazine [December 2013].
Explore the full issue on your desktop here or download the FREE mobile issue designed specifically for your iPhone or iPad in the App Store today.
Culture & Lifestyle Columnist
Tolly Moseley is a freelance writer and journalist in Austin, TX.
With a focus on arts/culture and life, her work has appeared in Salon, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, on NPR Austin, and more.
She is also the voice behind the popular blog Austin Eavesdropper, and one half of the aerial silks performance duo Vayu Aerials.