Celebrate the holiday season with PCS

Portland Center Stage

“The Santaland Diaries” and “A Christmas Memory”

Newmark Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway

Dec. 3-23

Show times and ticket prices vary. Call 503-274-6588 for details.

Is there anybody out there without mixed feelings about Christmas? The media encourages our natural American tendency toward gluttony right off the starting line, stuffing us full of Thanksgiving dinner and herding us into the malls the very next day. This pressure is maintained through the first half of December, and then the guilt sets in.

For some of us, this guilt is when we finally give in to the pressure we have been feeling all this time. Now that everyone else has done their Christmas shopping and dropped veiled hints about what they would like, we have little choice but to sacrifice our morals, lest anybody’s feelings be hurt.

On the other hand, those who succumbed to consumerist pressure earlier find themselves hounded by such old-fashioned Christmas ideals as “good will” and “humanity.” Realizing the extent of their greed and waste over the past few weeks, these people are pushed by the same force, the “Christmas spirit,” which initiated their shopping spree to make donations to nonprofit organizations or assist the community in some other way. This is, of course, a positive by-product of Christmas pressure, but the underlying structure still lends itself to criticism. These two major forces of Christmas, the one emphasizing selfishness and the other charity, are inseparable elements of the American tradition, and their apparent dichotomy is one large reason for our own contradicting feelings toward the holiday.

This contradiction is why our tradition of Christmas entertainment is as bitter as it is sweet. “The Grinch,” for example, follows the archetype detailed above perfectly. The main character is a wretch so disillusioned with the holiday that he hopes to put an end to it once and for all. At the end, however, he witnesses the true spirit of Christmas and is so overcome by guilt that he returns the gifts he has stolen, restoring the tradition of greed and consumerism to the village. As soon as this happens, the citizens drop one another’s hands, cease singing, and proceed to tear open those packages and stuff themselves with roast beast.

The story points out that the good intentions that are the foundation of the winter ceremony are overshadowed by its material outer layer and, when that is removed, the true spirit will only emerge for a moment before guilt for one’s previous behavior makes them overcompensate and ruin that moment. When we feel sympathy for the Grinch is not when he returns the gifts, but when he realizes the beauty that he has found only by removing all of the synthetic trappings of the celebration. He ruins this by returning the gifts and we feel that familiar queasy satisfaction of seeing the status quo, imperfect as it is, reinstated.

All of this, in case you were wondering whether the info box was a mistake, is what makes the pairing of David Sedaris’ “The Santaland Diaries” and Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” at Portland Center Stage so successful. Sedaris’ piece, recounting the author’s experiences as an elf at an installation at New York’s Macy’s department store, resounds with the same playful cynicism found in the Bob Clark’s classic film, “A Christmas Story,” based on the autobiographical work of another American humorist, Jean Shepherd.

Juxtaposed against this is Capote’s own genuinely touching, and never overworked, “A Christmas Memory.” Capote’s story is a recounting of his holiday memories as a small child growing up in rural Alabama. The central figure is his older cousin Sook who, in her simple manner, embodies the true spirit of the holiday, something that can never be found in a department store.