I found “Merry Christmas, Mr. Baxter” in a used bookstore and bought it primarily because of the cover art. I like to read one Christmas themed book each year during the season. I’m a sap, I can’t help it. I try not to get too engorged on Christmas before Thanksgiving, but I felt I’d review it now since we’re only days away from the start of the season.
I was unfamiliar with the author, Edward Streeter, but I definitely knew the film adaptations of his books, “Father of the Bride” and “Mr. Hobbs’ Vacation”. There’s some commonality in these stories. Each features a successful man with a loving family, during events over which dad has little or no control. Each man faces major pitfalls that cause him to question his own actions and motivations. In the end, each is saved from madness by the love he has for his family. All three of these stories are humorously cynical, but with a heartwarming underbelly and a heaping helping of schmaltz.
In “Mr. Baxter”, George Baxter is a successful New York business man. Stubborn and a little stuffy, he is nevertheless dominated by the whims of his wife and children. He fights to maintain his position but almost always gives in to their wants out of a desire to make them happy. His wife is a spendthrift, causing him great stress when Christmas rolls around. His children are mostly grown, and too involved in their own lives to provide the family life George desires. In October, as Baxter feels the first vibrations of the approaching Christmas typhoon, he decides to take control of the holiday. He’ll keep his wife from overspending, and coordinate the schedules of his children to make sure that everyone can gather and spend Christmas the way it’s supposed to be.
Best laid plans and all that. October and November quickly come and go and his attempts to micromanage his wife and kids quickly proves impossible. Once December arrives, he realizes the impracticality of his endeavor. The story culminates on Christmas Eve as George rushes around a busy Manhattan to make everything right.
At times, this is a cynical book. It captures all the frustration we hear each year from the enslaved shopping masses. The commercialism, the hype, the lack of sincerity… it’s all here. The endless lines at departments stores, the pressure to buy presents for mere acquaintances, and the ridiculous expense to all involved. These have always felt like modern sentiments to me, so it’s hard to believe this book was written 20 years before I was born.
The book has very little plot. There is no antagonist and the character’s goals are simply to survive another holiday season without going broke or being trampled in the process. Where the book really shines is its colorfully painted picture of Christmas in New York in the fifties. There are vivid descriptions of shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue, of office Christmas parties, Rockefeller Center, the manner in which tenants gifted the apartment staff and so on. It’s a colorfully painted picture.
I spend all year looking forward to Christmas. I’m not one of the cynics who long for January 1st. I acknowledge that I am one of the hypnotized millions who wander mindlessly through department stores, buying expensive crap for people who really don’t need it. Nevertheless, I love it, so I don’t dwell on the evils of commercialism. I just look for the golden rays that help justify my actions and ensure my continued participation in the holiday. That’s why I like this book.
This is a fun holiday read, if you can find a copy. The illustrations are by Dorothea Warren Fox who spent many years illustrating all American products for magazine advertisements such as Jell-o, Heinz and Ivory Soap. The book has been out of print for a long time but Amazon usually has some used copies.