03 December 2019

"Christmas Shoes": A (Pretty) Close Reading

Ah, faithful reader! Here we stand upon the doorstep of another Advent season. It is time once more to contemplate the incarnation of our Lord, who shone His incomparable light into the deep darkness of our sin-shattered world.

Which is actually a perfect segue1 to my topic: That most objectionable of Christmas songs, "Christmas Shoes."

Everyone hates "Christmas Shoes."2 But why do we hate it, dear reader? What are the logical, critical, and aesthetic underpinnings of this well-founded visceral response?

"Nay, Micah," you say, "I know only that I hate this sentimental seasonal song with the fiery hatred of ten thousand flaming Feuerzangenbowles. Can we not let that suffice, and move on from this sad scene?"

Alas, my sibilant reader, we cannot. Why not? Because I have two English degrees, that's why not.3 Close reading is basically my only skill.

First, notice the narrative frame of the song, told from the perspective of a person sorely lacking in The Christmas Spirit™:
It was almost Christmas time, there I stood in another line
Tryin' to buy that last gift or two, not really in the Christmas mood
Oh no! How can the narrator be put into the Christmas mood? All the Christmas Lines have stolen his joy away from him! Never fear, a convenient whipping boy is near:
Standing right in front of me was a little boy waiting anxiously
Pacing 'round like little boys do
And in his hands he held a pair of shoes
His clothes were worn and old, he was dirty from head to toe
And when it came his time to pay
I couldn't believe what I heard him say
Nothing awakens Christmas Spirit™ like seeing someone less fortunate than we are. How convenient that he happens to be right here in the presence of a jaded shopper who is so lacking in Christmas Spirit™.

So far so good. But wait... here it comes... that catchy earworm of a chorus!
Sir, I want to buy these shoes for my mama, please
It's Christmas Eve and these shoes are just her size
Could you hurry, sir, daddy says there's not much time
You see she's been sick for quite a while
And I know these shoes would make her smile
And I want her to look beautiful if mama meets Jesus tonight
The chorus has everything: Mama, Christmas Eve, a fatal illness, the urgency of death, "sir" from a filthy little boy, and his childlike faith that his small gift will ease his mama's impending meeting with Jesus. And it makes me cry. Every. Single. Time. I hear it.

This part, right here, is why it is good and right and proper to hate "Christmas Shoes." It is the musical-emotional equivalent of a bag of Cheetos™. The chorus is engineered to elicit tears in the same way that a Cheeto™ is designed to make you grab just one more and pop it in your mouth and taste the greasy cheesy crunch of it as it turns to corn oil inside your mouth and you lick the cheeselike dust off your fingers and mildly wonder why you did that, you don't even like them that much, as you look for a napkin and settle for your shirttail and then grab another Cheeto™.

Another good analogy is pornography: Like this song, it is designed to trigger a strong, quick  response with a minimum of personal investment. "Christmas Shoes," pornography, and Cheetos™ all offer the illusion of something good and satisfying without any actual substance.

Make no mistake: This is not real emotion we are feeling, dear reader! It is a rank simulacrum, a cheap imitation. It does not describe the world God made or the people who live here in any meaningful way. It's more akin to the rant of a stoner: "Hey, man, wouldn't it be super sad if..."

And so we come to verse two, where our logical faculties should start to kick in, if we have any left after being brought to our knees by the chorus.
He counted pennies for what seemed like years
Then the cashier said, "son, there's not enough here"
He searched his pockets frantically
Then he turned and he looked at me
He said mama made Christmas good at our house
Though most years she just did without
Tell me Sir, what am I going to do,
Somehow I've got to buy her these Christmas shoes
OK, let's just do a quick red flag inventory:
  1. If a child is capable of finding a store by himself, would he not also understand the concepts of currency and price tags? 
  2. Do you know a single child who fully recognizes his parents' material sacrifices for him? How likely is it that this child would have even a clue that his mama "just did without"?
  3. Asking a complete stranger for direction and help. Has the songwriter ever met a little boy? Or a child of any kind?
There is, of course, an obvious explanation: The songwriter is trying too hard. It's taking a lot of strain to keep our disbelief suspended at this point. He's fighting to keep us engaged. If he can just hold on for a few more lines, then he'll be able to jump back down into the safety of the tear-inducing earworm chorus.

But what if the true explanation is more subtle? What if there's a twist we haven't detected yet? What if this kid is actually a con artist?

He goes around to stores at Christmas time, dressed like a slob, spouting some story about his sick mom, whose only real problem is that she's run low on meth.

"Oh no! I don't have enough for the shoes!" He looks back in line at the well-heeled stranger who himself is jonesing for some Christmas Spirit™. "How ever shall I overcome this overwhelming difficulty, good sir?" The child bats his tragic eyelashes heartbreakingly.

Think about it. The clues have been there all along, if only our tear-clouded eyes hadn't kept us from seeing them. The narrator even foreshadows it in verse one: "I couldn't believe what I heard him say..."

The narrator is, of course, an easy mark, as we learn in short order:
So I laid the money down, I just had to help him out
And I'll never forget the look on his face when he said
Mama's gonna look so great...
...I knew I'd caught a glimpse of heaven's love
As he thanked me and ran out
I knew that God had sent that little boy
To remind me just what Christmas is all about
One sign of a successful con is that the mark feels good about it afterwards. He's convinced that he's gotten a good deal, or helped someone, or done something smart. He feels so good about it that later on, when he realizes he's been had, he becomes cripplingly embarrassed. How could he have fallen for it? How could he have believed it? Often, his shame is so strong that he doesn't even report it to the authorities.

One way or another, I think that's what's going on here. Maybe it's a secretly cynical song about a pintsized conman. Or perhaps it's just a songwriter's obviously cynical con on all of us.

Either way, don't be a sucker. Stick with Sufjan.


1. Did you know "segue" is pronounced "segway"? I did not until I googled "segueway," which is not actually a word. My life makes so much more sense now.

2. Except for those tragic few with a rare genetic mutation that causes them to love it. To these poor lost souls, I can offer nothing but my deepest pity and to let them borrow my Sufjan Stevens records if they want.

3. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a nerd in possession of two English degrees, must be in want of an audience upon which to inflict his analysis. You, dear reader, are that audience. (Or you were until you stopped reading this just now.)

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