Skipping Christmas starts with a very promising and original premise: Do we have to spend huge gobs of money and drive ourselves crazy each year in the name of the “Holidays?” Luther Krank, an accountant by profession, thinks he has the answer. And it is a loud and resounding “No.” He is outraged at the thought that his family spends as much as 10% of its Adjusted Gross Income on the Holidays. He is also quite tired of attending the obligatory parties, buying the obligatory gifts and making the expected community contributions (“buying” one more calendar from the local police, fruit cakes that nobody eats from the firemen). So much better, he thinks, to skip the whole thing to go away on a ten-day cruise – and save half his annual Holiday expenses to boot. He is so convinced of the rightness of his idea that he manages to infect both his reluctant wife Nora and his already-half-converted colleague to go along with his idea.
But, this is much easier said than done. Nora’s reluctant compliance is constantly challenged by feelings of inadequacy as she must “explain” herself to her friends. In fact, it is only Luther’s heroic resolve that carries them through the onslaught of hostility from their neighbors. The hostility ranges from loud singing of Christmas carols outside their home to being questioned by their minister to being featured in their local newspaper with a picture of their “unlit at Christmas” home. I found this depiction quite difficult to believe because it is at odds with other valued American traits – rugged individuality, tolerance for differences, and respect for privacy. In fact, in this section the book takes on a decidedly “film noir” persona.
In the final third of the book, Grisham goes about undoing the case for skipping Christmas made so convincingly up to this point. Luther himself gives in because he cannot bear to reveal to his grown daughter who returns unexpectedly from Peru that they are not doing Christmas this year. The neighbors that had been depicted as the ugly face of the Christmas spirit forget their anger and come together to execute a picture-perfect Christmas for the Kranks. This “unskipping” of Christmas is so contrived and tortured, it appears to have been written by someone other than Grisham.
As a first-generation American and a cultural Hindu at that, I have found myself at odds with the overwhelming “Christmas spirit” that makes its appearance in the days after Halloween and lingers on into the first week of the New Year. It is not that I have an objection to the message of Christmas – celebrating the birth of Jesus, giving gifts to those who are near and dear to us and getting together with family, friends and colleagues so a good time can be had by all. Rather, my objection to the Holiday cheer is the unrelenting nature of it – the desire to do more, do it bigger, do it better – and do it in ever more celebratory / self-congratulatory ways. Holiday-themed toilet seat covers, anyone?
If this little novel is supposed to be the triumph of the Christmas spirit, it is a sorry one indeed. It is like saying buy MORE even if you don’t need it and will never use it. Never mind the damage to the family pocketbook, never mind the damage to the environment, never mind that most of the goodies are made by poorly-paid elves in China. For, the spirit will prevail – but only after it has first taken a holiday in the form of boorishness and bad behavior. However there are two other aspects that really take the “Christmas” cake and leave a bad taste in my mouth.
One is the fact that the Kranks are relieved to find that their daughter’s Peruvian fiancee is not dark at all – in fact, glory of glories – he is “two shades lighter.” I am shocked that an acclaimed author like Grisham wrote such an openly racist scene and that the armies of editors and proof-readers thought nothing of letting it stay. I am shocked too that someone like Grisham who has written sensitively about blacks in the racist South (A Time to Kill), would pen so prejudiced a thought. The fact that the comment appears without context, that there is no explanation either before or after of the rationale for such a preference and the fact that it is uttered by someone who is an “everyday” person makes it all the more chilling.
The second aspect is that the case made so convincingly at the beginning of the book against the over-commercialization of Christmas and all its attendant extravagances – is completely repudiated by the end of the book. In fact, the message of the book seems to be: it is okay if “marginal” people such as Buddhists or the Pakistani neighbors bypass Christmas. It is downright unChristian and unAmerican for other “normal people” to contemplate paring down in favor of simplicity or frugality or mere level-headedness.
I, for one, am quite offended by this message. The Kranks fall back on conventional wisdom – for no better reason than that they are too timid to go it on their own. It is not as if they sacrifice anything (consider “Gift of the Magi” by O’Henry), nor that they give to someone who is truly needy (consider Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”). The helpful eagerness of the previously disgruntled neighbors is like the triumph of proselytizers at having successfully converted two more reluctant souls to their religion. And what might that religion be? Materialism, of course. Let the cash registers ring.Ka-ching!!
All in all, a very disappointing book.