I went to see Fat Man Crying tonight with this question in mindwhy do people produce and audiences flock to holiday shows in December? Arbor Day does not inspire such ritualistic gathering and story telling. What gives?
In Fat Man Crying, Santa is chagrined to learn that his nemesis “The Dave” spends the days leading up to Christmas standing on street corners with a bell and a bucket soliciting money, ostensibly for charity, which he proceeds to merrily horde. Santa demands an explanation for this behavior, and The Dave says something along the lines of, “Well, I’ve tried it on other days, but it never seems to work as well.”
You see where I’m going with this. Substitute the theater for Dave and earnest religious faith for Santa, and I think we have an apt comparison on our hands.
But why shouldn’t The Theater take advantage of the happy alignment of favorable circumstances presented to it in December? First off, it’s dark out. I mean, the sun sets at 4:15 p.m. No one is up for a rousing game of lawn bowling and a barbeque in December. It’s a narrowing hallway of daylight leading straight into the mouth of the winter solstice: the shortest, darkest time of the year. And it’s cold. And we’re somehow supposed to be merry, sociable and generous. No wonder we feel the need to huddle together and tell each other bolstering stories about magical beings, virgin births, time-traveling misers, and dancing children’s toys. The alternative is despair and hypothermia.
December has always served this purpose. Christianity co-opted it from the pagans as a convenient time to celebrate Jesus’ birth. For whatever reason, this time of year is rife with significance, shared cultural meaning, fables and allegories; faith. Church attendance picks up this month too. I know because my family was one of those who only went to mass on Easter and in the month leading up to Christmas. It was intoxicating to watch a new candle be lit for each new week of Advent. I loved watching the Christmas pageant as a kid—surely the closest my Catholic church ever came to doing theater. We all hungered for it—the familiar saga.
And what do the secular among us have now to serve that purpose? The Dave tells us at the top of Fat Man Crying that “magic is when a bunch of people get together and decide to believe the same weird crap at the same time.” If church isn’t your thing, maybe the theater is the closest you can come to scratching that particular itch: the need to suspend disbelief and succumb to magic in a room full of folks doing likewise. When it’s cold and dark outside and we all seem to be burrowing into our subconsciousness, living in a seasonal sea of images and rituals. We want to hear a good story or two, to be told why it’s important to take a break from lawn bowling for some good old fashioned reflection.
And that’s what shows like Fat Man Crying do so well. It takes the familiar fable, twists it, makes it relevant to adults in the age of google and wikipedia, and restores a much-needed sense of whimsy and magic to a season that, without it, devolves into empty materialism and heart-numbing cold. Let’s save that nonsense for Valentine’s Day where it belongs, shall we?