Handle With Care: The Secret Life of Christmas Magazines

They're here! Surrounding supermarket check stands, elbowing aside House Beautiful at the bookstore, popping up in fabric stores--even lurking quietly in your mailbox: Christmas magazines!

Now, don't get me wrong. I love Christmas magazines. I buy Christmas magazines. I read Christmas magazines!

As a source for recipes, ideas, decorating schemes, gifts, crafts and all-round Christmas cheer, there's nothing like a good Christmas magazine. Don't even think of trying to pry my collection of Better Homes and Gardens' "Holiday Cookies" out of my clutches!

There's only one problem: Christmas magazines suffer from split personality--and it's contagious. Reading Christmas magazines without a quick injection of reality, skepticism and just plain Scroogishness can be hazardous to your holiday health and well-being.

Let's examine a typical specimen. There it is, our little CM, sitting primly in a chrome rack at the supermarket, shouting "Buy me! Buy me!" How does our CM achieve this first step into your home and your psyche? I will tell you: it promises to give you everything you really want for Christmas.

In big, bold type, the CM's cover promises to save time, cut holiday stress, feed your family (while keeping you skinny), decorate your home, and make this Christmas the best and most bountiful you've ever had.

Here are some actual examples of the CM siren song, from my personal collection: "Holiday Stress-Busters", "Quick Gifts to Craft for Christmas", "Make-Ahead Tips", "630 Merry Ideas to Make Christmas Happier, Saner, More Meaningful", and of course, "Drop 10 Pounds by Christmas".

Isn't this what we all want? A stress-free, merry, beautiful, delicious, organized and slender Christmas? Of course it is--so into our shopping basket jumps the CM.

Problem is, you can't judge a book--and especially a CM--by its cover. That screaming headline for "Holiday Stress-Busters?" A mere half-column of "No, DUH!" gems like "Every evening, take at least five minutes to catch your breath and unwind." (It's true! These are actual examples!)

What about those "Quick Gifts to Craft for Christmas?" This collection of quilted wall hangings, painted doll furniture, woodworking projects and hand-decorated china would take days to complete.

Should we mention that 90% are items no sane person would ever want to give--or receive? A set of "Watch Face Button Covers?" As if we all collect discarded watch faces for just such a project?

That "Stress-Free Thanksgiving Menu" includes a sheaf-of-wheat bread sculpture that would challenge a Cordon Bleu chef , and calls for an entire weekend on aching feet to do all the required "making-ahead".

The promised 10-pound weight loss diet? Oh, it's there, all right--sabotaged by a 100-page food section so sumptuous that the ads alone can make you gain five pounds in one sitting!

Frankly, my dears, our little CM is a coquette. It teases, flutters, flatters and cajoles, but it does not follow through on its promises. When somebody tries to land you with claims that are too good to be true, you've got to look for the hook behind the bait. What are CM's really selling? Two things: consumption and dissatisfaction.

Consumption first. This one's easy! Just leaf through any Christmas issue of a magazine that you read regularly. Before you even open the cover, notice how fat the CM is? That, my friends, is the result of advertising-and what advertising it is, too! New cars, expensive porcelain doo-dads, home appliances, pricey exercise equipment, and elaborate furniture groups join the usual ads for toys, food, and garage-sale specials (those ubiquitous "small appliances": sandwich squashers and heat-'em-up blankets.)

Ads, though, are only ads--unless you buy them. That's where dissatisfaction comes in. You won't consume unless you're dissatisfied, right?

So how do these experts of dissatisfaction do it? Look hard at those "stress-busters". Instead of something useful like "Forget the homemade cookies this year!", they suggest "If you are behind schedule, make drop cookies instead of rolled and cut-out ones." Notice that you're given this option only if you're "behind schedule."

Bounce over to the cookie recipes. Squint hard at the photographs. Seven delectable kinds of cookies are displayed in antique tins on a marble tabletop, photographed in soft focus against a background of holly, greens, and glowing lights. You could bake all seven kinds of these cookies, but stacked on plastic plates and covered with cellophane, they'll never match the presentation of this display. Dissatisfaction!

What about home decor? Are you really going to decorate not only a tree--or two or three--but also every shelf, surface, chair back, tabletop, bookcase, mantle and window sill in the house? Dissatisfaction!

Wait a minute--you there, in the back! You say you are going to decorate all those places? Well, the CM has a surprise for you! What about your window boxes? Have you made your cunning painted wood cutouts to stick in your window boxes yet? Dissatisfaction!

In the world of the CM, it's not enough to have a tree, lovingly garlanded with the grubby little products of your children's' hands. No, you've got to have designer trees, covered at regular intervals with precisely tied bows, evenly spaced lights, and antique gold angel ornaments that cost more than the dining room suite.

Your gift wrap must be color-coordinated (and costly-with the only "out" being "hand-crafted" gift wrap) and must harmonize with the "design motif" of your decorator tree (or trees!). You can't just hang up stockings--they've got to be needle-pointed, at the very least, with the child's name blazoned on the front in gold letters.

Food's not exempt, either! Look at the food ads, then look at the recipes. No humble chocolate chip or oatmeal drop cookies here. Instead, you're swirling cranberry-orange concoctions that oh-so-coincidentally feature the exact product advertised on the facing page!

Even the place you lay your weary head doesn't escape the attention of the CM. Under a picture of an elaborately decorated and beruffled pillow, the CM rhapsodizes: "It's the big night, and what better place to dream of dancing sugar plums than on a pretty, hand-embroidered pillow?" Great--you get to wake up with the marks of French knots all over your face! Won't that make lovely Christmas morning photographs?

Dissatisfied yet? No matter what you do, what you spend, how long you craft and bake and make, you're never, never, never going to achieve a CM Christmas.

Why should you? Why should you want to?

Here's the secret. Turn to the editorial masthead, the place where they list the magazine's staff and contributors. Count the names. Count the number of departments.

Scores, even hundreds of people are bustling around full-time for months to produce these publications--and they're experts!

Expecting to follow single-handed in their footsteps is a sure-fire recipe for holiday stress. Knowing your limits--and setting firm boundaries--gives you permission to do less and enjoy it more.

Christmas magazines: handle with care! They'll manipulate your emotions, prey on your vulnerabilities, and lead you down the candy cane path to the gingerbread house if you let them.

Christmas magazines are just like every other dangerous instrumentality in life. Like automobiles, they'll take you where you want to go--if you know how to drive. Like alcohol, they'll liven up your holiday spirit--if not taken to excess. Buy them, read them, use them--but do so with full awareness of the risks involved! In Christmas, as in life, knowledge is power!