Do you remember two kinds of Christmases?

I hadn’t planned on doing the newsletter today. But then I realised it’s the anniversary of John Steinbeck’s death, it’s Christmas, and the world is on its knees. All of which left me with no option but to send you these few paragraphs, from a letter of Steinbeck’s written late-1959.

Adlai, do you remember two kinds of Christmases? There is one kind in a house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence. Once I gave my youngest boy, who loves all living things, a dwarf, peach-faced parrot for Christmas. He removed the paper and then retreated a little shyly and looked at the little bird for a long time. And finally he said in a whisper, “Now who would have ever thought that I would have a peach-faced parrot?”

Then there is the other kind of Christmas with present piled high, the gifts of guilty parents as bribes because they have nothing else to give. The wrappings are ripped off and the presents thrown down and at the end the child says—”Is that all?” Well, it seems to me that America now is like that second kind of Christmas. Having too many THINGS they spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick. . .

Mainly, Adlai, I am troubled by the cynical immorality of my country. I do not think it can survive on this basis and unless some kind of catastrophe strikes us, we are lost. But by our very attitudes we are drawing catastrophe to ourselves. What we have beaten in nature, we cannot conquer in ourselves.

Someone has to reinspect our system and that soon. We can’t expect to raise our children to be good and honorable men when the city, the state, the government, the corporations all offer higher rewards for chicanery and deceit than probity and truth. On all levels it is rigged, Adlai. Maybe nothing can be done about it, but I am stupid enough and naively hopeful enough to want to try.

John Steinbeck | Letter to Adlai Stevenson, 1959 | Steinbeck: A Life in Letters


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