What's a Muff?

Drunken holiday shopping with Clarence the angel

There's an upside, it turns out, to not having Christmas, though we never would have believed it all those years growing up treeless in Massapequa. Instead of a real Christmas, attended by your actual relatives, you construct imaginary Noels—halcyon holidays that exist only in your mind.

In these pretend Christmases, it can be 1920 or 1960, but for some reason—probably chiefly cinematic—for us it is usually sometime in the 1940s. All the women are wearing chic black dresses with diamond clips and look like Barbara Stanwyck; the men are in suits and topcoats and hats like Cary Grant, or at least Fred MacMurray. And us? We're the little Natalie Wood-ish girl in the picture, resplendent in a plaid taffeta frock and a coat with a velvet collar and patent leather shoes—oh, and maybe even a muff. (Can you even buy a muff today? Do people even know what this item is?) Under the make-believe tree are Lionel trains and Steiff animals, not Xboxes and Bratz. The house looks likes the one Elizabeth Taylor lives in in Father of the Bride, which bears not the slightest resemblance to our actual Long Island home.

But of course that's just one of our pretend Christmases. In another version, we're a boozy nightclub singer on the order of Susan Alexander Kane. We haven't bought a gift for anyone, and we're sitting at a smoky table in a dank Atlantic City saloon, dissolving into a pool of gin, when who comes through door, spreading cheer and ordering a round of mulled wine? It's Clarence the angel, and suddenly we've got a last-minute invitation to spend Christmas, a real Christmas, at Elizabeth Taylor's house.

photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com

We've also got only a very few bucks in our pocket, and we can't go empty-handed. So, like Billy Bob Thornton with that Advent calendar in Bad Santa, we improvise.

What's cheap and open late? Kmart, but the place makes us want to commit suicide in the best of times, let alone on the night before Christmas. So we do what legions of other desperate marginal shoppers do as the big day draws near. We go to Duane Reade.

At the branch on 14th Street and Third Avenue, there is a display, just inside the door, of Christmas mini-stockings bearing names of prospective recipients. One glance at the monikers and we know it's not 1940, or even 1980—there is no Betty or Veronica, not even a Lynn. In their place is a surfeit of Karas and Jennas, Tiffanys and Kylies. Still if we knew someone with one of these names (alas, we are not buying for the president's dissolute daughters this year) they're only $2.99 each.

Unfortunately, what looks like a Donna Reed-ish 1950s felt circle skirt is, though indeed a skirt, intended for an evergreen, a shame since it has appealingly campy appliquéd bears and snowmen. (No doubt some East Village type, handy with thread and needle, could turn this into human garb.) Easier to handle is a pop-up card featuring a gothic house straight out of Psycho, though instead of a dead mother's corpse in the window, a group of carolers—almost as sinister—is trilling by the door.

These items are all right, sort of, but in truth not quite as magical as we'd hoped. So we head for another Duane Reade, this one at 8th Street and Broadway, and are rewarded with Santa Paws, a grey terrier who sings Deck the Halls and sounds like a barroom drunk. (Instead of Fa-La-Las he barks, insuring that he will be played exactly once.) As an alternative, two white bears harmonize on Feliz Navidad in rather more mellifluous tones, plus their cheeks light up. If you are intent on making music yourself, a wreath of jingle bells could, in a pinch, stand in for a tambourine.

Still, it doesn't seem possible that we and Clarence will show up with nothing but a singing terrier and a pop-up card. Luckily, the Village, whatever you can say about it these days, does not lack for Duane Reades. Desperate for the perfect house gift, we hit a third DR, on 14th between Fifth and University Place, where we find a rather insipid porcelain angel with praying hands, fiber-optic wings, and startlingly bright orange hair. (We know exactly what it takes to get this color, and it comes in a box.)

We are about to pick up a a package of 99-cent candy canes and call it quits when we see something so ridiculous it might just be exactly what we're looking for. It's a deeply odd Santa hat, which it turns out is not a hat at all, since there's a plastic motor crammed in the hole where your head usually goes. This, however, accounts for this item's other virtues: namely, it sings and dances Kander and Ebb's well-known anthem, a rare thing in a hat. If that isn't enough, it is decorated with an abstract drawing of the skyline in gold and the well-worn but still touching words, "Christmas in New York."

 
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