Deck the halls with boughs of folly! The American Christmas tree 2001 has morphed into a swollen, status-laden monstrosity, and it's all Christopher Radko's fault.
Or mostly. Radko, a dapper Manhattan Polish boy who built a lordly empire out of mouth-blown glass ornaments, has in the last few years grown inescapable. He and his ferociously expensive "Christmas home furnishings" (that's decorations to you) are the darlings of the nation's lifestyle pages, the staples of tony department stores, the talk of the network morning shows, the toast of the monied classes. And I do mean monied: Your average Radko baubles fetch 40, 50, 60 bucks; the biggest and most elaborate go for a daunting $70 to $90 each. Celebrities like Elton John and Barbra Streisand can afford to collect Radko. So, apparently, can a growing cult of fanatics whose "Radko trees" are monuments to conspicuous consumption. A modest Radko tree might sport 250 ornaments, and it is not unknown for a blow-out-the-lights version to be encrusted with 1,000 of these highly perishable adornments. Go ahead, do the math. We're talking an investment level that demands a Lloyd's of London policy.
So it's hard not to snicker when Radko tells USA Today that this post-9/11 Christmas is "not about traveling to faraway places or buying that fur coat anymore. It's about gathering around the Christmas tree with family and friends." Yeah, right. What could be cozier than Christmas on the home front of a Houston socialite of my acquaintance who rarely appears in public without the interlocking Chanel C's displayed on her person, and who proudly brags that her young sons will only allow the Radko brand on the family tree?
The weird thing is the utter charmlessness of Radko's creations. Oh, the workmanship's there: the intricate detail, the careful interior silvering that imparts such a lush gleam. But those hand-painted faces often smirk or wink or leer alarmingly, gazing out of cartoonishly popped eyes. Radko's foppish, red-faced, slightly louche Santas—a multitudinous tribe—do not look like the kind of fellows you'd want to leave the kiddies with. Indeed, it must take a Radko Santa so long to get dressed that it's a wonder the fourscore-and-seven gifts he's invariably toting ever get distributed. And what's with those scary snowmen? They look demonic enough (in the unsettling manner of clowns) to give Stephen King the willies. The blecherous names bestowed on each ornament only compound the horror: "Frozy Cozy," "Warm 'n' Woolly Mitten," "Chirpy & Chilly," "Merry Meows," "Rootin' Tootin Nick."
Worse still, these suckers are big. In fact, with every new collection, they seem to get bigger, more self-important, more purely expressive of Radko's too-much-is-never-enough aesthetic. What engages at the traditional, Old-World glass-ornament size of 3 inches, engages considerably less at the in-yer-face Radko scale of 6, 7, or even 8 inches, which is uncomfortably close to a foot long. Mammon has something to do with the phenomenon I have come to think of as "Radko Bloat." Quite simply, Radko can charge a lot for an ermine-robed St. Nicholas as bulky as a quart of malt liquor.
But Freud may have even more to do with the thrusting verticals of the ever-expanding Radko repertoire. Radko stacks up his ornaments in tiers; bolsters them with pedestals and assorted conveyances (sleighs, motorcycles, spaceships); lifts them skyward with towers, steeples, lampposts, pointy finials; endows them with explosions and wild cornucopias of brightly wrapped Christmas packages. So you get an onerously topical "Made in Manhattan" Empire State Building, or a superfluous "Stack o' Raccoons", or a redundant confection like this year's rococo "Snowtem Pole," which doesn't stop at one snowman when three will do. "Snowtem" is everything Radko. It's scary and tall and over-the-top. It's also sold out at my local "Starlight Store," which is Mr. Radko's cutesy-poo designation for the favored retail outlets that stock hundreds of his designs.
The practical problem with the grandiosity of Radko ornaments is one of scale. Buy just one, and it throws your tree seriously out of whack. It's the insidious wedge that demands more and more big Radkos to balance out. Ultimately, you'll require at least a 12-foot tree (and ceiling to match) to support the enormity.
Which syndrome would be tolerable if it stopped at the doorstep of Radko cultists. But it doesn't. This December, it's crashingly obvious that the pernicious Radko influence has trickled down even unto Kmart level. Radko Bloat is now a national curse. The savvy Chinese have smelled the coffee, which means your local Pier 1 and Cost Plus and mega-craft-emporium is now chockablock with humongous, Radko-scale ornaments. Some are blatant Radko imitations at reduced cost, like the three-for-$10 gift-laden drugstore Santas, or the hippie VW van the size of a particularly unwieldy cell phone. You can hardly find a nice little 3-inch glass ornament anymore.
Everywhere, the Radko homages are as blatant as the worrisome foot-long blown-glass pine cones I saw in Lake Placid last month, or the 7-inch leaping trout. Demo trees in your local retail outlets tend to be clad (am I right about this?) in bolt-wide swaths of netting and gargantuan beaded fruits and towering sprongs of dried weeds, all at regulation Radko scale. Even garden-variety Christmas balls and drops no longer get precious shelf space unless they are the size of bowling balls, or at least grapefruits. Last week, at a Houston Kmart, I watched a man and his young daughter pawing a selection of enormous, shatterproof glass balls. The man passed an 8-inch specimen to his wonderstruck kid and joked, "Afterward, you can use it as a basketball." Later, I drove past Houston's city hall, where, to my dismay, the civic Christmas tree overlooking the reflecting pool has been super-sized with humongous, shiny globes that must be a foot in diameter.
I imagined Mr. Radko perched on my shoulder, whispering, "Say Uncle."