There is a place, far away and no doubt very exclusive, where the holidays are all green velvet and gold mesh ribbon and sage-infused roasted turkeys and real plum pudding. The citizens spend their days gilding pine cones instead of standing in line at the Toys R Us, no one ever spills red wine on the good linen tablecloth and everything glows in the golden light of hand-rolled beeswax candles.
This is Marthaworld, and as long as you abide by the rules, you can live there. But the rules are daunting. No frozen turkeys with a pop-up button. No last-minute Isotoner gifts. No stick-on bows, plastic wreaths or recipes from the back of a Jell-o box. Nothing that doesn't reek of excruciating good taste and hours of handiwork involving antique silk fabric, an endless supply of freshly sheared pine boughs and/or No. 22 florist wire.
The rest of the year, you might be able to suppress your longings to enter this precious, rarefied world. But come the holidays, you have no choice.
Martha Stewart rules.
'Tis the season to worship at the altar of the Goddess of the Glue Gun, throw yourself at the feet of Our Lady of Good Things, commit your soul to the Queen of Crazed Domesticity.
Go ahead and laugh. Feel superior to those of us who slavishly hang onto her every mandate. Look down your nose at her middle-brow appeal, her faux WASP flourishes, her manipulations of our insecurities. You may think you are too smart or too busy or too sophisticated to fall into her cult. But Martha will get you, someday, sometime when you least expect it. You will find yourself actually gilding a pumpkin, or not just planting a window box but actually constructing one first. I know. I resisted as long as I could, but in the end, I surrendered. And you know what? It's been much easier since I stopped worrying and learned to love Martha Stewart.
There is freedom with surrender. And, with Martha, you can't go halfway. It's all or nothing, and increasingly, "nothing" is simply not an option. She's everywhere. She's somewhere beyond ubiquitous, approaching omnipotence.
There are her books, more suited to the coffee table than the kitchen counter, filled with luscious photographs of meals, gardens and homes you can only dream about. There is her eponymous magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and her television show, also called "Martha Stewart Living." It's my Sunday-morning ritual, as reverent an experience as going to church.
You enter the House of Martha in Westport, Conn., and watch her go about her ministrations with beatific serenity and unshakable faith in her beliefs. It's both Shaker and Puritan, all perfect design and endless tasking, pruning shears to be sharpened and oiled, mantels to be swagged, bulbs to be forced, chaos to be ordered. More recently, Martha has started Martha by Mail so that you can order peony bushes just like Martha's and cake-decorating supplies just like Martha's. And her next frontier: cyberspace. But contrary to rumors, she has not stenciled her particular entrance ramp to the information highway. (Although watch for cookie cutters based on her icons.)
Martha is nothing if not initially and instantly mockable, the easiest laugh since Marabel Morgan. She is Susie Homemaker on steroids, running amok and creating more and more work for us all. She blithely flies in the face of reality: We have less time these days, not more, to cook, bake, clean, garden and otherwise Martha-ize.
Inevitably, she invites parody. Last year, two of her Connecticut neighbors issued the magazine Is Martha Stewart Living? On first glance, it looked just like the real thing. Inside, it followed the beloved formula: Martha's calendar, wherein she reminds herself prune the roses, and, oh yes, also "Return from Sikkim." There were several stories, such as the almost believable "Handmade Condoms: A fitting gift for the '90s."
I must confess I had a laugh, just a tiny one, over this: The parody nails exactly why Martha brings out the claws in many women. There's a sort of implicit competition in everything Martha does, as if life is one big Pillsbury bake-off and she's going to leave you in the dust. Even as she's instructing you on how to make a flakier pie crust or how to dig an asparagus trench, there's this subtext: Don't even bother, you'll never do it as well as I.
But in the end, the parody doesn't quite work. True to form, the real Martha is funnier than any faux Martha. How can you satirize someone who grows patches of organic grass just to put under her Easter ham? Who raises chickens for their pastel-hued eggs . . . which then inspire her to create a line of house paints that sell for $75 per 2.5 liters? And who erects a gingerbread house so elaborate that, should you try to duplicate it, you would need an architect to draw blueprints, a building permit from City Hall and a licensed electrician to wire every room?
Like those other seminal figures of blond ambition -- Marilyn, Madonna -- Martha has reached iconic status. She shares more than hair color and monogram with them in that she is infinitely dissectable, reducible to her many parts even as she transcends them all. Academics and essayists expound on What She Means. You could probably get a Ph.D. with a dissertation like "Sense (Scents?) and Semiotics: Martha Stewart's Palais de Poulet and Its Rose Arbor Entryway." She's either Gloria Steinem with better meals, or Phyllis Schlafly with a better haircut, either liberating women to get in touch with their inner hausfrau, or returning them to the stoves and mops that they fled en route to MBAs and MDs.
For women like me, baby boomers raised to storm the workplace rather than tend to the home fires, Martha is problematic. We are a generation of women who wore our lack of kitchen skills like badges of honor. We could read stock tables, so what if we couldn't make a chicken stock? It's "I am woman, hear me roar," not "I am woman, watch me stitch up a tea cozy and serve you a perfect cup."
How, then, to explain the multimedia phenomenon that is Martha?
Sometimes I think it's all a big goof, on her part and ours. Martha fulfills our need for irony, for camp. The idea that someone, in 1995, with shopping malls and catalogs and credit cards and toll-free numbers galore, would spend an afternoon punching grommets into fabric to make her own shower curtain, or weaving grosgrain ribbon into a lampshade is, well, too funny. It's theater of the absurd.
And yet. The shower curtain turns out quite lovely and the lampshade is exactly what I searched unsuccessfully for last year before settling for something else. Something lesser. Martha never settles. Give her a cordless drill, a swath of fabric, a clod of dirt even, and she gets what she wants.
This is how Martha ensnares you in her web: She makes it seem so simple. Such a small thing, really, a little gilded pumpkin here, a little leaf-imprinted linen napkin there. Ah, but there's the rub: You can't just dabble in Marthahood any more than you can be a little bit pregnant.
I tried. I thought I picked a simple Martha Stewart venture: potpourri, heaped into crisp cellophane bags tied with silky ribbons, for this year's Christmas presents. Nothing, of course, is simple with Martha; everything is a process that you can't just jump into midstream. It's almost Zen, really, the journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step. I thought I understood this, and so I started my flower seeds over the winter, in Jiffy pots under grow lights, transplanted them into the garden in the spring, harvested them in the summer and hung them upside down to dry.
You can see how this was doomed to fail: The process is fraught with potential for project-ending disaster at any step of the way. I could tell you about the wan seedlings that collapsed under even the finest of mistings, or the summer drought that killed everything but the weeds. Suffice it to say, I harvested exactly four Nigella seed pods (even better, the seed catalog said, than poppy seed pods). No rose petals. No lavender stalks. Ergo, no potpourri.
Here is the secret to loving Martha: You don't have to do any of this stuff! She can't make you! She does enough for all of us, and we can sit back and enjoy it, vicariously. It's virtual reality at its most primitive, crashing out on a sofa reading about or watching Martha busy-bee about, making her already wonderful life even better. (She'd probably start by kicking me off the sofa and making a slipcover for it.)
I must say, though, Martha is wearing dangerously thin, even for a convert like me. She's starting to repeat herself: What you see on television, you've already seen in the magazine (and, in fact, the TV show refers you back to the magazine); each new book seems to be reruns from either Martha: The TV Show or Martha: The Magazine. Her latest book at least admits as much: "Handmade Christmas" is billed as a greatest hits of previous holiday features from the magazine.
While it's nice to have it all anthologized between two covers, that seems a bit like cheating on the whole Martha ethos. It's as if Martha -- maybe tipsy on the vodka that she has frozen into a flower-bedecked block of ice -- is saying, oh, go ahead and use Pepperidge Farm croutons for your stuffing, why bother making your own corn bread?
Novices who want to learn how to do Christmas the Martha way should have to do what we acolytes have done: Meticulously save every issue of the magazine and store them chronologically in boxes lined with acid-free paper and tied up with antique silk ribbons. Then next holiday season, they'll have all Martha's marvelous information at their fingertips.