Analysis of 'Christmas Eve at Johnson's Drugs N Goods' by Toni Cade Bambara

Style Versus Substance

Kwanzaa altar.
Image courtesy of soulchristmas.

Toni Cade Bambara (1939 - 1995) was an American writer, professor, documentary filmmaker, and activist. Originally from New York City, she spent several years of her adult life in Georgia, where she co-founded the Southern Collective of African American Writers.

"Christmas Eve at Johnson's Drugs N Goods" originally appeared in her 1977 collection, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive.


As the title suggests, the story takes place on Christmas Eve at Johnson's Drugs N Goods.

The narrator, Candy, maneuvers her cleaning cart so that she can stay in sight of the front door. Even though she knows better, she's hoping that her father, who has remarried and moved out of state, will pay her an unexpected holiday visit. Two women in "big city clothes" arrive and draw lots of attention to themselves by joking loudly with each other and with the employees. At first Candy finds them alluring, but when they treat "the new dude in Drugs" disdainfully, she has second thoughts. The employee who has been insulted surprises the "big city" women by outwitting them with clever retorts. After the women leave, he asks Candy if she'd like to accompany him to a Kwanzaa celebration, and we get the impression that she will say yes.

Style Versus Substance

One major theme of the story is the importance of substance over style.

The character of Piper represents "style" here. Mrs. Johnson pretends that she keeps an eye on Piper to make sure he doesn't pilfer anything from the cash register, but, the narrator tells us, "we all know why she watches Piper, same reason we all do.

Cause Piper is so fine you just can't help yourself."

Candy openly admires Piper's physique, and she's also attracted to the "style" of Ethel and Fur Coat. She can't decide which of the women she likes better. "I guess I like em both," she concludes, "cause they shopping the right way, having fun and all.

And they got plenty of style. I wouldn't mind being like that when I am full-grown."

In contrast to Piper and the women in their finery, "the new dude in Drugs," whose name we will eventually learn is Obatale, "always looks a little crumbled, a little rough dry, like he jumped straight out the hamper but not quite straight."

Nevertheless, though Obatale doesn't speak often, his statements (like "Revolution without Transformation is Half-Assed") intrigue Candy, so she "listen[s] real hard whenever he open[s] his mouth." She starts borrowing newspapers from him and copying down the names of the books he's reading so she can get them from the library.

Candy does not find Obatale physically attractive, but when Fur Coat tries to make him the butt of her jokes, Candy is forced to define her own values. She can see that Obatale "got stuff to him if you listen rather than look. Seems to me ole Fur Coat is looking."

And in fact, by just "looking," Fur Coat grossly underestimates Obatale, who outsmarts and infuriates her.

Finally, Candy has to admit to herself "that Fur Coat is not nice. Fun, dazzling, witty, but not nice." Candy chooses substance.

What's in a Name?

Names play an important role in the story.

Candy can never remember the name of "the new dude in Drugs." She's tempted to call him Ali Baba (because it sounds a little like Obatale), but she won't because she feels it's disrespectful. She says, "Either you call a person by a name that says what they about or you call em what they call themselves, one or the other."

For example, she refers to the two "big city" women as Ethel (her real name) and Fur Coat ("She is clearly about the fur coat").

Piper is Piper's real name, but because he works in Tobacco, it is also a nearly literal explanation of "what he's about." This connection seems perfect for a character who has no depth. What you see is what you get.

In the end, it's significant that Candy asks Obatale to write down his name and the name of Kwanzaa -- both words are brand new to her, totally unfamiliar.

She doesn't know their names or "what they're about," and she's eager to learn.

Growing Up

After the two women leave the store, Candy has to acknowledge that her father won't be coming for Christmas. Her mother, a singer, is on tour, so Candy will spend the holiday with her aunt and uncle. For her, "Christmas is a drag."

When Obatale interrupts Candy's thoughts by inviting her to attend a Kwanzaa celebration with him, she becomes hopeful that "[m]aybe there's something joyous in this celebration he's talking about." But the invitation represents hope for more than just a single celebration. Candy is in transition from childhood to adulthood, and a relationship with Obatale could mark independence from the adults in her life who "have their own lives to lead."

Kwanzaa (which would have been only a few years old when this story was written) also represents new possible understandings of race and culture. Candy doesn't like Miz Della in Cosmetics, "a sister who's been passing for years but fooling nobody but herself." And she disapproves of Mrs. Johnson's hiring a white pharmacist who "waves me and Madeen away like he somebody we got to pay some mind to."

Piper, who doesn't work on commission, seems eager to make a sale for the Johnsons simply because they're "Black folks." But Candy recognizes that Mrs. Johnson, with her rules and lectures and spying, doesn't share any sense of solidarity with her employees.

So it makes sense that a celebration of African and African-American culture would appeal to Candy.

One of her friends has taught her how to wear a gele, which she likes because it seems to throw Mrs. Johnson off balance. This same friend has mentioned the Kwanzaa celebration, but Candy knew nothing about it.

The last time Candy saw her father, he said, "It's not about looks anyway," but he left her "waiting to hear what it is about." Now, with help from Obatale and others, Candy is ready to find her own answer and to determine "this woman I'm going to be." 

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Your Citation
Sustana, Catherine. "Analysis of 'Christmas Eve at Johnson's Drugs N Goods' by Toni Cade Bambara." ThoughtCo, Aug. 22, 2016, Sustana, Catherine. (2016, August 22). Analysis of 'Christmas Eve at Johnson's Drugs N Goods' by Toni Cade Bambara. Retrieved from Sustana, Catherine. "Analysis of 'Christmas Eve at Johnson's Drugs N Goods' by Toni Cade Bambara." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 22, 2017).