A child is singing in the next room, calling on the faithful to come and be joyful and triumphant, as she watches a light-up snowman whose hands and feet and eyes turn green and blue and red and purple. A Santa perches on the mantel over the fireplace and two manger scenes cohabit the side table, a standard King James one and an American Indian one in which the Holy Family is gathered in front of a teepee and one of the Magi looks like Sitting Bull. There is talk of a Christmas tree.
The mood came on suddenly, and it may have been something we inhaled driving by that house on a side street of St. Paul last night. There in the midst of modest homes was the Caesar's Palace of Christmas, blazing white-hot in the dark with reindeer, shepherds, snowmen, angels, elves, radiant beams, etc. Not my taste, but Christmas has something for everyone.
You like to cook? Try roasting a goose. Anyone who can accomplish that is qualified to run for public office. If you like to shop, here's the world championship event. Want to practice charity? The needy stand before you. Are you a drunk? Welcome to Alcoholics Unanimous. Art and decoration: Be as gaudy as you like. Want to feel close to people? Come to church and sing. Whether or not you believe that the Creator of the Universe came to earth in the body of a child, the day itself is an enormous gift.
There are people who feel "excluded" by Christian symbolism and are offended by the manger and the angels and the Child, but there have always been humorless, legalistic people. Complaint is an American art form, and in our time it has been raised to an operatic level. To which one can only say: Get a life. When you go to France, you don't expect a stack of buckwheat pancakes for breakfast or Le Monde to print box scores. You're in France. Now you're in America. It's a Christian culture. Work with it.
The essentials of Christmas are few, in my book, and a big wad of cash is not one of them, nor do you need a 99.44 percent pure heart that is filled with faith. You do need Christmas cookies. Thin gingery ones in iconic shapes with sugar sprinkles and a dab of frosting. You need candles. And you absolutely need carols.
You could make Christmas just out of the Three Cs, though it would be nice to also have city streets with shops with an array of gifts in the windows, perfumes, model trains, wind-up animals that do backflips, woolen gloves and scarves, pens, and leather-bound diaries with a lock and a key. It would be good to have cold and snow so that you can haul yourself and a toboggan to the top of a steep slope and shove off into the dark so that the primitive thrill of falling shoots you full of adrenaline, which makes the cookies taste better. And you need "Silent Night" just before midnight on Dec. 24 when the lights dim and everyone in church stands up and sings, and tears well up in your eyes, and all of your Christmases meld into one.
The little girl singing in the next room is blissfully happy at this moment, but the life of a little girl is very dramatic -- it revolves around 1) jumping up and down and squealing, 2) collapsing in tears, 3) collapsing in laughter, 4) rapt adoration and 5) hopeless frustration. Sometimes in rapid succession.
So it is with Christmas. You can go straight from pure bliss to desperate remorse in less than a minute. There are dead friends that one does not ever quite forget, and there is the great wound of divorce which, even though 30 years in the past, can come open and bleed and almost break your heart. You walk to church and she's waiting for you in the shadows, asking, "Why did you do that?"
Christmas is an artistic performance, and art, by and large, is not made by contented people. It is made by wounded recluses, freaks, the absurdly self-conscious, the haunted and guilty, the humiliated, the outcasts, and we create this, first and foremost, for our children. To rise up out of confusion and dismay, with ghosts whispering to us, and bake cookies and light a candle and sing "Silent Night" -- I can do that for my child, and if your children want to join us, they are most welcome.
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(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
(c) 2006 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.