It was Christmas in the New York subways last week, musicians heading off to play Christmas gigs, and in the Times Square station a wild-haired old man out of a George Price cartoon pounded out "Winter Wonderland" on an electric organ, a rhythm attachment going whompeta-whompeta-whompeta, and two crazed battery-powered Santas dancing the boogaloo, nearby a young trumpeter giving "O Holy Night" a good working over, and then the doors closed and we racketed uptown as an old codger came into the car and launched into "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" as he limped up the aisle, jingling his Styrofoam cup.
I am pretty much hardened to Christmas music, except at the end of the Christmas Eve service when the lights dim and the glories stream from heaven afar and the heavenly hosts sing Alleluia and then, from long habit, tears well up in my eyes and I weep for the dead who enjoyed Christmas so much and for humanity in general, and then we go sashaying out into the cold starry night and walk home.
A big orange and some fresh pine boughs and "Silent Night" are all I need, and cookies, of course. They are the strings that when I pull on them I pull up the complete glittering storybook Christmases of my childhood. Even in Manhattan, the combination of orange and evergreen and the holy hymn brings back a snowy night in Minnesota and the colored lights, the mound of gifts, the deluxe mixed nuts in the cut-glass bowl, the candles, the faint air of Lysol from the toilets, and the cologne of my uncles as they sit munching their peanut brittle.
I stood in line at a pine-bough-decked-out Starbucks behind a tall, beautiful, dark-haired woman who ordered a venti mocha latte, 180 degrees, seven pumps, 2 percent, no foam, and though the headphones around her neck were playing the Beatles who were back in the USSR spreading their broken wings and learning to fly, and finding Gideon's Bible to help with good Rocky's revival, the smell of chocolate and pine brought back the lights, the snow, the whole blessed day. The advantage of age: a few details stand for the whole, just as in poetry.
The aim of a festive season is to attain amiability, and perhaps actual joy, which we may find in our private moments but which at Christmas we seek to attain together, thus it is a true test of the power of the community to elevate its members, without which we may as well take to the woods. The family gathers, with its checkered history of jealousies and resentments, hoping to share warmth, to instill the most sullen member with a measure of cheer, and if it cannot do this, then it will break apart.
We left our families to escape our disapproving elders and find friendlier authority figures who give us permission to be original and write our own stories. All we parents, no matter how wonderful we may seem, have said and done bad things to children, and so we are relieved when they escape us without apparent permanent damage. And we hope for forgiveness, and for them to want to be with us at Christmas. But how can we make them happy this time, when we have failed so often in the past?
The beauty of Christmas is that it is not about us, our creativity, our fabulous décor, the glittering gifts we can afford, but about a story and ritual that lift us all. The other night I saw a young man standing on the corner holding a gas can and asked him if he needed a ride. He said he'd been to a party at his sister's house and a guy started beating up his sister and the young man jumped the guy and the cops came and broke it up and the young man had forgotten to ask his sister for money to buy gas for his car which was now out of gas and here he was on a cold night, far from home, a little drunk, and very broke.
I did what anybody else would've done, and all the way to the gas station and back he was a little incredulous, but that's Christmas. It isn't about me, just as it isn't about the shepherds in the pageant who are worried about forgetting their lines. Not a problem. We all know the lines. Just do what the others do and try to beam when it seems appropriate.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)