Christmas without translation

When you don't understand the language, it's easier to find the dumb childlike wonder that's the essence of the season.


Garrison Keillor
December 24, 2008 2:00PM (UTC)

 It is the blessed Christmas season. But of course you know that. Unless you live ten miles up a box canyon deep in the Wasatch Range with only your dog Boomer and are demented from drinking bad water, you are inhaling Christmas night and day and "Adeste Fideles" is stuck in your head like a five-inch nail.

This Christmas I am in New York for the general dazzlement and variety. On Sunday St. Patrick's was packed to the rafters for 4 p.m. Mass in Spanish, the name "Jesucristo" drifting around the battlements, and a few blocks south the Jane Austen Society was meeting to discuss Christmas in Olde England, and in between, I stopped in a men's store and bought six pairs of red socks. For myself.

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Down deep I am selfish and don't like to feel obliged to do what other people are doing -- dancing, leaping, piping, drumming, welcoming the Christ Child with joyful hearts, etc. -- at the times when other people are doing them. This city enables one to leap or pipe pretty much whenever you feel like it, even after 10 p.m. on weekdays.

Yesterday I took my sandy-haired bright-faced daughter to dinner at 9 p.m., which is late for a 10-year-old, and introduced her to the idea of Ordering Whatever You Want, No Matter What Others May Think, and she got the chicken Kiev and for dessert an apple tart as big as a Gideon Bible. She is a good eater. She approached her meal with the quiet devotion that a chicken deserves. She loved the candles, the linen, the silver, the formality. I enjoyed a tiny quail egg poached in a toasted brioche with a dollop of caviar, though, thanks to my upbringing, I eat my meals surrounded by gaunt Chinese children holding out empty rice bowls. And when the check arrives, I have visions of debtors' prison, dank stone walls, a wooden bunk, a straw mat, water dripping, and so forth.

Here in New York, Mr. Madoff allegedly made off with billions of dollars of other people's money in a Ponzi scheme, which is selfishness raised to a high level indeed, but the selfishness I am indulging is a simpler kind -- for example, if I feel like having a mocha, I just step into a Starbucks and get one. A small one, no pastry, but it feels luxurious, coming from a utilitarian background as I do. Why mocha? How does it further God's work on Earth? I don't know. I just like it.

A few weeks ago a pundit wrote about what a wonderful thing it would be to appoint Bill Clinton to the Senate to fill his wife's seat, him being a former president and all, and then that idea vanished. Bloop. I imagine Bill called up a few people and said, "Whom are you kidding?" When a man can jet around the world and be received as a potentate and knock down a hundred grand every time he feels like giving a speech, he is not going to want to sit in the Senate chamber and hear old men drone on about Arbor Day and the crucial role of the forest products industry.

I feel the same way about Christmas parties. It isn't fun to stand around making small talk with other people's friends as they anesthetize themselves. But slipping into St. Patrick's for Mass in Spanish is pretty wonderful. It's like a big family reunion at which I know nobody and so nobody is mad at me. Nothing said in Spanish offends me doctrinally or any other way. I squeeze into the crowd, under the placid stone faces of saints, the sweet smell of burning wax and a hundred varieties of cologne, and feel the religious fervor, and tears come to my eyes, and I light a candle, say a wordless prayer, and out into the cold I go.

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It brought back memories of Christmas Eve in Copenhagen 20 years ago and how beautiful the sermons were before I started learning Danish.

A man gets a keener sense of the divine in a church that is not your own. Maybe Luther and Calvin and Jan Hus and all them were dead wrong and literacy is not the key nor an understanding of Scripture, and maybe the essence of Christmas is dumb childlike wonder and the more you think about it, the less you understand. Which makes me glad I am no smarter than I am. Let's go have lunch.

(Garrison Keillor is the author of a new Lake Wobegon novel, "Liberty," published by Viking.)

© 2008 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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