I love Christmas because my mother did and she fought for it against her fundamentalist husband who felt it was worldly and unscriptural, but Grace loved the stockings and tree, the wrappings, the songs, the dinner, and all the more for the fact that her mother died when my mother was seven. Twelve children racked with grief, a grim household in south Minneapolis, which made the festivity all the more precious.
It was interesting to hear this annual argument between two people who loved each other dearly. I knew that, doctrinally, Dad was correct but Mother’s position was one of love, and love prevailed, and we had Christmas year after year.
I’ve had some dismal Christmases. The Christmas of the goose, when I took the goose out of the oven and hot grease spilled on my wrist and I dropped it and the glass baking dish broke and the goose skidded across the kitchen floor collecting cat hair and glass fragments.
One year we did a Dickensian Christmas, had a tree with candles, did a group reading of A Christmas Carol and discovered that Scrooge has all the good lines, and nobody wants to be a Cratchit, they are such wimps. The reading was interrupted by screams — the tree was on fire. Candles make sense if you have a freshly cut tree and ours had been harvested in September in Quebec. But the fire rescued us from Dickens so all was well.
One of my favorite Christmases was the “Orphans Christmas” many years ago when we had ten guests at dinner, all of them musicians far from their families, a very lively bunch, and I, the lone writer, cooked the rib roast and waited on table. They were friends of my wife and all knew each other from freelance gigs so it was an accidental family, and they were full of stories and the conversation never sagged and the repartee sparkled and I didn’t have to say a word, which, as a Minnesotan, I appreciated. I come from withdrawn people, I know how to stifle myself.
Welcoming visitors is a Christmas tradition going back to the ones from the East who brought frankincense and myrrh, and this year we are entertaining our London relations who brought cookies and arrived during a Minnesota blizzard, which they thought was perfectly wonderful.
My son-in-law came in on a bitterly cold morning and said, “Delightful.” They brought merriment with them, which is the best you can hope for from a guest, and all week long the flat, what we think of as an apartment, has been full of talk and laughter. I’ve learned the expression “two shakes of a rat’s tail,” which means Very Soon.
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We put tomahtoes, not tomatoes, in the salad and learned that “smart” means stylish, not intelligent, and heard words such as “smashing” and “brilliant” that we laidback Midwesterners hesitate to use.
One morning over breakfast, I got a long fascinating lecture about the Saxons and Normans and the Battle of 1066, with some footnotes about the decorous execution of Charles the First in 1649. I can’t recall another time when beheading was discussed at breakfast. Fascinating. It was a chilly day and Charles dressed warmly so he wouldn’t shiver, which the crowd might interpret as cowardice. He himself gave the signal for the ax to descend and his head was severed with one blow.
These Londoners are ambitious hikers and don’t sit around waiting to be entertained, they go out and look and come back exhilarated, even euphoric, by what they’ve seen. An old Soo Line freight car, a display of Victorian lamps, a Christmas tree lot, the light at dusk.
I am a quiet man, descended from a culture in which a great deal is left unsaid. Children were shushed and so learned to shush themselves. When I was young, I thought enthusiasm betrayed naivete, and I am still trying to escape from this straitjacket.
Christmas cannot make us merry unless we’re willing to step out of our self-imposed restraints and celebrate, which I used to do with whiskey and wine but put all that away twenty years ago.
But the day dawned on the 22nd and the north began to tilt toward the sun and life resumes. Meanwhile we have each other and if someone knocks on your door, invite them in, and it’ll be Christmas.
Garrison Keillor Prairie Home Productions