Christmas with the Keillors

Christmas is as much about joy and fellowship as it is about disappointment and dysfunction. According to Darryl Campbell, that’s part of the tradition.

Last week, Garrison Keillor roiled the relentlessly benign waters of Lake Wobegon with a bizarre op-ed in The Baltimore Sun (reproduced on Salon). In it, he blamed Ralph Waldo Emerson, Unitarians in general, and especially “all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck” for turning Christmas into a generic winter-themed holiday. Christmas, he insisted, should be a day for believers only, and such secularizers should keep their hands off of it, thank you very much.

That is one happy mailman.

I first heard Keillor’s column described as “anti-Semitic.” But I think it was just a case of badly done satire rather than an animus against Jewish people (also, when he writes, “did one of our guys write ‘Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah’? No, we didn’t,” it’s safe to assume that he hasn’t heard about Orrin Hatch’s latest musical endeavor). More importantly, Keillor’s attempt at satire illustrates how people’s emotions tend to boil over around the holidays — and this kind of Christmas angst makes the trials and tribulations of Thanksgiving dinners pale in comparison.

Take, for example, the hapless Delta gate attendants who had to call the cops to quell a potential riot of frustrated passengers this past week. Or the annual dustup over things like ads that don’t prominently feature the word “Christmas.” Or, closer to home for me, the rectors of a dorm at Notre Dame who two years ago required their students to take down a building-sized season’s greeting because it said “Xmas” instead of Christmas. Or Fred Phelps’s condemnation of Lady Gaga to hell, three days before Christmas.

But then, contrary to what Hallmark cards and television movies might tell us, Christmas seems to be equivalent parts joy and misery. Every year, we can watch Charlie Brown agonize over commercialism and secularism and his run-down sapling of a Christmas tree, or all that Christmas-themed entertainment that features main characters with dead wives or relatives (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; Lethal Weapon; Gremlins; “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”). Even the treacliest of the treacle out there, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, features a man who flips out on Christmas Eve so badly — not only does he berate his uncle and his wife, he even snaps at his daughter Janie in the middle of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” — that it literally takes divine intervention (from one of heaven’s B-team, mind you) to pull old George Bailey back from the brink. Of course, each of these is a redemption story, and you can’t get redeemed unless you go through some kind of unpleasantness. But the fact remains that, like a Red Bull and vodka, we like our Christmases to be as much downer as upper, and probably more of the former than the latter.

We'll see if it's still a Kodak moment after the parents leave.

In other words, Keillor’s “Rudolphgate” and its ensuing controversy are just about par for the Yuletide course, as far as dredging up our collective dark side goes. And as this sort of thing is a holiday tradition, it’s probably not going anywhere for a while. What alternatives exist? Opening oneself up to the gentle indifference of the world after a Christmas Eve reading of L’Étranger? Watching Lost in Translation instead of A Christmas Story? (Full disclosure: that’s basically my plan, but only because I’m stuck in Indiana while my family’s off in Turkey.) Like a Jewish songwriter (Keillor’s words!), there is no place for such stylized ennui in the Christmastime pantheon of fruitcake, eggnog, and entertainment that alternates between platitudinous and emotionally disturbing.

So maybe, subconsciously, what Keillor really resents about “White Christmas” and the like is not that they are secularizing a Christian holiday, but that they don’t quite have the emotional range that we like out of our Christmas entertainment. That is, we want our songs and movies to replicate the social dynamic that we ourselves experience: the same resentment, irritation, and general anti-social tendencies caused by forced family togetherness, despite personality clashes and disappointing presents.

After all, contained within Keillor’s bête noire of a column is, I think, a tiny hint of what Christmas at his house must be like: a little bit prickly and a little bit old-fashioned, much less funny (but much more shocking) than intended. And really, isn’t that what family is all about?

Merry Christmas!

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.