From the Desk of Garrison Keillor
A prolific writer, Garrison Keillor is a frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines throughout the United States and abroad. To the right, you find a selection of articles published since 1989, and a few unpublished pieces.

The Dangers of Christmas
From Land's End Magazine

April 6, 1998

Christmas is magical. It's brief, and its powers are limited, but it can make you happy, if that's what you want. It only works once a year, of course. In August, the songs sound dumb. You have to work up to it through the fall, starting right after Halloween. Thanksgiving, of course, is a sort of dress rehearsal, Christmas minus the gifts, and then December is like a fast chute that you sit down on and ssshhhhhhoop, ssshhhhhhoop, ssshhhhhhoop, suddenly it's December 24, there's your tree, the candles, the candy, the stockings, and the traditional Christmas cat. ---You don't have that? Really? I'm surprised. It's an old tradition where I come from. You have to have a cat for Christmas, because at midnight it will speak to you, and oftentimes it gives valuable advice, such as "Attend to old friendships" or "Check tire pressure," though sometimes it says things like, "Implement quality communications by Tuning In Candor, Tuning Out Condescension, and Tuna (canned)." Anyway--- Christmas is magical.

On Christmas Day, when I was a boy, I always woke up at three o'clock in the morning and slid out of bed and tiptoed down the stairs and into the living room. The tree stood immense, dark, glittering, and beneath it a mountain range of presents, and propped up against the fireplace were six red felt stockings stuffed with things. Outside, the moon shone on the drifts of snow, the birch tree in the front yard, the dark houses along our country road. All was still, all was bright. I could feel the vast invisible force of Christmas around me. From my parents' bedroom came the sounds of trombones, snoring, and down below, the furnace heaved a sigh and exhaled hot air out the registers.

In the basement, set up on the ping-pong table, was my Lionel model train layout, a nice oval one with two switches, a sidetrack with a cattle loader that vibrated and made the plastic cows move up the ramp and into the cattle car, and four dark-green passenger cars with illuminated windows. I liked to ease down there, not turn on the light, plug in the transformer, and watch my train go quietly clacking around in the dark.

At three a.m. on Christmas morning, the Moonlight Express sped
through the tunnel and down the straightaway and around the bend, past the village, the storefronts, the houses, the sponge-rubber trees, the cows, carrying passengers through this perfect little world toward a joyful holiday in the distant city --- and the sheer perfection of the picture made me suddenly clench up with trepidation: it was too good to be true, and something terrible was just about to happen.

It's an old family trait, I think: at the moment of pure peace and satisfaction, we blanch, we quake, we imagine something about to explode --- are the burners turned off? is the pilot light lit? did a stranger put a package in our suitcase?

And that's the first danger of Christmas: fear.

Christmas is winter and, face it: winter is a dangerous time. You're about to sit down to turkey and cranberries and the phone rings. Your neighbor's car won't start. He's a good neighbor whose garbage your dog has occasionally raided and whose front yard is chewed up from having been your children's end zone and outfield, so you put on your hundred-pound parka and plunge out the door into the thirty-below blast and pull your car up nose-to-nose with the neighbor's deceased car and get out the jumper cables and try to remember, "Is it Positive to Positive, Negative to Negative? Or is it Positive to Negative?" If you put those cables on the wrong battery posts, it will cause an explosion that will get your town mentioned on the Evening News: the hairy-headed Anchor Man will look into the camera and say, "In the midst of the joy that is Christmas, tragedy struck in (Your Town) yesterday when a car blew up because (Your Name) attached a pair of jumper cables to the wrong battery posts. Now here's Mark with sports." But you remember (it is positive to positive) and the car starts, and you wave to your neighbor and go back to your house, feeling warm and good, and slip on a tiny patch of ice and fall on your keester and twist a disc in your back that you will spend the next decade in search of a healer for and will wind up in India, at the ashram of the Rama Lama Bungee, living on yak yoghurt and meditating six hours a day with your legs sticking straight up in the air.

A person thinks about these things at Christmas.

Christmas trees oftentimes spontaneously burst into flames. Your dog might eat tinsel and need to be rushed to the emergency room. You might have gotten the wrong turkey, one that the Mafia planted in the supermarket, and that isn't giblets in the plastic bag inside the carcass, it's drugs with a street value of six million dollars, and the next knock on your door may be the FBI. Or it may be three large men in blue pinstriped suits and big diamond pinkie rings.

Let's be frank about fruit cake. Okay, maybe your mom makes terrific fruit cake, and you eat two of them every year in the dark while listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing "Silent Night" and your eyes fill up with tears and this is the emotional highlight of your year. Fine. I'm not here to badmouth your mother's fruitcake. But --- she only makes a few fruitcakes a year, and that leaves the other thirty-two-point-seven million fruitcakes, and let me tell you about them. They're made in March and April in a gigantic factory in Indonesia, sent to the U.S. in the form of thirty-foot fruit logs that are then cut up and wrapped in cellophane, stored in surplus fruitcake silos in Iowa, delivered to stores, sold, and nobody eats them because they're inedible, so you keep it in the refrigerator for six months, and in July it's sent to a fruitcake disposal site in Utah and put into concrete cannisters with millions of other fruitcakes and buried in the desert. (Those mountains around Salt Lake City where people go to ski are former fruitcake disposal sites.)

Now let's talk about "Little Drummer Boy". There are wonderful Christmas carols and others somewhat less wonderful and some that, after eight-hundred-or-so times, you'd rather not hear again anytime soon, and then there are songs like "Do You Hear What I Hear?" whose author you'd enjoy throwing barefoot into a sandburr patch, and then there is "Little Drummer Boy". When I hear a choir go "Rum-tum-tum-rum-tum-tum-tum," I see multi-colored dots and feel the veins in my head bulge. If I'm in a store, I walk out the door and never go back; if I'm in my car, I never listen to that radio station again. I have heard of people whose minds snapped from hearing "Little Drummer Boy" and they dropped their shopping bags and ran crouched through the mall grunting and foaming like Lon Chaney Jr. in "The Return of the Wolf Man" and they had to be tackled by security guards and taken to a sanitarium run by the Sisters of Mercy and kept in absolute silence for three months. They did crafts and flower-arranging and painted water colors and ambled along the poplar-shaded walks and admired the flowers in the Sisters' cloister, and by spring, they were ready to resume their lives, though still under a doctor's care.

Now I'm going to tell you something, and I'll only say this once: the consequences of hearing "Little Drummer Boy" while eating a piece of fruitcake are not pretty, and while I'm not one who goes in for alarming the American people, I know of a young man from a fine family who swallowed a chunk of fruitcake in the same instant that a choir rum-tum-tummed, and that was years ago and we have never spoken of him since.

In my boyhood, Christmas was a holiday owned and operated by women. Women bought it, cooked it, wrapped it, hung tinsel on it, and men stood in the next room and groused about how were they possibly going to afford all of this extravagance.

HE: Where's that cold draft coming from? Who left the door wide open? How many times do I have to tell you? Close the door behind you. For crying out loud. How much intelligence does it take to close a door? Do you have any idea what the price of fuel oil is? It's a lot, I can tell you that. I don't know where you kids think money comes from---- look at this! Lights on! Every room in this house! What's the matter with people around here? You walk in, you turn on the lights, you walk out! Would anyone like to take a look at the electric bill? It's unbelievable, let me tell you. Turn off lights! How manhy times do I have to say it? Would somebody please listen to me once in awhile, for crying out loud?

HER: What?

It was like an opera. The tenor stalked from room to room, singing his lament about the electric bill, and the soprano
went shopping. Our next-door neighbors, the Bergs, had outdoor Christmas lights that were like Las Vegas and when they switched them on, our lights dimmed and our TV picture flickered. But my dad hated to see the few lights on our little Christmas tree left on for more than two minutes. He'd watch us and if we took our eyes off it, he'd say, "Nobody's looking at this!" and bend down and pull the plug.

If you walked up to him and said, "Dad, I'd like a bike for Christmas," he'd lower his antlers and paw the rug with his hooves and tell you to go get a job and earn it yourself. But Mom would overhear and she'd buy you that bike, and when he saw it and groaned, she'd help him get over it.

But every year, in early December, she would say to him, "What should we have over for Christmas this year?" And he'd say, "Why can't we have a nice quiet Christmas? Why do we have to invite everyone we know over? We buy all that junk and cook twice as much food as we need and get worn out and every year we promise ourselves that next year we'll have a quiet Christmas. So why don't we have it."

A big danger, especially for a child: The Quiet Christmas.

If they weren't such good children, they would say: LET'S HAVE A BIG CHRISTMAS, AS BIG AS POSSIBLE, OR BIGGER. Hey, let January be quiet, which it will be anyway. There's plenty of time for quietness in February and March. Let Christmas be big and loud with lights blazing and music blaring and rafts of food cooking and a vast assortment of gifts arrayed under an immense Christmas tree.

Mother says, "Maybe, instead of all of us exchanging gifts this year, we should draw names."

No, the good children shout inwardly. Don't draw names! What if Aunt You Know Who gets my name, she'll give me something small and dismal, like for example a jar of natural organic dandelion jelly. A book about rocks, to go with the one she gave me last year about shrubs. A cassette of traditional Swedish humming tunes.

That's what Quiet Christmas would be: six of you at the table, eating squab and puree of parsnips, the house decorated by a professional Christmas designer, with one gift by each place, and yours is a recording of an 89-year-old herring fisherman from Goteborg humming.

Spare us.

I remember an old radio show called Dreams Come True, about a rich old coot and his wife named Elmer and Edna Hubbard, who left the giddy social whirl of New York City to settle in the quiet town of Nowthen, where they opened a coffee shop called The Golden Rule. Elmer and Edna liked to make large anonymous cash gifts to townsfolk who were struggling with particular problems but nonetheless had a positive outlook on life, such as Little Wendy, who suffered from a fatal scalp disease but who nevertheless had a sunny disposition and was doing good deeds for people left and right. Elmer and Edna paid for her to go to the Mayo Clinic where her scalp was replaced with one from a caribou and she came back to Nowthen all happy and beautiful, even though her hair was now that dull beige caribou color.

A guy came in the Golden Rule and had a cup of coffee and complained a blue streak about the weather and his wife and his rotten kids and his lousy job and his clunker of a car --- he didn't get a dime; but another guy who had heavy debts from his cat Linda's kidney operation but still hoped to go to Texas someday and see Sis and the girls --- he went home and there was an anonymous check for thousands of dollars.

It was interesting. You'd listen to some grumpy guy go on and on about his troubles, and little did he know that the man in the white apron was a big tycoon who would be glad to give him a snootful of money if only he'd be a little more cheerful. Well, the moral was clear enough to me --- if you want something so bad that you can't live without it, you're probably not going to get it, but if you're perfectly cheerful and okay whether you get it or not, you'll probably get it. This seemed unfair to me, a boy who wanted a great deal, especially at Christmas, and it still seems unfair, but there it is.

The danger of wanting something too much and therefore making it impossible.

I, for example, would dearly love to receive a model train layout similar to the one of my childhood, which rusted and decayed. I remind myself every year not to want it too much, but I do, and I never get it. A man my age can't simply walk into a store and buy a model train set for himself; people would talk, people would chuckle behind his back, and one day he'd come home to find an attorney sitting smiling in the living room, who would explain to him in easy-to-understand terms, using simple declarative sentences, why his financial affairs will hereafter be managed by his nephew Vince.

I keep telling myself, "I honestly don't care if that model train layout is under the tree or not," but that's not the truth, and I know it.


I am something of an expert on Christmas, having celebrated it so many times, and I know about family tensions. Christmas is a time for joy and love, but families aren't only about joy and love, they're also about people being mad at each other.

The worst family fights are between women. Men are good at mass destruction, but when it comes to sniping and scratching and poisoned courtesy, women have it all over us, and if you put a bunch of women in the kitchen, you're going to have trouble. (This is why it's a good thing for men to cook the meal, but never mind that now.) A sister says something to a sister-in-law, and there are tears, and someone winds up weeping in the bathroom, and this can take hours to repair.

Once, in St. Paul, I was so nervous about having my entire family for Christmas that I took the goose out of the oven, spilled hot fat on my wrist, dropped the goose and the glass pan it was baking in, the glass broke, hot goose grease splattered the entire kitchen floor, and I got grease burns on my ankles. I snatched up the goose and set him on the counter, and I told my sister and mother, who had come running from the living room, that everything was under control, no problem (What crash?), and I removed the goose's skin and lightly mopped him with dry towels to collect any stray glass particles, and put him back in the oven, and I changed my greasy socks, and it was a long day, and let's leave it at that.

The next year we had Christmas in New York with friends, and I did a prime rib roast, pink in the middle, served with a bottle of Barolo and a Yorkshire pudding. (A goose is a marathon, compared to which rib roast and Yorkshire pudding are a walk around the block.) There were two babies, a dog, and my wife's old uncle at this Christmas, which made for a festive dinner. The dog prowled under the table for spillage, the uncle talked about home improvement projects in a voice loud enough to strip wallpaper, and after dessert, I got to demonstrate my baby-handling skills. If you hold a baby close to your chest and talk to it in a soft bass voice, the baby will lose consciousness in less than a minute, depending on what you talk about. I walked around the living room and I said to the baby, "I like your parents, for the most part, though frankly they're not the most exciting people I ever met, in fact they're way too fond of boredom, in my opinion, so probably as you grow up and find out how small-minded they are, you'll naturally rebel against them, and when you do, remember that I'm on your side. I'm with you, kid, all the way." The baby went right to sleep.

Back when I was in college and came home for Christmas, I'd visit my old classmate Corinne who was home from college and whose parents lived down the road and across a meadow from my parents'. She was a rebel and a Democrat and she usually came home and got into an argument with her father within twenty minutes, often about an inappropriate boyfriend she had invited for dinner. Maybe he wore Army surplus clothes and heavy black hornrim glasses and had been a student at the University for about fourteen years and used words like "dichotomy" a lot. Her father, Hilmer, was Republican, a Shriner, a plumber, and believed that a dichotomy was something you needed to repair as soon as possible, and when he saw her and the boyfriend sitting, arms around each other, kissing, it gave him conniptions.

He would take her aside and ask, "Did you ever ask yourself how he would ever be able to support you?"

Corinne said, "Why is it that the only thing you ever think about is money?"

He said, "Somebody has to."

She said, "I hope I never get to be like you."

Hilmer smiled. "I'll let you know if you get close," he said.

Corinne told me once that she dreaded going home. She still went, though. But she said she didn't look forward to it.

The danger is that, one Christmas, we'll dread it so much that we can't go. We'll almost rather spend Christmas at a hotel. And you know what that means. A quiet tasteful Christmas. (See Danger No. 3.)

Children were nicer when I was a kid, maybe because winter was much colder then and the snow was deeper; now it comes up to your knees but back then it was up to your waist. That's because of the greenhouse effect. Not much snow in a greenhouse. Anyway, you struggled home through the deep drifts, carrying a load of heavy books (we had homework back then) and the cold wind froze the tears on your eyelashes and you wanted to cry out, "Get me out of here! I can't stand this any more!" but you couldn't, of course, because children had to be good back then, especially in the weeks before Christmas. Nowadays, it's different. Kids can throw their parents down the stairs and nobody says boo about it. I have seen a ten-year-old child throw its parents, both of them, down the stairs, and the parents just wiped the blood off themselves and climbed up the stairs and said, "Do you want to talk about it?" And do you suppose that rotten child was punished for what she had done? No, she was not. She was given expensive toys for Christmas and a late-model car and a Lands' End shoulder bag filled with rubies and emeralds. This happens more and more nowadays.

The danger of spoiling children rotten is a real danger. And the way to save children from spoilage is to maintain some discipline. I would never give a Christmas present to any child who had thrown me down the stairs, no matter how much it whined and begged. But one must make this clear to the child, before one finds oneself hurtling into the basement: you throw me, you owe me.

Christmas can't ever be danger-free, of course. Christmas is a work of art, and art is filled with danger, art is made by people who know about suffering. Van Gogh was tormented by hallucinations when he painted those fields of flowers. Beethoven was going deaf when he wrote the Ninth Symphony. Emily Dickinson wrote "Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne'er succeed/To comprehend a Nectar/Requires sorest need" as a woman so withdrawn from normal social contact that, when her family entertained visitors, she preferred to listen from behind a screen in the hallway.

The beautiful Christmases that I remember from childhood were created by women who had gone through the Depression, the Dirty Thirties, the dust storms, and after you have tasted dust, then you may be ready to create some elegance and music and wrap the presents so beautifully that even a small child will know to unwrap them slowly and deliberately, not rushing. Thus, the artfulness of the paper and ribbons serve to prolong that delicious moment of suspense and make the gift a wonderful surprise.

The greatest danger of Christmas is that we may be too dull, too dopey, too stuffed, to get joy out of it, and Christmas will be wasted on us.

It is a magical day, though, and among the old customs, the foods, the music, is something that has the power to open our hearts. Some simple thing that can surprise us.

How beautiful and dazzling bright,
One candle on a winter's night.

How beautiful these harmonies
That echo through the centuries.

And in this singing we shall find
The blessing given to mankind.

A blessing without price or end,
A blessing on your house, my friend.

Past Articles
  • Phil Keillor Benefit for the Tenney Park Shelter (04/17/09)
  • Bill Holm, 1943–2009 (02/26/09)
  • Happy New Year, Friends (12/29/08)
  • Talk of the Stacks (11/17/08)
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  • GK On Historic Preservation (10/05/07)
  • Welcome to St. Paul (09/23/06)
  • "Homegrown Democrat," Chapters 1-4 (08/10/04)
  • Sing the National Anthem—and Try it in the Key of G (07/02/04)
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  • In Praise of Laziness (09/10/01)
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  • A Eulogy for Chet Atkins (07/03/01)
  • A Foot Soldier in God's Floating Orchestra (04/01)
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