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 To the right, you find a selection of articles published since 1989, and a few unpublished pieces.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 Christmas of the Great Flu
From Land's End Magazine

December 1999

I am older than you and I can remember more Christmases, and though I'm not a sentimental person ---- this year I'm serving turkey enchiladas and a cranberry salsa and I'll be downloading a tree from the Net and singing carols in a chat room --- I still like to recall bygone years, such as 1986, when I experimented with lighted candles on the tree. Very memorable. And then there was the year I cooked a goose. A couple of guests turned vegetarian that year. And there was the Christmas when my wife was great with child and our holiday was very spare, a light lunch, a few candles, no gifts, because why would you need all that symbolism if you were in possession of the real thing?

I'm not writing a memoir here, I am only talking to myself. Someday you'll have that privilege too.

Most of a person's Christmases get tangled up into one pleasant skein of memories ---- of glittery ornaments and singers with scarves on TV specials and old overstuffed uncles slumped on the couch and gingerbread houses with frosted roofs and a globe that when you turn it upside down snow falls. It's all one warm blurry holiday. Some Christmases, however, stand out in brilliant detail years later, such as the Christmas of the Great Flu, when the dark angel of projectile vomiting visited our house on Christmas Eve.

I was fifteen. I was six feet, three inches tall, and weighed approximately one-hundred-thirty-six pounds, a sensitive lad who spent many an hour in the garret, writing in my journal, recording emotions and profound thoughts as they came to me ("We contain within ourselves the seeds of all that we were and all we will be," for example, just to quote one). I did this so that if I were to die young, as I expected to, the world would know that I was a poet and not just a schlump.

I lived in a big white house with two younger brothers and a sister ---- and of course our parents were there too, jangling around, muttering to each other, anxious, frazzled, the way parents tend to be ("What is this doll doing in the freezer? Why does the washing machine smell as if there were deceased rodents in it?"). As Christmas approached, the little kids pored over the Monkey Wards catalogue and lusted after the Junior Chemistry Set and the Little Housewife Range with realistic pots and pans, and I sat in gloomy splendor on my bed and wrote, "I have suddenly realized that I will be alone for the rest of my life because I cannot bear the company of those who do not understand me. This is a fact that I must live with."

My mother worried about the Christmas tree bursting into flames and killing us, and so a pail of water was kept at the ready at all times. And my father worried about bankruptcy. "Where is the money going to come from to pay for all of this?" he cried out when he saw my mother filling out the Monkey Wards order form. (Nowadays, children, money comes from credit cards, but back then they had to write out checks and mail them to the Monkey Wards store --- there were no 800 numbers at that time, it truly was the Dark Ages.) My father felt that if his bank balance fell below zero, we would have to go live in a public institution where we would wear striped clothing and eat baloney sandwiches for breakfast.

I wrote in my journal that I vowed never to be obsessed with petty materialistic concerns.

It was Christmas Eve afternoon when the little kids complained of feeling feverish and achy. My mother and I hung the last of the tinsel on the tree and plugged in the lights, which didn't light up, so I had to spend an hour screwing and unscrewing bulbs to find the bad apple, and when I got the tree lit up and stood back to admire it, I could hear little feet in the upstairs hall making a run for the bathroom.

I went to my room and wrote that I felt strangely listless and depressed in the midst of the joyous season. And then my mother shouted that I had left the lights plugged in. She was beside herself. She had three sick children and dozens of gifts to wrap and supper to make and Aunt Marie was coming.

Aunt Marie was actually an unmarried cousin of my father's, and she was free for Christmas for the simple reason that everyone avoided inviting her. Every year, the Sunday before Christmas, she would corner someone after church and say, in a choked voice, "I guess I'll have to go to a cafeteria for Christmas." Some relatives would tell Aunt Marie that they had heard that cafeterias served delicious food and that she should have a wonderful time, but Mother had a soft heart, and so we got Aunt Marie.

Mother bought her a box of cream-filled chocolates for a gift, and wrapped it in white tissue paper and tied it with a red ribbon and curled the bow.

When Aunt Marie arrived for supper, the little kids were in their beds upstairs, whimpering. Two had made the trip to the toilet, and one was about to, and the two were beginning to realize that one trip might not be enough to do the job. It was a sad scene up there. Mother sent me upstairs with 7-Up and toast, and the look of misery in the little tykes' eyes was quite touching. "Will Santa still come?" one of them asked in a tiny trembly voice.

"I frankly doubt it," I said. "I don't see how you can expect Santa to come and get your germs and spread them to every other boy and girl on this planet. Do you? No, of course not." They burst into heart-wrenching sobs. I closed the door behind me.

Mother served a hearty supper of Welsh rarebit on toast, and Aunt Marie, a good eater, reminisced about her happy younger days that would never come again, and we gathered around the tree and plugged in the lights and turned on the radio, where Fibber McGee and Mollie were decorating their tree and Fibber remembered one ornament that he was sure was in the closet. I opened a gift from Mother, a shirt (wrong color, wrong style, wrong in every way), and as Dad opened a gift from me (a copy of Civil Disobedience by Henry Thoreau), I felt a queasiness ripple through me.

Aunt Marie opened up her chocolates and immediately started to weep. They reminded her of something precious in her past, and she ate one and burst into tears and ate another and another and another, and seeing the chocolates disappear into her made me even queasier.

"Would anyone like to sing?" asked Mother. She was already on her way to the piano. She started in on "Away In A Manger". My father looked at me in a thoughtful way, and I recognized what he was thinking. He was feeling queasy too, and not about the thought of financial instability. He swallowed, and so did I. That unmistakeable salivation that precedes the dreadful moment---- well, you know what I'm talking about.

Mother sang "Away In A Manger" in her clear alto voice, thumping out the accompaniment, and it didn't inhibit her one bit to be singing solo. Mother loved Christmas with all her heart. She and Charles Dickens were two of a kind. She truly believed that on this night of all nights, mankind was able to put aside its meanness and jealousy and express generosity and kindred love. She sailed on into "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear".

I felt a certain turgidity in the lower intestinal tract, a sense of my innards about to turn inside out, and I was thinking about that Welsh rarebit. I could see that Dad was in the grip of a similar experience. Aunt Marie, on the other hand, was weeping for the happy days of yore and stuffing cream-filled chocolates into herself, hand over fist. She closed her eyes and sobbed and her mouth opened and it was brown and gooey inside and that was when I rose from my chair and headed for the bathroom.

I won't describe the scene for you. I'll only say that I've never lost so much body weight in such a short time, never had such a convulsive explosive experience, and when I emerged, pale and perspiring, I went straight to my journal and wrote in it ---- wrote a lot --- and what I wrote was rather joyous, not moody at all. Somehow, nausea and vomiting clarified my thinking. My vague sense of gloom was relieved by a specific misery, and when that misery was over, I felt a little burst of euphoria.

I have come to inherit some of my mother's love of Christmas and every year I feel that lovely wash of sensations and memories, of sounds and smells that are pure Christmas, the good things of childhood relived. And if I should start to feel anxious ---- is the turkey big enough for twelve? should I have made the wild rice dressing instead of the bread-crumb kind? will Uncle Bruce really enjoy the wind-up dog that does backflips? --- I think to myself, "It is Christmas and I am not throwing up," and suddenly I have a horizon again and everything is back in perspective.

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)
  • What Makes St. Paul So Great? (09/03/08)
  • 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)
  • Holiday Greetings from Garrison Keillor (12/23/03)
  • Remembering Plimpton (10/01/03)
  • Crankiness in Decline, Says the Old Guy (04/19/02)
  • A Governor Works in Mysterious Ways (10/19/01)
  • In Praise of Laziness (09/10/01)
  • I Just Needed a Valve Job (09/13/01)
  • A Eulogy for Chet Atkins (07/03/01)
  • A Foot Soldier in God's Floating Orchestra (04/01)
  • Exile on Main Street (10/02/00)
  • Walking Down the Canyon (07/31/00)
  • The Mysteries of Prom Night (05/15/00)
  • How I Write (12/04/99)
  • The Christmas of the Great Flu (12/99)
  • Let Jesse Be Jesse (10/10/99)
  • The Rice, the Bat, the Baby (09/06/99)
  • Faith at the Speed of Life (06/14/99)
  • The Republicans Were Right, But (02/15/99)
  • Minnesota's Excellent Ventura (11/16/98)
  • The Dangers of Christmas (04/06/98)
  • Gasgate (11/10/97)
  • Talk Radio (10/97)
  • The Seven Principles of a Successful Christmas (09/08/97)
  • The Seven Deadly Sins—Envy (04/97)
  • You Say Potato (04/04/96)
  • The Poetry Judge (02/96)
  • With All the Trimmings (11/27/95)
  • In Autumn We Get Older (11/06/95)
  • Minnesota's Sensible Plan (09/11/95)
  • The Art of the Embrace (02/95)
  • The Voters are Angry (08/94)
  • Word Play (05/18/90)
  • We Are Still Married (12/18/89)
  • Elevator Tales
  • A Graduation Speech

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