Thursday, December 20, 2007

Garrison Keillor, "The Seven Principles of a Successful Christmas"

Two years ago forty-one people came to my house for Christmas dinner, some merchants and bishops and poets and about sixteen barbarians, mostly Goths and Visigoths and several Huns, hairy savages who hunkered down at the table and ate like wild swine, belching and shrieking, and spent the evening pillaging and plundering and left the place in ruins. We were picking food off the chandelier for weeks. And after I swept up the refuse and offal and sluiced out the dining room, I said to myself, "No more hairy savages for Christmas." So last year, I invited only civilized people, and in case the barbarians showed up, I had a catapult installed on the roof that would hurl boulders at them and pots of boiling oil.

It was a pleasant and civilized Christmas, but as the bishops and poets and merchants sat and drowsed over dessert, one poet piped up and said, "Oh, by the way, what happened to those little pig-eyed fellows who came for Christmas last year, the ones who wiped their hands on the dog? They were a stitch! So uninhibited, throwing peas at each other! We talked about them at the abbey for weeks afterward!"

That was when I realized an important truth about Christmas.

Christmas is not a discussion group or a committee meeting or a memorial service. Christmas is a show. If you think of it as a show, you will have a successful Christmas. You are supposed to entertain people at Christmas. And it isn't so entertaining if only polite people come and sit quietly and chew their food. All those ladies magazine articles about fabulous centerpieces you can make in ten minutes out of bread bags --- they leave out this essential fact --- but now I am telling you: follow these rules and your Christmas will be spectacular! Yes Thir!

Christmas Principle # 1
Don't sweat the shopping. You have a catalog in your hands, why not use it? Don't spend the two weeks before C-Day driving around to little shops searching for just the right shade of Peruvian porcelain trivets for Bud and Esther's kitchen. Buy them sweatpants. Bud and Esther are not trivet-type people, and any trivets you give them will spend thirty years in the lower drawer of a hutch and will sell for thirty-five cents someday in an estate sale. But they will wear the sweatpants. You, my dear, need to spend these last few days resting up, not in a frenzy. When Pavarotti sings "Aida" at the Met, does he spend the afternoon shopping for a scarf for the soprano? No. So lie around the week before Christmas and read Dickens. Go to the movies. Play Scrabble. You will be a better entertainer if, before your big show, you relax and let things drift. Practice your facial expressions: Twinkly Benevolence ... Childlike Anticipation ... Contentment.

Christmas Principle # 2
Don't sweat the dinner. Stick with the classic stuff, and forget about innovation --- it isn't worth the hard labor and the heartache. That Yule bouillibaisse with chopped chubs and sprats sprinkled with mulled millet and the broccoli compote and cheese flute flambé --- sweetheart, that is a recipe for misery. All you need is spuds, yams, bread crumbs, a frozen veggie, cranberries in a can, a big bird, and a tub of butter. Order the pies from the bakery. Christmas dinner is a classic, like baseball, and the less fiddling you do with it, the better everyone likes it.

Christmas Principle # 3
Don't think of them as guests, think of them as a cast. This is so important. Your guest list can make or break you, and the commonest mistake is to invite only people who are a lot like yourself: quiet, tasteful, earnest, considerate, modest, tolerant, nicely coiffed, moisturized, pleasantly scented, no trouble to anybody. This is not a good idea, it's like putting together a choir and only inviting sopranos. A show needs gaudy characters, some heavies, it needs Big Personalities. Like your bachelor uncle Earl who wears the squirting mistletoe tie and talks in a loud voice about his gall bladder: you need him. Invite your la-di-da cousins with their $60 haircuts and Armani outfits, who put on fake Continental accents, trying desperately to cover up their Iowa-ness. Invite your disgruntled brother, seething about some national disgrace or other. Invite any other relatives whom you sort of dread seeing, for fear of the dreadful things they might say or do --- you need these people to create interest and drama on the Christmas stage! Your brother-in-law who feels that Martians are flying in and out of Roswell, New Mexico; putting their deadly organisms in America's corn starch, and that this was prophesied in the Old Testament. Your cousin Moonflower Shakti (nee' Wanda Anderson) who is channeling the wisdom of ancient Mesopotamia. When Moonflower sits next to Uncle Earl and his gall bladder, sparks will fly, and they will create Christmas memories that will last into the 21st Century. This is good.

Christmas Principle # 4
Get people's attention the moment they come through the door and let them know that this is going to be a zippy Christmas, one to remember. People often arrive in a grumpy mood, huffing about the guy who cut in front of them on the Interstate --- don't let grumpiness get a foothold: win them over right away. Send your husband to greet them at the door, wearing a swimsuit and a toupee, with ornaments taped to his chest. Train your dog to wear a Santa beard and stand on its hind legs and wave its little paws. I like to throw my arms around each guest and whisper, "Thank goodness you've come, you're the only fun person here, everyone else is as moody as a woodchuck. You're all I have so don't let me down!" This lets them know that I'm counting on them not to slouch and get mopey.

Christmas Principle # 5
Lighting. It made Garbo a star and it can make your Christmas. Winter is the dark time, so you want Christmas to be brilliant and sparkly areas. Outdoors, the shadows lengthen, wolves close in around the brave little house, but put a candle in the window --- voila! Drama! It's the Little Match Girl! Lights! Illuminate! A pool of light on the serving table. The tree lit up with colored bulbs. Candles everywhere, dozens of them. If necessary, hold a small flashlight between your knees to give your face that irresistible glow. Smile. Show teeth. Shine.

Christmas Principle # 6
Work on your Second Act. This is where most Christmases fall apart. The First Act is fine --- the twinkliness, the merriment, the aroma of turkey basting --- but two hours pass and there is no plot development. People get sleepy. The Second Act demands Crisis. Uncle Earl chomps down on an hors d'oeuvre and impales himself on a toothpick. The brother-in-law sees faces of space aliens in his mashed potatoes. A vegan, Moonflower discovers, too late, that the dressing contained bits of pork sausage and she collapses on the floor and hyperventilates. These little scenes keep up people's interest during the hours when the body is digesting animal fats and the I.Q. sags and the eyelids get heavy. Remember this principle: it isn't really Christmas unless somebody does something for which they must be forgiven later. Do you hear me? I mean, A good Christmas demands a 'Discordant Moment', and a great Christmas has many of them. Those moments when someone looks up from dinner to say in a choked voice, "This family has never accepted me as who I am, a gifted person, and that is why my life is so confused, and I hate you, I hate you, I hate you," and leaps up and dashes into the bathroom and locks the door and weeps bitterly as the other guests stand guiltily, heads bowed, in the hallway, dabbing at their eyes. You need that pain, that 'Discordant Moment' to give you a Second Act.
If nobody else will provide it, then the host must. Pick up something soft, like a napkin, or a marshmallow, and hurl it on the floor and say in a shrill embittered voice, "I've taken all I can take! Can't you see that? Everyone expects me to be the calm, responsible one! Everyone expects me to manage things, arrange Christmas, make everyone happy, be the host! But I can't be that person for you anymore! I am tired of living a lie! I'm not calm! I'm not responsible! Inside, I am a seething cauldron of emotional conflict! Why can't anyone see this?" And you leap up from the table and dash to the bathroom and lock the door and sob. Can you do this? Try. Everyone will be terribly upset, and that's good. This leads you to ....

Christmas Principle # 7
Act Three. Conciliation. The tears are dried. People hug. "I was a fool, I didn't see how much you really cared," cries the person who ran sobbing to the bathroom, "I didn't see how close this family really is, forgive me," and of course everyone does. "You'll never feel alone ever again," they say. Your disgruntled brother gives you a big grin, and Moonflower says, "I think I'm ready to be Wanda again. I'm going to be the best Wanda I can be!" Uncle Earl says that he has a confession to make, that twenty years ago he secretly invested Grandpa's modest estate in a little company called Microsoft and now each and every one of you is a multi-millionaire. You all hold hands and someone starts singing "Silent Night," and your brother-in-law turns out the lights, and the candles flicker, and outdoors the snow is starting to fall across this great land of ours, and everyone is smiling with tears in their eyes, even the vile cousins --- and there is a knock on the door, and you open it, and there is a little boy on crutches, a scarf wrapped around his neck, and he has brought you a bit of Christmas pudding. You invite him in, and also the flinty-eyed geezer who is with him, the one with gruel stains on his vest, and you all hold hands in a circle, you and Dorothy and Snow White and Peter Pan and Jimmy Stewart, and you say, "This has been the nicest Christmas I can remember! Merry Christmas, everyone!"

This is how the day should end. Just follow the steps, in order, and see if it doesn't happen just that way.

Originally published in Land's End' Magazine, September 8, 1997