This is one of the most-visited because I have pushed it hard over several Christmases. So sue me. I think I was on to something.
Update 2018: Because of the discussion of Unitarians, and Richard Johnson's link
in the comments to a blog post complaining about Garrison Keillor's treatment of them, I thought I would bring forward this post from 2006
(reprinted 2012) and another from 2007, below. They aren't about
Unitarians, but do touch on the idea of who we criticise, and whether it
is affectionate or not. The Unitarian pastor at Richard's link has
picked up that Keillor, in writing about Unitarians and Christmas, is no
longer being kind. I remember that essay and its controversy when it
came out, and it was surprisingly traditionalist about Christianity for
Keillor, and I wondered what had come over him, climbing all over Jews
and Unitarians like that. One would expect him to be closer to the
other side of the controversy. Theologically and culturally, he probably
was (is). Yet he was a professional nostalgist, and those groups had
been changing the mix at Christmas for a long time. He still had
affection for the Christmases of his youth, as he remembered them.
am not impressed with the Unitarian pastor's assertions, BTW, though she
does seem like a nice enough person. What Unitarians were like 150-200
years ago is irrelevant to today, far less relevant than for churches with
more stable doctrine. Early Unitarians still had a lot of Jesus going
on, they just defined him as not a part of any Trinity. Also, you will
note that she was fine with Keillor making fun of other groups for years
- he turned bitter around the early 90's, so she had been okay with a
lot of his venom - but only drew the line when it was her own group.
Well, we all tend to be like that. But we should try to be better,
also disliking unfair criticism about people who aren't us.
Year-round, NPR tends to the bittersweet, the witty rather than
uproarious, the world-weary rather than the cynical, the poignant, the
melancholy, the wistful. These are the attitudes of the Arts &
Humanities crowd, roused to righteous anger only against those who try
and rouse them to righteous anger, charmed by everything but tending to
observation rather than full-bore participation. NPR has the best
describers of the vignettes of daily life, of which Garrison Keillor is
Christmas kills them. They can access faith only
via nostalgia, and that well soon runs dry. Real traditions include
Mom, and going to church, and immersing yourself in that whole crowd of
idiot relatives. Far better to have your Christmas carols instrumental,
where the mood can grip you without the trouble of the lyrics. The
programs at NPR are dignified, properly appalled at the deterioration of
the season into commercialism and "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer;"
into the violent games or garish decorations.
This works well
enough for that percentage of their audience that still holds to the
Christian faith. We fear no nostalgia, and deplore many of the same
things about the season. Instrumental carols and lights that don't
blink are fine with us. Their secular audience must be okay with this
approach as well. Perhaps with NPR guiding the tour they can trust that
however close the bus gets to the edge of the road it will not go over
into actual religious assertion. They can stay in their seat and admire the view.
I don't have the same sense in my bones for what the
Jewish storytellers are experiencing, but it seems much the same. They
grew up slightly alienated from the culture's holiday, but having
something of their own to build nostalgia around. Now they seem
alienated from that as well. And those who had little or no faith
tradition - they're trying to find something worth saving in all this.
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a
sixpence in your shoe - which is supposed to be for weddings, but they all try
to make a holiday out of the same sort of homey elements.
distance has its advantages, and these makeshift Christmases don't seem
to be tragic. There is a sort of courage about them, and shafts of real
joy, and the nobility of those who refuse at least to be hypocrites.
But story after story in December, as these deeply artistic and
sensitive people try to capture the season, carries the theme of
searching, of something missing, of arranging the dried flowers as
beautifully as possible because no new ones will bloom.
us who are believers are tempted to throw up our hands and say "Oh for
Pete's sake! Relent for just a few days a year and allow yourself to be
immersed in the faith of your youth. You'll get more out of Christmas
that way. It'll do you good. Why is Jesus the one thing you can't
keep?" But I think it is our own inattention to the season, our own
taking it for granted, that causes us to think this way. We are so
aware of how many things pull us away from Christ at Christmas that we
have forgotten how dangerous it is for those outside to look in. They
sense, as we should know but have forgotten, that to step inside might
mean never coming back. If emotional distance does not bring warmth, it
at least brings memories of warmth, with no danger of burning.