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 the archetype.
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. The 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. We'll get out and take pictures of 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 alientated from the culture's holiday, but having something of their own to build nostalgia around. Now they seem alientated 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 - it's supposed to be for weddings, but they try to make a holiday out of the same sort of elements.
Emotional 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.
Those of 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.