Bile to the world, Garrison Keillor has come

After the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, played host to Garrison Keillor this month, the Minnesota writer repaid the favor with a splenetic column excoriating the congregation for varying the words of Silent Night. Unitarians were not his only target.

Garrison Keillor-scUnitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite “Silent Night.” If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism, and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.

Christmas is a Christian holiday – if you’re not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don’t mess with the Messiah.

Raised as a Plymouth Brethren, at the opposite end of the Christian spectrum from Unitarians, Keillor joined the Episcopal Church as an adult. Though he affects a charming, avuncular manner while spinning yarns from fictional Lake Woebegon on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion, he is said to be vain and disagreeable in person.

When the “Jewish guys trashing up the malls” column appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a friend of editorial page editor D. J. Tice wrote to ask why he decided to run it. Dice replied:

We discussed the column and whether it crossed the line, aware that it had already stirred controversy. We decided it was not anti-Semitic, not least because Keillor spread his nastiness so widely, the way many Christians (and others) try to spread good will at this time of year. He is a regular presence on our Sunday page, with a substantial following, and our bar is very high for spiking a regular column.

In no case, however, does our publishing a column… imply any endorsement of its message. We publish pieces that we think are provocative and/or illuminating. Sometimes what is illuminated is not exactly what the writer intended, and the reaction to Keillor’s piece suggests this may be one of those times. Wouldn’t you agree that readers with eyes to see may have learned something from this piece?

For my part, Keillor is welcome to his narrow, misanthropic Christmas. I hope the real spirit of the season reaches him someday.

The pastor of the offending and offended First Church congregation responded with what could be called Christian charity, were it not for the legions of Keillor-minded adherents to that faith.

The best response Contrarian saw came from a fellow Minnesotan. For Adam Minter, a Jewish writer now living in Shanghai, Keillor’s column immediately called to mind the Christmas party he attended at Shanghai Putuo Spare Time University a few days ago. His description, and one other response, after the jump.

I was greeted upon arrival by several adults in Santa stocking caps who ushered me — their sole foreign guest — into the art classroom. Desks were arranged in a semi-circle, and there were perhaps 80 staff, students, spouses and their children gathered around, enjoying beers, cider, cake, spiced nuts, and dried meats. There was also a Christmas tree, and at the far end of the room, a screen displaying a projection of the lyrics to “Silent Night” — including the religious ones.

More likely than not, there were a few Christians in the room — Christianity is, unquestionably, the fastest growing social movement in China, today — but most of the group were undoubtedly nonbelievers attracted to Christmas in the way that most Chinese of their generation are attracted to things Western. They try them on, and if they fit — especially if they can be fit in a Chinese way — they’ll adopt them; if they don’t, they move on, no foul.

Christmas, over the last 20 years, has fit China quite well, becoming a genuine social and commercial phenomenon. Chinese cities are filled with Christmas ornaments and trees; restaurants and hotels run Christmas promotions; and Christmas parties, like the one that I attended, are ubiquitous among China’s young, educated, and trend-conscious. It’s worth noting that this is a phenomenon not lost on China’s Christian missionaries — both foreign and homegrown — who see the holiday is an excellent opportunity for evangelization.

That’s the complicated part. If you were to ask any of the young Chinese with whom I partied Saturday night, most would say that Christmas has become a welcome opportunity to enjoy a holiday with friends in advance of the much more family-oriented, heavy, and less fun, Chinese New Year holiday (which falls in mid-February this year). This Western holiday, embraced on the basis of countless films and televisions shows depicting it as a cozy time for friends to gather, has become, in its own way, a bit Chinese. For example, at the Spare Time party, the students sang “Silent Night” (religious lyrics and all) and Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”; later, one of their instructors stood up and performed a Shanghai work song that he learned during the deprivations of the Cultural Revolution; meanwhile, the children played a version of charades; and everyone ate, drank and made merry.

As much as those Chinese students made Christmas their own, they also wanted assurance that they’d made it authentic. So, roughly half-way through the three-hour party, one of the faculty members asked me to stand up and tell them a little about Christmas in America. My mind raced back to a Jewish childhood in Minnesota. Despite belonging to a religious minority, I told the Christmas party, I never felt excluded as much as different. And, in time, like many American Jews, Christmas became my holiday, too.

I have clear memories of Jews lined up outside of [the Minneapolis Chinese restaurant] Leeann Chin on Christmas; I remember attending inadvertently all-Jewish screenings at the now defunct Southtown Theater. We may not have gone to church, but in our own tribal way we looked forward to the holiday as much as our Christian neighbors. It was a chance to be together as family and friends — even if we weren’t members of “the club,” as Keillor calls it.

Last word to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who wrote, “I was pretty sure I didn’t enjoy listening to Garrison Keillor even before I read what he had to say about Christmas music.”