The Christmas tree in Rice Park in St. Paul is taller than the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York, 90 feet compared to 72, but New York's is the Tree de la Tree, the Tree Iconic, the one that you'll see on national TV, just as the Tonys get the attention even though there's better theater out in the hinterlands than most of the gilded schlock on Broadway. And it's the New York Times whose imprimatur you want on your book, movie, CD, TV show, dill pickles, your child's science project, the sweater you knit for your sister, and so forth. It is the National Good Taste Stamp of Quality, issued by wizened gnomes on Eighth Avenue.
We who live out in the frozen cornfields of the Midwest understand this very well and we don't mind. We are a modest people with much to be modest about, self-effacing, anxious to efface ourselves and not wait for others to do the job. We could, if we chose to, despise New York, especially if we thought about former Mayor Giuliani's curled-lip, bared-teeth speech at the 2008 Republican convention, sneering at Barack Obama as a city slicker. But we do not think about that. We admire New Yorkers for many, many things, for their excellent transit system that gives you close encounters with interesting individuals, their handy street-corner hot dogs, and also their ability to express personal preference, which we dirt farmers lost a long time ago. It was frowned out of us when we were children.
It seems so simple — say what you want, say what you think — but we gave up the ability in order to be unselfish and sociable and not be monsters, and so if we're asked what we want to do, we say, "Hey. Whatever you want. Makes no difference. Suit yourself." And having suppressed our likes and dislikes for so long, we are not sure what we want, or even who we are.
What I want is to be in New York in December, so here I am. The people I know in this city are whole-hearted people who tell you what they prefer, the noodles in garlic sauce or General Tso's Seven Joys of Meat Loaf. If you step on their toes, they don't smile and step back and then brood about it for six months, they say something terse and meaningful and let that be the end of it.
If they feel like crying, they do that. It's okay to cry in New York. You can sit on the subway, tears running down your cheeks, and no one will think less of you. Try this sometime. People may tell you about something going on in their life that's even worse. You could suddenly find yourself with three or four new best friends.
Our jolly old Santa Claus was a New York invention. The Dutch brought over a gaunt, stern-faced Santa who looked over your activities with a hairy eye and maybe gave you a box of chocolates or maybe a kick in the pants. The Santa of A Visit From St. Nicholas is a New York version, fat and his belly jiggles when he laughs. He opens up his big bag and pours out the goods.
We the people of the tundra feel that if we asked for something — say, a peppermint stick — that would mean we'd never taste peppermint again. "A peppermint stick! Who do you think you are?" Santa would yell. "Greedy little wretch. Go back to your stool in the corner and finish your gruel."
Christmas is a New York type of holiday. It's pure Christian entrepreneurship. Pure muscle. The early church fathers intended to give the faithful a big feast day very close to the pagan feast day of Saturnalia, sort of like one chain putting up a store next to a competitor. It worked. Paganism went belly up, and it was all Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, 24/7 coast to coast. Dickens shilled for it, Irving Berlin, and it's all about pleasure, food, bright lights, high spirits, glittering trinkets, razzmatazz. It is pure Broadway.
The Puritans didn't think much of it, and neither did my father. And I have my own problems with it. The great unspoken question of Christmas is, "What do you want? What would make you happy?" I don't know. Just give me some of what those people over there are having. They look happy. I'll have what they're having.
© Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved.