Garrison Keillor’s A Christmas Blizzard lies within the tradition of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: the metamorphosis is something of a miracle. Here’s how its protagonist, James Sparrow, a wealthy Chicago CEO, learns that he will be spending Christmas, a holiday he really doesn’t enjoy, in Looseleaf, North Dakota, rather than Hawaii. Unless you were hatched, without the benefit of family, the tone of the conversation will be familiar.
His phone rang. It was his cousin Liz in Looseleaf.
"Do you have a minute?” she said.
"What is it?”
"You’re in a rush. I can hear it. Listen. I’ll send you a text message.”
"Just tell me what’s wrong.”
"It’s nothing important so don’t get all het up.”
"Listen — Jimmy, I can tell I’ve upset you. I’ll call back when you settle down.”
"What’s going on?”
So you didn’t hear about Daddy?”
“What about Uncle Earl?”
“I shouldn’t even say. He didn’t want you to know.”
"It’s nothing. He’s old. Everything comes to an end. There are no guarantees. We’ll deal with it. You’ve got enough to worry about.”
"Tell me what’s going on, Liz.”
"I shouldn’t have said anything. He had to go into the hospital on Tuesday.”
“Daddy told me not to call you because he knew you’d be upset. I’m sorry I opened my big mouth.”
James took the phone in his right hand and whacked the table with it four, five, six times, and then said, “Liz, if you don’t stop beating around the bush, I’m going to fly up there and give you a Dutch rub. Remember the Dutch rub, Liz? It stings. I can make you cry.”
"His left eyeball fell out,” said Liz.
"His eyeball fell out????”
"It was only his left one. He was watching the Lawrence Welk Christmas special on TV and Bobby and Betty did a beautiful tap dance to ‘O Holy Night’ and Daddy got weepy and rubbed his eye and it just fell out. It was hanging by the optic. He has skin cancer and it spread to his eyes. But they popped it right back in. He’s fine. No problem. He didn’t want me to call you and bother you.”
"Oh my god.”
"Anyway, could you call him and cheer him up a little? You know he thinks the sun rises and sets on you, and he still talks about the time you flew out here for his birthday — when was that? Ten years ago? Anyway, you mean the world to him, and frankly — I shouldn’t say this, but...I don’t know as he’ll make it to Christmas.” And then she broke down and cried and hung up. Not like Liz to fall apart like that, she being a member of the National Rifle Association and all.
That’s how James Sparrow, successful Chicago CEO, who would rather go to Hawaii and forget about Christmas, ends up flying to Looseleaf, North Dakota, only to be stuck there, in a Christmas Blizzard. And, of course, that’s where he learns the true meaning of Christmas, in a fishing hut, on a frozen lake, when an old Chinese man tells him what a difference in the universe his trip to North Dakota made.
I’ll cut to the back of the book. The old Chinese man says,
[Y]our trip to Looseleaf has resulted in much good. You have cheered up your uncle who was descending toward death, and is now having a last encore of pleasure before he leaves.”
“When will he die?” said James.
"Tuesday. And you made peace with your cousin whom you dislike, and you fought your other cousin to a draw and that was good for her soul, to be withstood. She’s had it all her way for most of her life and now there’s a little hole in her roof and she can view the sky. Any way you can offer a fellow being a new prospect is a kindness.
"But the loveliest was your twenty-dollar tip for Myrt, who was embarrassed by the generosity and meant to run after you and give it back but the truth is, she is short on cash and there is nothing shameful about need nor about what satisfies it. We give and we take. She takes your money which she needs to buy a Frank Sinatra CD, Songs for Lovers, and a pack of Camels and a bottle of beer for her old aunt Lois who needs to feel twenty-six again and dancing at the Spanish Gardens ballroom in Santa Barbara with Jack McCloskey the textile salesman and her first true love the night they necked in his pink convertible with the night breeze rich with eucalyptus and palm and though she knew he was not long for her arms, still he was gentle and sweet to her and told her he loved her over and over as he made love to her, which, at twenty-six, she had never experienced before, and so this was a revelation that despite the sarcasm of her sisters and the harsh remarks of her mother, Lois could be loved, and now, years later, listening to Mr. Sinatra and smoking a cigarette in her upstairs bedroom, she will call up Jack who is seventy-eight years old and in poor health in a care center in Provo, Utah, which Myrt located via the Internet, and Aunt Lois will tell Jack McCloskey that the memory of that January night remains a lamp in her heart, and this kind word, after years and years of sodden despair, will illuminate his night and move him to finally and absolutely sign over his wealth to the Jeremiah Program for single mothers, and thereby vast goodness will be achieved.”
That’s Keillor’s tale, and here’s the Church’s Christmas claim: human history is not a meaningless swirl. Our stories are working themselves out; they have a purpose; and that purpose came among us one night, in a very obscure little town, in what was then a very dark corner of the world. The Church isn’t claiming that everything changed that night in Bethlehem. So much of the world is still cold and dark and mean. Her boast is, this is the night when everything begins to change. The Lord of history has come among his own. The significance of his life and death is playing out, through all the years of history.
We don’t know why people get stuck in blizzards, why eye balls fall out watching Lawrence Welk, why we get old and die. We don’t know why family members, the ones who should love us the most, sometimes break our hearts.
There’s so much we don’t know, but the message of Christmas is to reckon with this: love has come and is working its way among us. Heavenly choirs have every reason to sing, because there will be peace on earth, to men and women of good will.
I’ll close with Garrison Keillor:
The old Chinese man smiled for the first time in his monologue.
“So you see what you’ve done, Mr. Sparrow. More than you know.
"What about Christmas?”
“What about it? It’s a nice day. Take a long walk. Sing more and talk less. Try putting ginger in the cranberry. It helps.”
Rev. Terrance W. Klein