I won't attempt to explore what Garrison Keillor's perplexing essay about Christmas is really saying — suffice it to say that it caused an uproar on the web, and a small one at our meeting this morning. I don't know if Keillor actually dislikes "all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year," but either I don't agree with the sentiment or don't get the joke. I'm curious what others think, but if you're not interested in decoding it, try this gem — a capsule biography of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas."
What had inspired Berlin? As a Jewish youth in Brooklyn, he experienced Christmas as an outsider, at neighbors' homes. Some biographers suggest that the death of his infant son, Irving Jr., from a heart ailment on Christmas Eve 1928 sharpened his sad holiday associations. But Berlin loved Christmastime, hating only how his film work often made for holidays away from his family back East. In 1937 a movie-industry friend surprised him with a short film designed to cheer him. Shot in advance, it pictured Berlin's family waving to him from a wintry home, as snow fell outside. Mr. Furia suspects that Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" also might have influenced him, since the poem and song both use "the simplest of rhymes and barest of imagery to evoke a beautiful but melancholy scene." Jody Rosen writes that Berlin owes a debt to the poignant American "Home Songs" of Stephen Foster.
Like Berlin, I too am a Jew that loves Christmastime — Christian imagery 'n' all — and though I am not "in the club" as he puts it, I will happily echo at least one of Keillor's wishes. Merry Christmas, my dears.