A Christmas Story
Christmas stories have recipes, just like white bread. You can't very well have a Christmas story wandering around, digging into archaic Babylonian horticulture. It wouldn't be a Christmas story. Writers know this. The Charles Dickens who wrote A Christmas Carol is not the same Charles Dickens of Bleak House. Truman Capote wrote A Christmas Memory from a different cookbook than In Cold Blood. The first Christmas story did not permit the wise men to bumble about the sagebrush arguing whether to follow this star or that. It would have messed up the story. The little drummer boy did not die of stage fright or wet his pants when he played for God's baby boy. It might have been more realistic but not very Christmasy. The principal ingredient of the Christmas story is a miracle. There was no honest reason why Ebenezer Scrooge ought to have suffered a change of heart. As a businessman, he had seen thousands of charitable appeals, and his mailroom was swollen with requests from the Sierra Club, Save the Whales and the Salvation Army. Ebenezer's purse stood close-lipped before every good and deserving cause. The only avenue Dickens had to transform this business acumen was a dose of food poisoning and a consciousness-altering miracle. When it comes to Christmas stories, the very absence of the unbelievable is reason to doubt the writer's sincerity. A lost child is an excellent place to begin a Christmas story. Alas, the plot is a wee threadbare, and can stand improvement. Better if both a child and a puppy are lost, utterly lost, in a raging blizzard, snow falling a foot an hour. To this mix add a homeless person living under the railroad bridge in a remarkably comfortable cardboard hut filled with ingenious labor-saving appliances powered by rubber bands and mice. He is not your average homeless person but a former Harvard professor of corporate finance whose papers are no longer considered relevant in the recessive industrial climate. The scene of this ideal story changes to the home of the lost waif, whose parents continue their anxious watch at the window. A police car drives by their heavily mortgaged two-story colonial. The officer enters, shakes her head and puts her arms around the grieving parents. Everyone knows it is all over except for the eventual recovery of the body. Christmas morning breaks with the sound of muffled footsteps. The doorknob turns with exquisite slowness. In bursts the child, the puppy and the homeless person. Snow, mice and cardboard cascade through the door, followed by a detachment of befuddled-looking cops. The next-to-last scene: The homeless person, having done the right thing, quietly removes himself, disappearing into the white and tinkling snowfall with a limp worthy of therapy. The child races to the window and waves. (Actually, the kid is kind of glad to be rid of the old geezer, who muttered endlessly about foreign competition and underfunded R&D.) The parents look at each other with the silent communion of marriage, and then Father races after Homeless Joe, offering him that so-hard-to-fill position of senior financial adviser at a major petrochemical company. George C. Scott plays Homeless Joe, Richard Thomas the distraught father, Macaulay Culkin the lost child. Whoopi Goldberg plays the sensitive, wisecracking cop, and Michelle Pfeiffer the emaciated, distraught mother whose shower scene cements the audience appeal, as does her rendition of "Frosty the Snowman" sung from atop a piano while licking the keys. Christmas stories have very simple plots, the simpler the better. No one worries about the reindeer with the red nose spoiling the gene pool of Brooks Range caribou. A Christmas story keeps it basic, adding evocative music and that inescapable dash of miracle. The result is that even the most armor-plated cynic warms to the glow of the Christmas transfiguration. As anyone can see, an honest writer faces a complex moral dilemma when she or he attempts to write a Christmas story. There seems to be no alternative but to descend into the fuzzy realm of the miraculous. One might think imaginative people could beat the miracle trap, tell a Christmas story with the facts only--no lost puppies, no cripples, no heavenly host singing holiday favorites. This is an attempt at a true Christmas story. The only untrue parts are the accessories added to implement the story-telling. The cast is entirely amateur, and the Humane Society was consulted for all scenes using animals. The Great Depression was a stock market debacle and ought not to have influenced the weather. It did. The hottest summers, the snowiest winters and the cheapest farm prices all arrived at the same moment. The term "depression" does not adequately describe the economic reality. Our central character is Raymond. He is 21 years old, a high school graduate, the son of George and Adah, who farm five miles beyond what had been a sawmill village in more prosperous times. George is the son of an innkeeper, Adah the local schoolmarm who was coincidentally boarding at the inn. In this time of acute female suppression, Adah had had no alternative but to wed George, whose attentions were strenuous. They produced Raymond, who would prove to be the last boy child in his line subjected to the indignity of kneepants. The couple settled on land some distance from the main road, which was considered at the time an immoderate risk what with roving Indians who never did anybody any harm but made white folks edgy all the same. Adah did not care for the farm life. She had been village raised and college educated. Living in a drafty, vermin-infested log house more than a mile off the stage road wasn't her thing at all. The land George farmed was good land some of the time. The problem wasn't the dirt so much as the weather. Weather, who can darn well see when the land needs a drink or a dose of sunshine, didn't always cooperate. Many held that the region, named the Cut-Over, was blame hopeless for agriculture. Too sandy, too wet, too treey, too hot, too cold, and too much of a dozen other extremes--all of them counter to farming. A lot of immigrants tried the Cut-Over. So many tried and failed, in fact, that the region took on a new name: the "Chewed-Over." Many believed the land was naturally indisposed to prosperity. It's 1931. George has severe arthritis, and Raymond holds a terrible secret he wants to tell his father but can't. Raymond doesn't want to farm. Beyond which, he has been offered a job as a railroad clerk. Good pay, clean work, Sunday off, a house in town. As is the case with many family secrets, the mother knows but not the father. George's arthritis had come on suddenly. One day he was a normal healthy male. The next day his joints ached, and in the course of a month, he was a very sick man. The same Hercules who wrestled pine stumps and plowed where no plow had ever plowed before was now reduced to an aching wreck. The weight of the farm's operation had fallen on Raymond. Through high school he tended the farm and nursed his parents. The farm budget was spent on all manner of arthritic cures: mud baths in Missouri, gall bladder operation, tooth removal, hot salts. Nothing interrupted the disease except laudanum, and it was not so much an interruption as a displacement. The disease complicated Raymond's telling his father he wanted to quit the farm. Raymond was not the first farm kid saddled with the task of telling his father what he didn't want to hear. Never mind how he rehearsed, he couldn't make himself say the words out loud. In November, Adah heard of a new arthritis treatment at Rochester Clinic in Minnesota. Soon after, they were on the train. They intended to stay a week, two weeks maybe. Raymond meanwhile managed the farm and rehearsed his speech. The hospital stay continued as Christmas approached. Raymond did not feel like Christmas. There were the ever-present chores--cows, pigs, chickens, firewood, milking. What he wanted was a chance to tell his father the plan he had worked out. Christmas Eve arrived like every other day--milking, morning chores, cleaning, bedding, feeding, tending the stove. What happened to Raymond on the afternoon of Christmas Eve is a matter for conjecture. The man's character was the same as every farmer--90% hard work and 9.99% stubbornness. The remaining impurity in Raymond, as in most farmers, was poet, what some less charitably call sentiment. There was not enough of this sinister ingredient to spoil the man, but enough to cause the occasional odd disruption of the farm routine. It was as if something awoke in Raymond that afternoon of Christmas Eve, an energy coming from who knows where. This person, who was not a happy camper, who wanted earnestly to escape the farm, was aroused to a witness of Christmas. It was a scene of such force and incongruity that it has haunted the generations of that farmhouse ever since. As said, 1931 had been a horrid year. Cold, hot, wet, dry, all in exact disproportion to what the fields needed at the moment. Filling the mow, crib and silo had been one long and unfair contest. The labor had all been Raymond's, George being too ill most of the summer to help. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve it came to a head. Raymond felt the poetic impurity that was in him calling on him to celebrate. Never mind the next day would dawn with another dreary list of chores, and he would be alone on the backside of the township when he'd rather be working the railroad job in town. Raymond felt the Ebenezer worm turn, the sudden ardent call. How exactly doesn't matter. Proprieties don't matter. Just exhaust the noise that is within the soul. How it got there and by what right--who knows? Raymond was like a new man born. He must have a tree. Like an addict overdue for a fix, he needed a tree. But the tree was two miles away in the far woods where balsam grew. Two miles that would kill a horse even to try, what with the snow so deep and ice-crusted. The thing about joy is, once ignited it doesn't care who it burns or how uncomfortable it makes them. Joy will burn anything if the light is wanted bad enough. Raymond's choice was between murdering a good horse for the want of a tree or ignoring this now-urgent need. Happily, urgency is also inventive. Among themselves, farmers recognize three forms of intellect. If a person has two out of three, he's considered brilliant; one of three, he's smart; three of three is a genius. The three forms of intellect are horse sense, corn sense and woman sense. Horse sense is the ability to know and sympathize with animals. Corn sense is the ability to raise corn or children or a barn despite adverse odds. Woman sense is the most rare--even among women--and includes all human talents not conferred by the others. It is the ability to suffer the inescapable and do so without rancor. Christmas you see, is woman sense. Raymond may or may not have had horse sense but he did have corn sense. Never mind that 1931 had been hostile to every green thing and snow had come early, Raymond had a corn crop. Not a great crop, but corn in the crib and shocks in the field. Getting a crop of corn through a dry and reckless summer is a special talent. It is the sort of improbability likened to God whispering the dimensions of the ark in your ear. Having corn in the crib at the end of a contrary season brings with it the sense of perfect union, that God is on your side, whispering where and when to plant, and from whose seed catalog. On Christmas Eve, 1931, Raymond installed the entirety of a corn shock in the bay window of the farmhouse. He dismantled the shock in the fields, transported its components and erected it, exactly as it he found it, in the living room. A sane man wouldn't do this. It was the poet that did it. Corn sense that did it. Joy that did it. This is the end of the story of the Christmas of 1931. There are no presents under the tree, no mittens, no suet pudding, no carols, no candles. It was the crummiest, lousiest Christmas the farmhouse ever knew. George and Adah didn't return until January, and the arthritis was just as rotten as always plus there were hospital bills to pay. Raymond never did tell George he was going to take the job with the railroad. It is speculation to think it had anything to do with the corn-shock Christmas. More likely what changed Raymond's mind was an item in the local newspaper about rail shipments being down and the paper mill laying off workers. Raymond probably decided the farm was the best place to hole up and wait out the Depression. At least there were eggs and taters enough to fill a plate. Farm families have a tendency to stretch the truth about yields and omit the more pertinent facts about what the crop is worth. Combined with the habit of Christmas to permit wide discrepancies, there has resulted a chrome version of the corn-shock Christmas. According to some renditions, Raymond put candles on the corn-shock and strings of popcorn and corn ornaments and an angel made out of corn husks on the top. And this, say some, is why the family still puts a corn angel on the top of the tree. To remember the Christmas of '31. 'Course it ain't so. Raymond's tree was a plain corn shock--no ribbons, no glass balls, no candles. Just a blame corn-shock in the bay window of the farmhouse, the result of polluting a 99.9% farmer with .01% poet. That impurity is why my dad was a farmer all his days and not the railroad clerk he intended to be. And why I ended up being a farmer, too.