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Cool it, Keillor! It’s a multicultural world out there

SHANGHAI, CHINA — On Saturday night I returned to my Shanghai apartment a little after 11 p.m. and paused to check my email. The queue was small, but the second item caught my eye. It was from a low-key friend in Washington, D.C., and included the subject line “unbelievable.”

Adam Minter
Adam Minter

There was no text, just a link to a Garrison Keillor column in the Baltimore Sun headlined “Nonbelievers, please leave Christmas alone.” The passage that my friend found unbelievable, I think, is this one:

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.

My thoughts immediately returned to the Shanghai Christmas party that I’d attended earlier in the evening at Shanghai Putuo Spare Time University. Spare Time is an evening and weekend community college, mostly attended by ambitious low-level professionals and entrepreneurs in their late 20s and 30s, many of whom are working hard to improve their English-language skills. Once per month, at the request of a professor with whom I’m friendly, I give an informal lecture to the school’s weekend “English Salon.”

In any event, on Saturday night 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.

Most were undoubtedly nonbelievers
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.

Staff, students and their families enjoy a Christmas party in an art classroom at Shanghai Putuo Spare Time University.
MinnPost photo by Adam Minter
Staff, students and their families enjoy a Christmas party in an art classroom at Shanghai Putuo Spare Time University.

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.

Memories of Jews lined up at Leeann Chin
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 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.

I can’t say whether the students liked or disliked my recollections. But they were surely interested in them: For the last year, we’ve had several long, Obama-inspired discussions about race, prejudice and assimilation in America. It’s a subject of intense interest to Spare Time’s students, many of whom are still shocked that the United States could elect Barack Obama, despite America’s troubled racial past. Raised on a steady diet of news and propaganda that depict the United States as an exclusionary and bigoted place, they are just now beginning to embrace a new vision of their strategic competitor. Keillor’s column, if they were to read it (most likely, they won’t — Keillor is unknown in China), would fit in perfectly with that older version of America.

I have no doubt that Garrison Keillor, had he also been invited to Spare Time’s Christmas Party, would have answered student questions about Christmas in America with charm and aplomb — despite the fact that most of the students don’t belong to “the club.” After all, it’s one thing to insult and disinvite enthusiastic nonbelievers on paper, but it’s an entirely different matter to tell them to “buzz off” in person — especially if they’re eager to learn from and emulate you.

‘A multicultural time’
It is, perhaps, one of the ironies of Keillor’s privileged literary life that — despite his close association with progressives and Democratic presidents — his personal outlook on the world doesn’t seem to diverge much from the narrow-minded small-town personalities he so lovingly documents in his stories. Over the weekend, Michael Feinstein wrote in the New York Times that “[w]e live in a multicultural time and the mixing, and mixing up, of traditions is an inevitable result. Hence we have the almost century-old custom of American Jews creating a lot more Christmas music than Hanukkah music.” On Saturday night, I watched young Chinese sing Jewish-penned American Christmas songs with the same gusto devoted to Cultural Revolution work songs.

So far, Chinese Christmas has not come crashing down, and — in fact — it’s all but assured that China’s churches will be fuller this year than last. That Garrison Keillor’s considerable imagination cannot allow for this possibility, but rather recurs to insensitive, narrow-minded bigotry, is a sorry commentary on someone who fashions himself a progressive-minded Minnesota populist. To my mind, at least, he’s not, and as a “Jewish guy,” born and bred in Minnesota, I’d like to suggest that perhaps, all things considered, he’s the one who needs to buzz off.

MinnPost contributing writer Adam Minter lives in Shanghai, where he covers a range of topics — including religion in contemporary China, the Chinese environment, and cross-cultural issues between the West and Asia. He can be reached through his blog, Shanghai Scrap.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/22/2009 - 10:01 am.

    The funny thing about humor is either it makes you laugh or it can sometimes make you groan.

    I can’t imagine getting away with telling all the funny jokes that my folks and their neighbors use to tell at their parties. Swedish, Norwegian, Italian and Polish and of course the Ole and Leanna variations. It makes me laugh to just think about about some of them. You can still hear some nice zingers when visiting some of the senior homes.

    We’ve always been a multicultural country, a country of immigrants, That will never change.

  2. Submitted by Richard Parker on 12/22/2009 - 11:25 am.

    I don’t think Keillor was trying to be funny. A friend of mine, a retired columnist who’s Jewish, said in all sincerity when I told him about GK’s remarks, “He must be kidding.” After he read the column he e-mailed me expressing shock and disappointment.

  3. Submitted by Dan Kitzmann on 12/22/2009 - 01:12 pm.

    I stopped being able to enjoy Keillor about ten years ago–about the same time I noticed I decreasingly enjoyed reading Roger Ebert’s film reviews.

    At first I thought this was because each had become obsessed with adolescent derision of GW and the GOP. (I am no fan of either, but possess a rich enough sense of irony to be offended by smug posturing, whatever its target.) But I now think their facile partisanship is auxiliary to their simply becoming bitter old men.

    Both Keillor and Ebert were in their early 50s ten years ago. I have my own facile, even smug, and only half-joking hypothesis that many men reach an inflection point in their early 50s, where they either begin to transform inexorably into bitter old men or instead become more and more cheerful and contented as they age.

  4. Submitted by Bill Hampton on 12/22/2009 - 01:15 pm.

    Dyspeptic. Crotchety. Mr. Keillor is of two minds. His roots ensnare him, yet he would have been a writer for the world. A sage, a prophet, one who knows. What happened? He inherited Herb Shriner’s mantle: an older Midwestern brother, ironing out life’s contradictions for people who just want to be left alone with their prejudices and indoor plumbing.

  5. Submitted by Erik Hare on 12/22/2009 - 02:31 pm.

    I tend to agree with Keillor, but I’d never be such a jerk about it. Plus, I’m coming at this the other way.

    I was raised Lutheran, in my family’s case a conversion from Amish by my Grandfather. Being Lutheran was a big part of my Mom’s identity in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in part because her Dad had chosen it on his own.

    I grew up in Miami, and it wasn’t too long before I started to drift from the whole idea. I gradually picked up the Chinese-and-a-movie habit on Xmas Eve with my Jewish friends. Before long, I was a full heathen.

    I’m content to let Christians have their own thang, much as Amish have their own ideas about holidays, religion, life, and so on. I really do think that if it’s no my faith, it’s not my place to pretend.

    I guess that, in the end, I believe very strongly that if there is a deity up there my pagan self will have to meet him and say, “At least I was honest”. That’s about all I can possibly have going for me without faith. If nothing else, this is the identity that I found just as my Grandfather found his by emigrating out of the 17th Century.

    We each have our own. I’ll tell you one thing, though – even without faith I still think that Jesus was a great teacher. “Judge not lest ye be judged” rings very true to me. I’m OK by all this, and I hope you are, too. Cheers!

  6. Submitted by Patrick Guernsey on 12/22/2009 - 07:14 pm.

    For crying out loud, he’s being sarcastic. Its really about how nuts this so called war on Christmas is.

  7. Submitted by Steve Sundberg on 12/23/2009 - 01:34 am.

    Reading the entire column might be somewhat educational. Here it is, in full, as it appears on Garrison also goes after Druids. (Or did we forget that the Christmas tree and Yule log are not really Christian traditions?)

    My view is that Keillor was attempting to reestablish what the focus of Christmas is or should be; that it has become for many, including Christians, just another holiday from work or the opportunity to score some cool stuff as presents.

  8. Submitted by jack ellis on 12/23/2009 - 03:59 pm.

    Perhaps Adam Minter should step back a bit and examine his life experiences raised with Christian neighbors in Minnesota around Christmas time. It sounds like a good time for him and his neighbors.

    Why did everything have to “change”? Why did there need to be a War Against Christmas – demands that Christ be removed from public notice around Christmas time – the holiday either ignored or “Changed” in to a celebration of diversity and multi culturalism – new religions for certain elites?

    Keilor’s article is honest and accurate – why do certain non Christian elites feel compelled to insult, attack Christmas, when they would never dream of saying anything negative or give insult to virtually all other groups in the world?

  9. Submitted by Ed Stych on 12/23/2009 - 08:34 pm.

    Wow! It’s interesting to see such arrogance in an article that is supposedly attacking Mr. Keillor’s arrogance. It’s comical that so many leftists are attacking Keillor for not doing what he usually does, which is pander to the Left. While I rarely agree with him politically or otherwise, I’m glad to see that he’s a passionate Christian.

    I also find it interesting that Mr. Hare calls Mr. Keillor a “jerk” and then calls on us not to judge people.

    Mr. Hare makes a common mistake of not reading beyond the one Biblical phrase that he pulls out to make his point.

    Yes, Jesus says “Judge not” in Matthew 7:1, but the idea that He forbade His followers to judge is a myth. Refusing to make judgments or call sin, sin,is not what Jesus asks us to do. He told us what type of judgments to make, when to make them, and how to make them. “Judge not…” is not a prohibition against judging, but a warning against judging improperly. Read beyond the one phrase.

    Oh, and I’m sorry to say, but it’s illogical to call Jesus a “good teacher.” Look at what the man said. He called Himself “God.” If that’s not true, then he’s a liar, and NOT a good teacher. If it is true, then He’s much more than a “good teacher.” As C.S. Lewis said, Jesus is a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. There is no other choice. He didn’t leave us any other choice.

  10. Submitted by Patricia Gundersen on 01/26/2010 - 01:43 pm.

    I support G.Keillor. I can understand that he finally had enough of the non Christian protests and verbalized personal feelings which is not always acceptable when coming from a public personna. We’re all human. Do Christians complain about Jewish traditions, Muslim ones? Does Mr. Keillor have the right to say what he thinks? He has given us many years of wonderful stories and entertainment. That’s what I think of when I hear his name and I thank him for all of those things.

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