305: The This American Life Holiday Spectacular

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.


Ira Glass

Hello everyone. Ladies and gentlemen, happy holidays. Ira Glass here. And this, of course, right here is the book which contains every Christmas story ever told. It's a big book. It is a very big book. And as I turn the pages for our stories today-- oh, wait a minute-- A Christmas Carol has been torn out of this book, and The Night Before Christmas. The pages are gone. The Original True Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it's just been ripped out of here. The Grinch, Frosty the Snowman, Miracle on 34th Street-- they're all gone. How will there be Christmas without Christmas stories?

Wait a minute. We can make new Christmas stories. I'll just sound the emergency horn. Hold on for a second. We'll get David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell and John Hodgman Jonathan Goldstein and Heather O'Neill to write new Christmas fables. We've got just one hour. From WBEZ Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International it is a This American life Christmas Spectacular in which we head out on a mission that could not be more important. If the old Christmas classics are gone, why we'll make new classics. And with them, we are going to do nothing less than save Christmas.

And responding to this Christmas emergency distress call first is Mr. David Rackoff.

Act One: Twas The Morning After

David Rackoff

10:00AM in December in midtown Manhattan, Helen sits at her desk in a dress of blue satin, a vision of evening in the mackerel light, she is garbed for the company party that night. It is too far a trek out to Avenue J just to go home to change at the end of the day. So she sits doing work, ignoring the mounting whispers and jokes led by Joan in accounting. She's aware that her dress makes the other girls laugh as they congregate over the mimeograph. Helen gamely endures not the kindest of stares with aplomb, for you see, Helen no longer cares. Well, that's mostly the truth, though some doubts still impinge, each year around Thanksgiving an unwelcome twinge starts to niggle and rankle so that by mid-December all that Helen can think is, do they still remember?

Time's gone by since that silly, regrettable business when she became known as the girl who ruined Christmas. Helen harbors the hope that the passing five years have made folks forget both the vomit and tears, and the throwing of glassware and drunken oration, that half-hour tirade of recrimination where-- feeling misused-- she got pretty plastered and named his name publicly, called him a bastard. The details are fuzzy, though others have told her how she insulted this one and cried on that shoulder, how she lurched 'round the ballroom all pitching and weaving and ended the night in the ladies' lounge, heaving. Helen turns a blind eye to the smirks and the winks. Surely by now they've forgotten, she thinks.

How had it begun, before things all turned rotten? She can pinpoint the day. She has never forgotten how he came to her desk and leaned over her chair to look over some papers and then smelled her hair. "Gardenias," he'd said-- his voice sultry and lazy-- then was back to all business. Helen felt she'd gone crazy. She was certainly never an expert at men, but an inkling was twinkling, especially when the next day he all but confirmed Helen's hunch. He leaned out of his office and asked her to lunch.

Their talk was all awkward and formal to start. He said that he found her efficient and smart. She thanked him, then stopped. She was quite at a loss. She'd never before really talked to her boss. They each had martinis, which helped turn things mellow. He asked where she lived and if she had a fellow. He reached for her hand and asked, "Will you allow an old man to wonder who's kissing you now?"

It was close and convenient, his spare midtown rental. And after, more drinks at a bar near Grand Central where they sat once again in uncomfortable silence, like two guilty parties to some kind of violence. They sipped among other oblivion-seekers while June Christy sang from the bar's tinny speakers.


Helen touched up her lipstick. They got to their feet and emerged from the afternoon hush to the street. He patted her cheek and said, "I'm replenished," then was off through the crowd for the next train to Greenwich. Helen pictured his house with its broad flagstone path, the windows lit up, children fresh from the bath. Helen wondered if she might just smell on his skin the copper-y scent of their afternoon sin.

At her desk the next Monday, it was business as always. There were no words exchanged, not a glance in the hallways. With relief, Helen thought, well that's that. Never more. But next Friday found them at his pied-a-terre door, and the Friday thereafter, and the one after that, 'til sometime in late June when their actions begat what such actions are wont to, when caution's ignored. The solution was something she could not afford. They talked in his office behind his closed door. She could tell from his face that he'd been there before. In the envelope Helen found the next day on her desk was $200 and a downtown address.

She'd never had visions of roses or cupids. From the very beginning, she wasn't that stupid. He was older, that's true. But they'd both played the game of never once speaking the other one's name. And what you don't hope for can't turn round to hurt you. This wasn't the first time she'd given her virtue. You have to want something to then feel rejected. This wasn't that different from what she'd expected. Expected, she said, and it sounded absurd. How long had it been since she'd heard that word?

She'd heard stories of girls all summarily sacked. She was just glad for a job to which to come back. Which she did one week later. He was surly, a jerk. She should have walked out, but she needed the work. Some minimal kindness was not a tall order. Instead, he was rude or he outright ignored her until she decided that this wasn't right and stood in the door of his office one night. He was coated and hatted and ready to go when she asked, would it kill you to just say hello? He took a step backwards as if sensing danger and fixed her with eyes of a cold-blooded stranger.

"I don't know what your game is, and frankly don't care, but don't threaten me, Helen. I warn you. Beware."

The very next Monday, from others, she heard that-- without her agreement-- he'd had her transferred. The company didn't just outright demote her, but Helen became what is known as a floater-- doing steno for this one or helping with filing. And through it all, Helen made sure to keep smiling. The salt in the wound was the sight that then faced her-- those looks he exchanged with the girl who'd replaced her. Helen made herself steely, was ever the stoic. She held back her tears with an effort heroic. But something was growing with each passing day till it burst forth that night of her shameful display.

Perhaps there are those who consider her dumb or a patsy for even agreeing to come, simply showing herself in the very same setting each year cannot help to ensure folks forgetting. But she will not stay home or remain out of sight, for to do so-- she thinks-- would prove that they're right. That was then. This is now. She needn't be pliant. So she stands there each Christmas, alone and defiant. While others quaff cocktails and gradually lose inhibitions that slowly dissolve with the booze. There's jostling and coupling, embracing with brio, all being scored by the hired jazz trio. Helen just stands, observing it all, sipping her brandy against the far wall.

The evening progresses, the room now quite loud. And here's Joan from accounting. She weaves through the crowd, a man on her left arm, a drink in her right, "All alone are we, Helen? No fella tonight?" Joan wears on her face an expression of utter concern, like her mouth couldn't even melt butter. Helen almost begins to explain or appease, until stopped by this knowledge-- and it makes her blood freeze-- for here is the truth Helen long had resisted, in all of their eyes she barely existed except as a source of some acid-tinged mirth. For them, she's a person devoid of real worth. They don't think of that time. Indeed, they don't care. She has always, to them, barely even been there.

The time when this might have been painful has passed. Nothing hurts Helen now. Her heart has been cast in bronze or in iron, or chiseled from lime, or some other substance as adamantine. Her biggest regret is the wasted five years that she's chided herself over shedding those tears. Instead of her wishing for eyes that stayed dry, she should cherish that Helen so able to cry, that Helen who felt things and then wasn't scared to express them in public, that Helen who cared.

She takes Joan's hands in hers with no rank or no bile. Helen looks in her eyes and breaks into a smile. "You're right," Helen says, "I should probably go home." Helen smiles one more time then adds, " [BLEEP] off Joan."

Helen takes off her dress and gets ready for bed. There is peace deep within her where once only dread. She watches the window-- for most of the night-- turn from black to pale blue in the gathering light. Then she rises, not tired, sets the coffee to perc, for once looking forward to going to work. For now she's immune to the power of them. She repeats what came to her around 3:00AM, that alone isn't dead. Alone's just alone, Helen thinks as she surveys her tidy, small home. A place for each thing and each thing in its place-- this order alone puts a smile on her face. There are others out there for whom life is more rough, so if this is my lot, well then, this is enough. She washes her cup, puts it back on the shelf. Merry Christmas to me, Helen says to herself.

Ira Glass

David Rackoff's latest book is called, Don't Get Too Comfortable.


That's the band Marah. All this hour, we're going to be hearing Christmas songs from them.

Act Two: No Tenenbaum, No Tenenbaum

Ira Glass

If you're just tuning in, this hour we've turned to our contributors for brand new Christmas stories. Oh and I'm being-- oh thank you-- I'm being handed a note. OK, a transmission is coming in over the short wave on an emergency holiday channel from a rooftop somewhere in New York City, one of our regular contributors trying to get through to me-- bring this up on the board-- with some seldom told stories about the origins of our holiday traditions. Hold on, triangulating here. Triangulating.

John Hodgman

Are you receiving my transmission? Hello. Hello. Greetings, my name is John Hodgman. It is holiday time. And though I speak to you, as always, from my small, soundproof booth in my Upper West Side observatory, I am nonetheless surrounded by the trappings of the season. I have mixed up holiday my famous eggnog-- secret ingredient, alcoholic eggs-- and I have lit a merry little yule log here at my feet, where I am roasting chestnuts to give to the inevitable carolers and Persian Magi and crippled English children who come to the door this time of year.

I have decked my soundproof booth with boughs of holly and, of course, poinsettia or, some say, poin-settia. Though it is actually pronounced pon-see-ha. Did you know that it is a Mexican plant? It is. Named for the ambassador to Mexico, James Poinsett, it was brought to our country in 1828 and quickly became favored over its predecessor, the Christ-odendron.

Some might argue we've ended up with an inferior, less godly plant. But in fact, history shows us so little of Christmas is actually Christian. Most scholars now agree, after all, that Jesus could not have been born on December 25, pointing out that shepherds did not tend their flocks in winter, and thus, could not possibly have seen the star of Bethlehem. And of course, there is no way that Christ was a Capricorn.

Take this mistletoe above my head, for example. It was the symbol of Frigga, the Norse goddess of love. And it was equally prized by ancient druids as a bane against witchcraft and lightening, which I find especially comforting, as both are out to get me. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that the Christmas tree itself was generally accepted into the American home.

The tradition originates in Germany. Originally a pagan custom, for many years German Christmas trees were dark or else lit only by natural luminous mosses. It was Martin Luther, the great reformer, who first suggested draping the dry branches with lighted candles, presumably because he felt the custom was not sufficiently dangerous for the thrill-happy protestants.

Still, most considered the tree a crude, Germanic fancy until 1850, when Prince Albert-- consort to Queen Victoria-- brought the Christmas tree to England. Albert, of course, was a Bavarian by birth. Many in England feared his foreign influence upon the queen and the nation. This wounded Albert. And the wee hours of Christmas Eve, 1850, found him at Osborne House, the great Germanic castle he had designed on the Isle of Wight. He was unable to sleep and overcome with despair. Despite the children he had given to the nation, despite his beautiful morning coats, and for all of Victoria's devotion to him, it seemed he would always be loathed as an alien. Now he faced another drab, tree-less, English Christmas.

And having consumed perhaps one too many alcoholic eggs, the prince consort fled the house, wandering desolately under the starless night until he reached the sea. There he peered from the esplanade into the icy, churning waves, "What use am I to anyone?" He said quietly in German. He fingered the Bavarian life insurance policy in his coat pocket. "I am worth more dead than alive. I wish I had never been born."

And at that moment, he instructed his footman, Clive-- who had, of course, accompanied Albert-- to suicide his master on the spot. But before he could act, Albert was startled to see another figure on the key toss himself into the abyss. Stirred from melancholy, Albert leapt in after him and saved the strange man from drowning. As they dried off at a nearby guard house, Albert regarded him-- a foolish little man in flowing white robes.

"A druid?" asked Albert.

"Only a Druid Second Class," corrected the druid, who called himself Cathbad. The time of the true druids had long been over, he explained. But there were still a few adepts like himself, hoping to earn his golden sickle It was then that Cathbad reminded Albert that, long before there was Christmas, the long nights of December were illuminated by other holidays. Albert's own Germanic Yule, for example, or the Roman feast of Sol Invictus, both celebrating the return of the sun in the darkest part of the year.

"Remember," said Cathbad, "Christmas is not a birthday so much as it is a rebirth day. Like the evergreen itself, this holiday is a celebration of endurance, of life, of hope, in winter's longest night, which itself is not an un-Christian sentiment," said Cathbad. "But wouldn't it be better celebrated with a great big fir tree, all the same?"

And so at last, Albert ceased trying to belong and embraced his German heritage, pulling a great silver fir from the frozen earth with his bare hands and dragging it back to Osborne house, where he festooned it with candles and household servants.

Images of Albert and Victoria embracing paganism within the royal home were circulated in magazines throughout the world, quickly becoming the picture of Victorian Christmastime that every American home would anxiously aspire to. Both Christmas trees and, curiously, Albert would soon become immensely popular. And it is still said that every time a bell rings, a Second Class Druid gets his golden sickle and a British heathen witch king finally finds the love of his people.

Ah, I hear the carollers coming and my soundproof booth is now on fire. But before we part, allow me to share with you some of Prince Albert's own advice for caring for and keeping your tree fresh and healthy throughout the season.

First, before displaying your tree, always cut off about two inches of the stump. Always keep the tree well-watered. Remember also that it watches you and keeps within its dark and sticky pitch the memory of a thousand winters. And finally, despite what you may have heard elsewhere, you should never add sugar to the tree's water, or aspirin, or any other sort of food, unless it is a little human blood.

Now I must bid you farewell. God bless us, every one. And Merry Christmas, you old building and loan. From a soundproof booth that is now on fire, that is all.

Ira Glass

John Hodgman. He's the author of the book, The Areas of My Expertise. Coming up, David Sedaris and Jesus. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three: My So-called Jesus

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass and you're listening to a This American Life Christmas Spectacular. We have sounded the alarm asking our contributors for brand new Christmas stories, because they and they alone can save Christmas. This next one-- about a savior come to earth living as a human-- is about the difficulty of being a savior, or a profit, or anything like that, amongst us humans. It's from Heather O'Neill.

Heather O'neill

Jesus and I were pretty good friends. And after he disappeared from our neighborhood and all those TV reporters started showing up on our street, I was a pretty hot property. My mom would freak out and call them vultures when they tried to ask me questions. But I'd try and chill her out. "Be cool," I'd say. And it wasn't just that I liked being on TV, I truly liked talking about Jesus. I still do. And to this day, people are always asking me to tell them everything I know about him.

Jesus and I were in grade six when we first met. And back then, not everyone was allowed to hang out with me. A part of the reason was the way I dressed. I was the only girl in class who had a pair of high heels. And for my birthday, my mother bought me a ton of black bracelets with studs on them. Other people's parents said I looked like a whore and they didn't want their kids to get my whore cooties or something. But my attitude has always been just to be who you got to be. A part of this way of thinking comes from me. But a good part of it also comes from the stuff that Jesus taught me. But more on that later.

Jesus first showed up in the middle of the school year and sat in the back of the class. On that first day, when our chemistry teacher put on this movie about molecules, Jesus held up his hands in front of the projector and made a shadow puppet of a dove. That's how I first noticed him. It was about a week later when everybody started to notice Jesus.

In moral ed., we had to give a presentation on a social concern. And Jesus did his on world hunger. He went up to the front of the classroom without a loose leaf paper or anything and started going on about how there wasn't such a thing as world hunger, which as well as being a downright weird thing to say was also factually incorrect. We'd all seen pictures of Ethiopia on the news. And those poor kids were definitely hungry. Jesus said that if God fed the sparrows and butterflies, then he would also feed humans. The teacher pointed out that a lot of animals had gone extinct because the environment hadn't provided for them. But Jesus shrugged and went back to his seat. So we just figured he was really stupid.

Since Jesus and I lived on the same block, we'd walk home from school together. One day on our way home he invited me over to his house to play with his Ouija Board. As we walked to his house, Jesus told me that his father didn't really love his mother. He didn't believe that Jesus was his child. He told me that while swinging his lunch pail. He told me that the same way you'd tell someone that you liked apples. When someone tells you something like that-- all casual-- it sort of takes the pressure off. You don't have to start rocking them in your arms and stuff. I appreciated Jesus for going easy on me like that, since we've all got our own troubles.

His family lived in a building that had a huge billboard advertising beer on the roof. And there were dogs walking around in the stairwell like they owned the joint. We went into his room, closed off all the lights, and set up the Ouija Board. As soon as we touched the marker, it started zipping around like a cockroach high on roach poison. I'd never seen such a thing before. Jesus and I took our fingers off the marker, but it kept sliding around just the same. It spelled out, "I am with you Jesus."

Jesus and I screamed our heads off. We jumped off the couch and ran right into the apartment hallway. Under the stairwell, I let Jesus put his hand against my T-shirt to see how hard my heart was beating.

Jesus continued to get into trouble for ridiculous things at school like photocopying his head in a copier in the school library and giving himself a haircut in art class. He wore his ski mask one day-- even though it was April already-- and impersonated Gollum's voice underneath it. I told my mom about it and she said he might be schizophrenic. But she changed her mind about him when she met him.

One really warm spring day, Jesus showed up at my apartment. I never invited people over. So I was a little put off having Jesus in our house. Once I had Georgie over and he said he found our apartment depressing.

"I like your place," Jesus said, leaning against my bedroom window pane, "You have a great view from here, right out onto the record store. It probably helps you dream of music. We have the best neighborhood."

"Wouldn't you rather we lived in Westmount?" I asked. Westmount was the fanciest neighborhood in the city. And my mother was always going on about how-- if she won the Lucky Seven-- she'd set fire to the building and move us there in a smoke cloud of glory.

"Being rich is stupid," he said. "It's way better to have less. It makes you cooler. No one from a rich background can ever really be cool." He said all of this just the way he dropped the news about his dad, very matter of fact. Maybe that was why I bought it. It seemed to just make sense, like he was saying something that I had already thought of myself, but I'd never actually gotten around to putting into complete sentences. Jesus' words made me feel like, no matter how much there was something deep down wrong with you, there really wasn't anything wrong with you at all.

Jesus liked absolutely everybody in our school in a way that I'd never seen before or since. I learned this one day at lunch time. It was sunny and beautiful out so we went to sit on the picnic tables that were at the end of the school yard.

"Uh, we'd better turn right back," I said, "Look who's at the table." It was Sam, a boy no one talked to. He lived across the street from the school, so his mother assumed she didn't have to get dressed when she came over. She'd show up with his lunch in her housecoat and slippers. His dad had a beard that came down to his chest. And he walked down the street looking straight ahead of him, never using his neck. And once at the grocery store, I'd seen them using a sock as a wallet.

"I think he's all right," Jesus said. "He reminds me of Willy Wonka."

"I saw him trying to burn the bottom of his shoes with a lighter," I said. There was no stopping Jesus. So we walked over towards him. Sam looked at us both, expecting us to tell him to get lost.

"Can we sit with you?" Jesus asked, sitting down.

"OK," Sam said wearily.

"Do you like the White Stripes?" I asked, to make conversation.

"When they're in the middle of the street I guess I do," he said nervously, not knowing what the hell I was getting at, as though this was a setup to a joke that would end with me brushing liquid paper across his face. I spent the lunch looking at my feet, not really knowing what one should say to the insane. Jesus just smiled, peacefully chewing his peanut butter sandwich.

"Did you ever go to a fair last year?" Sam said suddenly. "They have these fancy horses with hair that goes down to their feet." He took a photograph out of his pocket of the skinniest, prettiest white horse I'd ever seen. It was more beautiful than a unicorn. What could I say? The world was filled with mysteries.

Then our teacher, Mrs. Dumont, went on maternity leave. And we got stuck with Mrs. Allison. On the first day, she told the class that this boy, Quincy, hadn't paid his lunch fees yet. She said the only way you could be excused from lunch fees was if your father didn't work. She asked if this was the case and Quincy just shifted in his seat. She told him to bring in a note the next day from his dad explaining that he didn't have a job. Every day for the rest of the week she would ask Quincy where the note was.

Another thing Mrs. Allison had a problem with was the way Jesus fluttered from desk to desk, helping the weaker kids with their long division. Mrs. Dumont used to look the other way with this. But Mrs. Allison said that, as well as being disruptive, it wasn't giving her an accurate sense of who the class knuckleheads were.

"Where's your lunch?" asked Jesus. I was sitting in the cafeteria with my head down on the table.

"Mrs. Allison," I said. "She tossed it." I explained how she saw me eating a mock chicken sandwich and how she held it up for everyone to see. I explained how she picked it up with the tips of her fingers, like it was a dirty sweat sock, and said she was going to send me home with one of those nutrition wheels to give my mother so she could know better.

Jesus stormed off. I followed him down the hallway. He kicked open the door to the teachers' lounge and walked right in. A terrible whiff of stale cigarette smoke hit me. It was the first time that anyone had ever stood up for me. It was terrifying and wonderful at the same time. It made me feel like I'd found a $100 bill and was being chased by a rabid dog all at once.

All the kids in the hall got hysterical when they saw that Jesus had just walked into the teachers' lounge. It was magically off limits. They all started banging on their lockers and calling out for joy, like the power had just gone off. But this was even better than that. It was as if the whole building was coming down.

There are all kinds of stories about what Jesus had said to Mrs. Allison in the teachers' lounge that day. In my mind, I imagined her crumpling to her knees as he made her realize everything bad she'd ever done to me.

Jesus was suspended from school for a week. In class, Mrs. Allison said Jesus wasn't the big shot we all thought. The principal agreed with her that he was a troublemaker and that he was messing with everyone's heads. His father wouldn't let him stay at home alone during the day. He said he didn't want Jesus messing up the house. So Jesus rode the bus back and forth and hung around downtown. I heard how he hung out in the pool hall and the older teenagers would hoist him onto the table and he would just talk. They said he was funnier than Robin Williams. But if I knew Jesus, he was just telling it like it was.

Then on the third day of his suspension, Jesus never came home. The story went that he was abducted. But nobody could really say for sure. The thing is, he would have been really easy to kidnap. Jesus trusted everyone. There are pictures of Jesus plastered to every telephone pole in the city, and practically the whole school had to be treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sam said he saw Jesus in the park a little while after he vanished, picking up litter. But you couldn't believe what Sam said. He'd become totally obsessed with Jesus after the disappearance. Every composition he wrote in class was about him. The teacher said it was just his way of coping with the stress.

I guess I was dealing with some serious stress of my own, because one day in art class, when the teacher told me that little girls who wore black tank tops didn't get into college, I looked right back at him and said, "What makes you so perfect? You've done too many lousy things yourself to be judging children." And the teacher got all red in the face because he knew it was the truth.

"Stick to your teaching from now on," said someone from the back of the class. And we all nodded and muttered our consent. I knew that Jesus would have loved that. These were the kinds of things that he would say. And it felt good to say them.

Ira Glass

Heather O'Neill has a new book coming out from HarperCollins called Lullabies for Little Criminals.


Act Four: An Animal Farm Christmas

Ira Glass

You're listening to a This American Life Christmas Spectacular. And of course, the classic Christmas stories are like little Christmas fables. And with our next, brand new story to save Christmas we have David Sedaris.

David Sedaris

The cow was notoriously cheap. So it surprised everyone when she voted, yes, for the secret santa program. It was the horse's suggestion and she backed it immediately saying, "I choose the turkey."

"That's not exactly the way it works," the pig explained. "It's secret, see? So we each draw a name and keep it to ourselves until Christmas morning."

"Why do you have to be like that?" the cow asked.

And the duck sighed, "Here we go."

"First you ask me to give someone a Christmas present," the cow continued, "And then you tell me it has to be done your way. Like, oh, I have four legs so I'm better than everyone else."

"Don't you have four legs?" the pig asked.

"All right, just because you have a curly tail," the cow said. The pig tried looking behind him. But all he could see were his sides.

"Is it curly, curly?" he asked the rooster, "Or curly, kinky?"

"The point is that I'm a little tired of being pushed around," the cow said. "I think a lot of us are." This was her all over. So rather than spending the next week listening to her complain, it was decided that the cow would give to the turkey and that everyone else would keep their name a secret.

There were, of course, no shops in the barnyard, which was a shame as all of the animals had money-- coins mainly, dropped by the farmer and his children as they went about their chores. The cow once had close to $3 and gave it to a calf the farmer planned on taking into town.

"I want you to buy me a knapsack," she told him, "Just like the one that the farmer's daughter has, only bigger and blue instead of green. Can you remember that?" The calf had tucked the money into his cheek before being led out of the barn. "And wouldn't you know it," the cow later complained, "Isn't it just my luck that he never came back?"

She'd spent the first few days of his absence in a constant, almost giddy, state of anticipation. Watching the barn door, listening for the sound of the truck, waiting for that knapsack, something that would belong only to her. When it no longer made sense to hope, she turned to self pity then rage. The calf had taken advantage of her, had spent her precious money on a bus ticket and boarded thinking, so long, sucker.

It was a consolation then to overhear the farmer talking to his wife and learn that taking an animal into town was a euphemism for hitting him in the head with an electric hammer. So long, sucker.

Milking put the cow in close proximity to humans, much closer than any of the other animals. And she learned a lot by keeping her ears open-- local gossip, the rising cost of fuel oil, and countless little things, the menu for Christmas dinner, for instance. The family had spent Thanksgiving visiting the farmer's mother in her retirement home and had eaten what tasted like potato chips soaked in chicken fat. Now they were going to make up for it. "Big time," the farmer's wife said. And with all the trimmings.

The turkey didn't know that he would be killed on Christmas Eve. No one did, except for the cow. That's why she'd specifically chosen his name for the secret Santa program. It got her off the hook and made it more fun to watch his pointless, fidgety enthusiasm.

"You'll never in a million years guess what I got you," she said to him a day after the names were drawn.

"Is it a bath mat?" the turkey asked. He'd seen one hanging on the clothesline and was obsessed with it for some reason. "It's a towel for the floor," he kept telling everyone. "I mean really, isn't that just the greatest idea you ever heard in your life?"

"Oh, this is a lot better than a bath mat," the cow said, chuckling as the turkey sputtered, "No way," and "What could possibly be better than a bath mat?"

"You'll seek come Christmas morning," she told him.

Most of the animals were giving food as their secret Santa gift. No one came out and actually said it, but the cow had noticed them setting a little aside. Not just scraps, but the best parts-- oats from the horse, thick crusts of bread from the pig. Even the rooster-- who was the biggest glutton of all-- had managed to sacrifice and had stockpiled a fistful of grain behind an empty gas can in the far corner of the barn.

He and the others were surely hungry, yet none of them complained about it. And this bothered the cow more than anything. How could they be so corny? She looked at the pig who sat smiling in his pen and then at the turkey who'd hung a sprig of mistletoe from the end of his waddle and was waltzing across the floor saying, "Any takers?" Even to other guys. It was his cheerfulness that irritated her the most. And so, on the morning of Christmas Eve she pulled him aside for a little talk about the future.

"The farmer will be cutting your head off at around noon," she said. "His son wanted him to use a chainsaw, but he's a traditionalist so we'll probably be sticking with the axe." The turkey laughed, thinking it was a joke. But then he saw the pleasure in the cow's face and knew that she was telling the truth.

"How long have you known?" he asked.

"A few weeks," the cow told him. "I meant to tell you earlier, but what with all the excitement, I guess I forgot."

"Kill me and eat me?" The cow nodded. The turkey removed the mistletoe from the end of his waddle. "Well, golly," he said, "Don't I feel stupid?"

Not wanting to spoil anyone's Christmas, the turkey announced that he would be spending the holiday with relatives, "The wild side of the family," he said, "Just flew in last night from Kentucky."

When noon arrived and the farmer showed up, he followed him out of the barn without complaint saying, "So long everyone," and "See you in a few days." They all waved goodbye except for the cow, who lowered her head toward her empty trough. She was just thinking that a little extra food might be nice when a horrible thought occurred to her.

The rooster was standing in the doorway and she almost trampled him on her way outside shouting, "Wait, come back. Whose name did you draw?"

"Say, what?" the turkey said.

"I said, whose name did you get? Who's supposed to receive your secret Santa present?"

"You'll see," the turkey said, his voice a little song that hung in the air long after he disappeared.

Ira Glass

David Sedaris. He has a collection of Christmas stories called Holidays on Ice. His most recent book is Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

Act Five: Christmas At Valley Forge

Ira Glass

Of course, no Christmas extravaganza could be complete without a new Christmas carol. And we have one from writer Sarah Vowell, author of two books of historical essays-- the most recent, Assassination Vacation. And this song is not just about Christmas, it's also about patriotism and supporting our troops, our troops in the Revolutionary War that is. These ones were not far from Philadelphia and-- incredible as it may seem-- there was a time when we would send American soldiers into battle without proper equipment and supplies. The band Marah composed and performed the music. Sarah did the lyrics.



[SINGING] If you cracked your teeth on fruitcake and Santa did you wrong, listen up, kids, you'll forget your crummy little Christmas after you hear this song.

General, General General George. Valley, Valley, Valley Forge.

'Twas 1777 and the general's name was George. His shoeless, shirtless army starved and froze at Valley Forge. Barefoot marched through the winter woods with the snow like candy canes, but the red and white tracks weren't peppermint sticks, they were blood stains. George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette crooned a "Baby It's Cold Outside," duet.

"You're hands are like ice," sang the Marquis to George. That was Christmas at Valley Forge. You can't deck the halls when you have no halls. It's a real blue Christmas when your lips turn blue. The yanks were spared from red coat attack, but alas, not from the flu. And dysentary too.

Well, they didn't have blankets and they slept in tents, and it's not a merry Christmas if you long for Lent. Alone in the woods, Washington prayed, "Lord, for heaven sakes, make us free, make us warm, make us Philly cheesesteaks."

So if Yuletide fills you with jitters and fear, just recall the brave men in that terrible year. They started out a country, defeated the Brits, and Christmas has been so much better, better ever since.

George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette crooned a "Baby It's Cold Outside," duet.

"Your hands are like ice," sang the Marquis to George. That was Christmas-- that was Christmas-- that was Christmas at Valley Forge.

Ira Glass

Marah, performing a song with lyrics by Sarah Vowell. Marah has an album of Christmas songs that does not include this song, but includes all of the other songs you're hearing this hour and many more, called Christmas Kind of Town.

Act Six: What Would Joseph Do?

Ira Glass

And this brings us to our very last story in our Christmas Spectacular-- the inevitable story that we all know so well-- this time retold by Jonathan Goldstein.

Jonathan Goldstein

The thing with pregnant women is that they glow. I know you've heard this, how they walk around like uranium Buddhas, spreading joy and light. But the way my Mary glowed was for real. Mary was like the sunrise. And when she smiled her kind little smile, you had to literally shield your eyes. Another thing about pregnant women-- or at least it's something I've noticed with Mary-- is that they're supremely confident, like their bellies are puffed-out barrel chests and they're looking for a tussle, but a tussle that will end in bear hugs. Because not only are they confident, but they're filled with love. Mary sometimes calls me over while I'm sanding a chair or something and just quietly strokes the side of my face.

"You're OK?" she asks.

"Of course I'm OK," I say, "I'm the one who should be asking if you're OK." But of course, I know what she's getting at.

"How's the holy baby?" Ezekiel-- my foreman at work-- asks me, like 10 times a day. And I have no choice but to bite it. It's either that or be out of a job. Being chosen by the Lord is an honor. I'm not saying it's not. It's flattering to think that your girlfriend is good enough for God. But if the guys at work don't act like it's an honor, and none of your friends or family acts like it's an honor, it stops feeling like an honor. And so you end up just feeling like your everyday, garden variety guy who has been cheated on. Sure, you've been cheated on with the Lord, but still.

I should also say that even getting to the point where I believed Mary was an ulcer wrapped in a hernia. She had never lied to me before. And I knew her heart like I knew my own. But when she told me this business about being visited by an angel, I had an honest to God conniption.

"Is that the best you can come up with?" I asked. "Don't you have enough respect for me to create something a little less-- I don't know-- completely insane?"

She stared through me as though in a dream. My dad used to say that Mary was like a sleepwalker, sleeping while she was eating, while she worked, while you talked to her. I went outside to try and cool off. Sitting on a tree stump, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and there he was, an angel-- the whole bit, wings and everything-- just squatting there. Talk about a lack of stagecraft. I almost went back to chewing on my knuckle skin and ignoring him entirely.

"Are you the one?" I asked, not looking at him, "With Mary?"

"No," he said softly. "I just came here to tell you that what Mary says is the truth."

"This is a lot to digest," I said. The angel withdrew his hand from my shoulder and left me sitting there outside my house, digesting until morning.

Even after all that I was still a mess. "What did the angel look like?" I'd ask every so often.

"What difference does that make?" she'd say.

"I just want to know," I'd say. In the early days, I was all about the little details. What was he wearing? What did he say to you? Was he a handsome angel? What do you mean there was a blinding flash of heavenly light?

So it was pretty soon afterwards that I moved on from jealousy to worry. Who was I to be raising an angel baby? What could I teach a baby of any kind? Worry that the baby might not even look like people, that he might be born with wings, or worse, be born with just one wing. The thought of Mary holding a one-winged baby on her lap was just about enough to make me get all weepy and sick to my stomach. If that son-of-a-bitch Ezekiel made even one little crack about my illegitimate, one-winged baby-- job or no job-- I'd strangle him with my bare hands.

Now the very last thing I needed in the midst of all this was to load up the mule and take Mary and myself out of town for a census. The Romans were obsessed with counting things. And so everyone had to pack up and be counted in their city of birth, which for Mary and me was Bethlehem. What a sight, the two of us hobbling along on a mule. Did you know that a mule is the offspring of a horse and a donkey? It's a hybrid like the way a Pegasus is a hybrid, the offspring of a horse and-- I'm guessing-- an eagle. Now, can you imagine how that Pegasus' horse's mother's horse husband felt when the eagle first swooped down with roses and sweet talk? Do you see what I'm getting at here? I'm just going to stop myself now.

When we got to Bethlehem, it was like everyone and their Uncle Nimrod was there. Every place in town was booked. But on the edge of the city we found a little dive. And it was there-- exhausted after a day of refusals-- that I decided I simply wasn't going to take no for an answer. Mary saw how I was getting, the stress vein on my forehead two seconds from bursting. And so she kept telling me how everything was going to be OK. But of course, when you're living half in a dream, frolicking with the angels, you can sleep on a mule, on a daisy, on the head of the pin. Me? I deal with cold, hard reality. And if I can't even get a lousy bed for us, what kind of a job am I going to do for Mary and the kid?

A little bearded man greeted us at the door. Right off the bat, he raised his hand blocking me. "No dice," he said.

"Listen," I said, putting half my body through the door frame. "You have to have something. I have a pregnant wife here." He looked over my shoulder at Mary on the mule. And he took pity on us. He handed us a blanket and told us that we could say in his stable. A stable. The word was like a gob of spit dripping off my eyelashes. Tears of rage burned my throat. A stable. I've worked my whole life only to have my wife give birth to an angel-baby in a lousy manger.

Inside the stable, the animals were completely silent-- not asleep, just quiet. I don't know if you've ever been in a room full of silent animals, but it's eerie and unnatural. I looked at them and they looked back at me.

"You know," said Mary in the quiet, "I really feel like things are going to be different somehow, after this baby is born."

"That's the way it goes," I said, clumping up some hay for us. "My dad used to say that too. 'After the kids are born' he'd say, 'Nothing is ever the same.'"

"I just feel," Mary went on, "That this is a very special kid we've got here."

"All mothers feel that way," I said.

"I know."

"Looking at you in this stable, I could just punch myself in the face," I said. Mary reached out and rubbed the side of my face. She did it like she always did, like an old man. Her hand was cold.

"I'm just so happy you're here," she whispered.

"I know." I turned over onto my stomach and Mary started in on the knots in my back. As she rubbed, I complained and told her my worries. And as I complained, she laughed. And the sound of Mary's laughter was like angels' wings clapping. And for the first time in a long time, it felt like things were going to be OK. In about three minutes, I'd be asleep. And sometime after that, Mary would be too, her head resting on my back. The thing with me and Mary is that whenever we fall asleep, somehow, in the middle of the night, we end up holding hands. And that night in the stable, when Mary woke in the darkness with a sudden start, like always, our fingers were entwined.

And when Mary squeezed my hand, I sprang into action.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein is the host of the CBC program WireTap, which we can hear here in the United States on Sirius Satellite Radio, channel 137.


Ira Glass

Our Christmas Spectacular was produced by Jane Feltes, Diane Cook, and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Sarah Koenig, Chris Sliden Amy O'Leary, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder.


You know you can download today's program in our archives at This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.


WBEZ management oversight for our program by Torey Malatia, who hopes that all of the shows that we've done in 10 years,

David Rackoff

Have made folks forget both the vomit and tears.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week for more stories of This American Life.


PRI. Public Radio International.