Our ward Christmas program was essentially a talent show. We had refreshments, of course, and a tree and Santa showed up at the end, but mostly, we all performed for each other. I’ve always thought that much of James Arrington’s comic genius comes from this insight: Mormons are essentially performers. And you see it in his one man Farley Family plays—the Farleys love to perform, and they’re also pretty bad at it. Our ward party featured as many performers as the Farley Family Christmas, except, honestly, we were all pretty good.
For the Christmas show, we heard Silent Night performed on hammered dulcimer, Silver Bells on harp, Jingle Bells on accordion, a brass trio Christmas medley, and many, many piano duets. My wife and daughter’s duet was Coventry Carol and Pot a Pan, and was wonderful. They were all wonderful. We saw a teenage ventriloquist/puppeteer singing The Little Drummer Boy in the voices of her puppets, including three cats, two dogs, a walrus and a ferret. One of our more outgoing ward members served as MC, and between acts told many many jokes, all of them clean, and all of them terrible.
For my part, I was asked to tell a story to the children. The kids were getting restless when I got up—I think they’d heard just about as many piano duets as they were up for. So I sat in a big chair, and gathered them around my feet, and said I was going to tell them the story of Rudolf, the green-nosed reindeer. A stunned silence, and then the kids started shouting, “no, no, Rudolf has a red nose, you got it wrong!”
That was, of course, the point, and we had a lot of fun with it. I’d say “so Rudolf had a wicked stepmother, and she’d look in the magic mirror and say ‘mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s got the reddest nose of all?” And the kids, utterly outraged, would shout “no, no! There’s no mirror. He doesn’t have a wicked stepmother!” I’d apologize, and fix it, only to run the story off the tracks again almost immediately, veering off into Snow White, Cinderella, the Billy Goats Gruff, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, plus a little Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny, for variety. And every time the story would take a narrative left turn, the kids would jump up and down and shout and correct me. They were great; they really got into it, and I think their sense of outrage was genuine; they were five and six and seven, and they got so frustrated. What was wrong with me? Didn’t I know that Rudolf didn’t put on a red cape and run through the woods to his grandmother’s house? Where did I get off, talking about porridge—too hot, too cold, just right? Porridge, seriously? This was Rudolf: there’s no porridge. When I finally finished, one six year old stopped by my chair and asked, “did you do that on purpose? Or are you really that stupid?” I assured him I was really that stupid.
It’s been weeks, and still, in Church, kids come up to me and say, man, do I not know how to tell a story. And my response is to hang my head ruefully and admit that it’s true—I’m a very bad storyteller. And the kids walk away, sort of strutting: ‘I’m a better storyteller than him and he’s a grownup.’ It happened this last Sunday. I went into the men’s room, and this little kid was in there; he’d washed his hands, and he was trying to reach the paper from the paper dispenser. He stood right underneath the dispenser and kept jumping as high as he could, not quite able to reach it. I pulled off the paper and handed it to him. He looked at me, and said ‘Thanks, bad story man.” So that’s my rep.
But I also look at my ward members differently. I see one sister and I think, ‘I never knew you played hammered dulcimer. That’s so awesome.’ Or I’ll see a mother and her ten year old son, and I’ll remember the sweet duet they played on the piano—the Mom took all the tough parts, but the combined sound was really glorious. And the ventriloquist girl—geez, she’s like sixteen, but massively talented; she’s going to make something of herself. And our home teacher, it turns out, plays the trombone. I never knew that about him, and it changes how I think of him. And our bishop’s wife—I had no idea she played the accordion. How awesome is that?
We revealed something of ourselves that night, and we’re closer as a result. And that’s the way the arts always work. I had a student this past semester who wrote a wonderful play, but a very personal play. At first, she didn’t want to share it with the class. Then she didn’t want to share it with her family. Now she wants to market it nationally—she’s asking about movie rights.
It’s also possible that some people might have seen our Christmas party as ‘inappropriate,’ as ‘offensive.’ We can do that too, close ourselves off from sharing our lives with our brothers and sisters, choose to judge instead of grow, or, you know, just bask. Me, I’d rather bask. We have a harpist in our ward. We have an accordionist. We have a ventriloquist. And a guy who tells really bad jokes, and a guy who gets comic mileage from bungling stories. And twenty people in our ward forming ten piano duets. And we have a woman whose parents were trapeze artists and we have immigrants from Norway, from Vietnam, from South Africa and Tonga and Venezuala. We’re a tapestry of great stories, united by testimony and love. And the day after the Christmas party, there’s a family whose father plays the ukulele and whose Mom sings her testimony instead of speaking it, and their house burned down and they lost everything. And everyone in the ward pitched in, and they’re fine, no one was hurt, and they’re going to be fine. And it turns out that all that music, all those performances add up to something else too. Rudolf, the green nosed reindeer found refuge with seven dwarfs, and the huntsman killed the wolf and saved the grandmother, and the Easter bunny gave kids quarters for their teeth, and the Grinch’s heart grew, and the Whos got their Christmas back. And Rudolf led the sleigh through the fog. And we all lived happily ever after. Happily. Ever. After.