Somehow it’s become tradition for my wife and I to host the yearly Santa Lucia party for our Swedish-American group. The group is made up of Swedes and Americans married to Swedes, and we host all the Swedish holidays by turns. Santa Lucia has fallen to our lot, and I’ve come to feel that winter would be incomplete without it.
So the other day I’m home making saffron buns for the party, and the phone rings and — I know this sounds namedroppy — but it’s Dick Cheney. Now, a long time ago, for reasons I won’t go into here, Dick spent a night under my porch. Okay, real quickly, he needed a secure location while he was in Burlington, and my porch is really secure because I used to have this skunk that was getting in there at night, and I had to padlock it down.
Long story short, Dick still has my number and he calls to ask if he can come to the Lucia party.
Talk about awkward.
First, Dick isn’t Swedish, and neither is his wife, Lynn. Second, Dick despises pickled herring, can’t even take one bite to be polite, which is the least an American can do. And third, well, Dick’s not real popular around my house these days, if you know what I mean.
But it turns out that’s exactly why he’s calling. His voice is grim.
“Phil, my poll numbers have dropped like a rock of late. Frankly, my staff and I were hoping we could use your, uh, ethnic celebration to show me in a softer light.”
My gut tells me, just say no. But Dick starts reminiscing about the night he spent under the porch, and I hear myself telling him to come on ahead, the more the merrier.
Not a good decision. On the big night, everyone’s standing around eating fermented fish, and in sweeps the Secret Service looking for firearms. And then Dick trudges in, and the Swedes see who it is, and a palpable chill goes through the room. You gotta understand, Socialism is middle of the road in Sweden. So I go into hyper-festive-host mode, trying to draw everybody together, but it’s no use.
You ever have one of those doomed parties where friends from two really different parts of your life show up and it just never gels? It’s like that.
Until it’s time for the Santa Lucia procession. This is when all of the kids and the mothers slip away into the cellar, and dress themselves in long white robes with red sashes, and put crowns of leaves in their hair. We turn off the lights and they slowly march back upstairs, singing Swedish songs about winter and the power of light itself.
But just before I hit the lights, Dick tells me he has to be in the procession. His staff desperately wants a picture of him in one of the white robes. I try to tell him that it’s a gender sort of thing, that men don’t march. But Dick’s adamant, and he’s brought his own robe and leaf-crown.
Eventually you’ll see the picture on the front page of the New York Times: all the Swedish woman, all our children — and Dick — holding candles in the darkened living room. But what you won’t see is what I see standing just a few feet off to one side. The Lucia procession always changes you somehow, it calls out your humanity. And as the candlelight flickers over Dick’s face, I see tears forming behind his big thick glasses.
I know what’s happening in his heart.
A seed is growing.
And when the singing is done, and everyone heads back to the buffet table, Dick takes my arm, and he pitches his voice for my ears only, and he whispers, “Give Cindy Sheehan my love, Phil.” He pauses, broods a second. “And — and Michael Moore. Will you do that for me?” Dick pats my arm, and then he heads to the buffet table with a determined look on his face.
But after a few more steps, he stops, then makes his way all the way back across the room to me, and this time he whispers: “And Alec Baldwin, I suppose. Him as well, Phil.”
I tell him I will, and he gives a nod. This time when he heads off to the buffet he lets nothing stop him. And once there, he makes a point of helping himself to a few fat chunks of herring, just to be polite.