Santa Lucia

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(HOST) Recently commentator Philip Baruth and his family held their annual Santa Lucia party which Philip swears was crashed at the last moment by Vice President Dick Cheney. And that’s probably all that needs to be said by way of introduction.

(BARUTH) Somehow it’s become tradition for my Swedish wife and me to host the yearly Santa Lucia party for our Swedish-American friends.

So the other day I’m home making the saffron buns, 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, really 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 grubbing in the yard and then hiding in there at night.

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 despises pickled herring, can’t even take one bite to be polite. And second, Dick’s not real popular around my house these days.

But it turns out that’s exactly why he’s calling.

“Frankly, Phil, 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 it’s hopeless, 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 the 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 women, 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 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 aviator-style 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 suddenly takes my arm, and he pitches his voice for my ears only, and he whispers, “Would you do something for me Phil? Would you give Cindy Sheehan my love?”

Dick pats my arm, and then he heads to the buffet table with a determined look on his face. There he makes a point of helping himself to a few big chunks of herring, just to be polite.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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