The war on Christmas, sewage, and buildings made out of time



I do my best to avoid learning from my students, but this week I slipped, and accidentally figured out why people fear the war on Christmas. Christmas always seemed impregnable to me: heavily padded on both sides with weeks of defensive shopping and singing, the day itself full of gifts and drinks, seemingly invincible. But I was wrong: because Christmas belongs to a calendar, and the calendar is on life support.

Teaching Americans the Jewish calendar—any religious calendar—is difficult: students don’t ‘get it’—why it matters, why people have fought so viciously over it, why people warp their lives to accommodate the moon, or events that didn’t happen. Received teaching wisdom goes something like this:

Americans live in the Christian world, and the Christian sense of time, like a fish lives in water. Time actually begins with the birth of Jesus: we start counting years when he’s born, and before he appears, time actually goes backward. BC, AD, these notions are so much a part of the American psyche, that they cannot see anything else. Therefore, to teach them another calendar, you must first break them of the habit of seeing Christian time as ‘natural’

This sounds good, but isn’t true. It is true that calendars govern a community, deciding its rhythms, controlling how it breathes. But it is not true that Americans live by a Christian calendar. Here, in the land of the free, there is no calendar at all. As Marx should have said: Capital cannot abide a calendar. Here, every day is more-or-less the same as any other: the pace might slow on the weekend, but Saturday and Sunday are pretty much indistinguishable from weekdays; some things might be closed on Easter (which is, I believe, the only ‘serious’ holiday left) but nothing is ever allowed to grow too inconvenient.

And inconvenience is the mark of a holiday. Abraham Heschel taught me that holidays are like buildings, buildings made out of time. And Israel taught me that these buildings are a pain in the ass.  A holiday is like a structure whose bricks are hours and events. And this building is always inconveniently located.

When I moved to Israel, my plumbing backed up, and sewage flooded back into the kitchen. The landlord and repairman suggested that I stop flushing toilet paper, and take comfort in the fact that the sewage was my own. I am difficult to comfort even when not treading shit-water, and replied as you would expect. After exhausting the few Hebrew curse words I knew, I switched to English ones, and after we had both implied some pretty horrid things about the other’s paternity, it was decided that the plumbing would be repaired, and the sapling, which had taken root in the pipes, removed.   But not now. Why? Because it was August, and to think that work could be done before the holidays were over was ‘crazy’. I pointed out that the holidays were weeks away. They again pointed out that I was ‘crazy’. And they were right. If the work was unfinished before the holidays began, nothing could be done: because a real holiday is unmovable as stone.

And so, when my wife-to-be arrived in Jerusalem, I lifted her bags over the tube that carried our shit into an open sewer grate, the lid half-propped onto a bright orange PVC pipe for all to see. This exposed shit pipe, the embarrassment it bought me, and the danger it posed for my neighbours, taught me the true meaning of the holidays.

There is nothing of that here in the States: holidays are to be enjoyed. And once you have decided that holidays are to be enjoyed, they are done for. Because holidays—while occasionally enjoyable—are frustrating; if, in the name of pleasure, you subtract the irritating elements from a holiday, it will shrink to a fine point, until all that is left is the blind insistence that this is to be enjoyed. And then, the only really enjoyable thing left, the logical move, is to skip it. So I propose that future holidays should be celebrated with sanctimonious social media posts, advertising the pleasure we take in non-participation.

‘This year, I’m just spending time at home with my introverted cat and a mild social anxiety disorder that I’ve managed to make a fetish out of, drowning in nostalgia and illicit carbohydrates’, until the calendars fall, and all the days are exactly the same.






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