Dear Goyim, I finally get Christmas.
I got it today when I was buying green tripe from the pet food merchant in Ripley, and he spoke of Christmas with a certain delicious dread:
‘Are you all ready for Wednesday?’ he asked.
‘What’s on Wednesday?’ I asked back.
He thought I was being facetious, but it really did take me a moment to realise that he was talking about Christmas which comes out on a Wednesday this year.
I have trouble with Christmas on a Wednesday. In my mind it should come out on a Thursday with Boxing Day on a Friday, then a weekend, and New Year on a Thursday with a write-off Friday. That’s the ideal pattern, especially when you work in government where the whole Christmas period is a complete write-off.
So my pet food merchant expresses his concern about being ready in time for Christmas, and I tell him that I’m going to spend the day ignoring Christmas and having a barbecue on my friends’ houseboat the Chutzpah. He expresses his envy at a world without Christmas, and I wish him the very best of the season.
My friend Nina in Ireland is cleaning for Christmas. Who knew?
As I drove home I remembered my friends’ Facebook postings about getting everything ready in time for Christmas. Marsha is making baklava, and should she make it sooner or later? My cleaner Charlotte, who is actually Jewish though she doesn’t know it, lost her mother this year and is the one making Christmas for her family for the first time. The woman in line with me at Waitrose was buying a turkey the size of the mythical Roc, and will it be thawed in time?
A few weeks ago it was ‘Stir Up Sunday’, the day when Christmas puddings are meant to be started.
Stir up thyself, and awake to my judgment, even unto my cause, my God and my Lord.
The words of that Psalm are echoed in the Anglican collect for the Sunday before Advent, and can you think of anything more likely to get you into a panic than that?
It’s as though you walked into the Synagogue on Purim, with a whole month to go until Pesach, and there in front of you was a plate collecting money for matzah aid for the poor. It’s exactly like that.
So the first thing for the non-Christian to know about about Christmas is the feeling that it thunders towards you like a freight train, and you have to be ready in time or it will all be ruined.
Next, there’s the food. Last night my daughters and I had plum duff after supper. I poured rum over the thing and lit it on fire and we each took a spoon to it and consumed it while watching old episodes of Hogan’s Heroes. In current internet argot, we ate plum pudding on the 21st of December because Jewish.
Nobody else in the village was eating their plum puddings: they all have to wait until Wednesday when they will eat it with hard sauce or brandy sauce or some other substance which they prepare but once a year. They will feast on Who-pudding and rare roast beast (to quote Dr Suess). They will eat mince pies, fruit cake and Terry’s Chocolate Orange. They will have roast turkey (roast turkey: dry on top and tough on the bottom: not the best food by a long chalk) with “all the trimmings”, which are often mentioned but curiously never specified.
How similar is this to the holiday on which Jews eat clusters of raisins and matza farfel and pretend they’re tasty? I mean, here’s a four-word combination that can only sound attractive at Pesach: chocolate-covered orange peel.
Just to make the similarities more striking, today my supermarket has Hungarian horseradish and French carp. There they are, the raw ingredients for gefillte fish, needing only matza meal and maybe a little red mullet, laid out for the Eastern Europeans among us to eat, not on Pesach, at Christmas.
My friend Nina in Ireland is cleaning for Christmas. Who knew? Now, she’s Scandinavian, and I suspect they are like Germans in the way they clean obsessively and sling featherbeds out the window once a week; but there’s obviously a Christmas Clean idea out there, and that’s another eerie similarity with obsessive Pesach prep.
Then there’s the ritualised consumption of alcohol. This week the BBC had a show called ‘The Twelve Drinks of Christmas‘ in which the brilliantly funny Alexander Armstrong and his brother-in-law the food writer Giles Coren chose wines and cocktails and brandy for Christmas. This is the time of year when those who don’t drink, drink and those who drink, drink more.
How many Jews can I think of who put in their biggest, or even their only, wine order of the year at about the time of the Vernal Equinox? How many glasses of vino do we sip at the Seder?
At least since Dickens, Christmas Dinner appears to have developed all the gut-churning stress of a family seder.
Of course it wouldn’t be Christmas without family stress. Who are we going to this year? Whom did we go to last year? Which divorced parent gets the kids? What about that annoying relative? Sound familiar? The SCTV depiction of a seder (Dad, I’m sick and tired of the business. I want out!) and the Royle Family celebrating Christmas are both toe-curling celebrations of relatives brought together for celebration, each in their own sacred way.
When I was an undergraduate studying British history I learned that somewhere between A Christmas Carol and Pickwick Papers the nature of English Christmas changed to include gatherings of the extended family for a communal meal. At least since Dickens, Christmas Dinner appears to have developed all the gut-churning stress of a family seder.
Most important here is the universality. Pesach is a holiday not just for the Jewish people, it’s a holiday about freedom and liberation for all mankind. Am I right? How many times have I been told about this? How many lovely Methodist chapels get together to run a Christian seder every year? How many Communist sedarim avoid the opiate of the masses but still eat the Bread of Affliction?
- ‘All those who are hungry, come and eat. All who need, come and celebrate the Pasch,’ in the words of the Haggadah.
Pesach has the potential to be the most exclusive of holidays: only those who bathed their doorposts in the blood of the lamb were saved from Egypt. It’s us against them, yet again. ‘Pour out your wrath on the nations who do not acknowledge you’, as the Haggadah says. Yet the overwhelming message is the opposite, celebrated most beautifully in the North African mimounah, in which Muslims bring treats to their Jewish neighbours the night Pesach ends, when the ovens haven’t yet been lit to bake bread. The message is one of shared bread, alongside the idea of universal freedom.
With that in mind, the bizarre hatred American conservatives have for ‘happy holiday’ greetings becomes understandable. Christmas isn’t just for Christians, say the Christians, it’s for everybody!
‘Peace on Earth, good will to all men,’ in the words of A Charlie Brown Christmas, paraphrasing Luke’s gospel:
δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας
Doxa en hypistos theos, kai epi ges eirene eudokia en anthropos. Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will to all mankind. It’s the first and last line of Kaddish, more or less. That’s good will to everyone, which is as universal as things get.
The Christmas face of Christianity, with its boozy universality and singing shepherds is far from the tortured passion of Easter, with its insistence on bathing in the blood of the Lamb as a condition for salvation. Easter is altogether harsher on the outsider, the season of pogroms in days gone by, of passion plays, agony and conditional salvation from unspeakable perdition.
When you think about Christmas as a sort of wintry Pesach, Sarah Palin’s feelings become much more understandable. Refusing a universal blessing of peace and good will seems like culpable perversity if ever there were such a thing. To confirmed Goyim, it’s like disagreeing with ‘good morning’.
The Christian triune Deity who is born and yet not born in a cowshed on Christmas is very different from the singular, basic God who busted His people out of Egypt. The way people celebrate those moments have a great deal more to do with the way humans practise religion. The similarities between the religion of Sinai and the religion of the Road to Damascus are sometimes superficial and sometimes deep. Once a year, though, each religion experiences a moment of familial stress, of cleaning, of eating strange foods, of drinking, of family stress, of universal messages.
So as the British Isles shut down completely over the next two or three days, and I look forward to bargain-priced smoked salmon starting Thursday; I raise a glass of advocaat in toast to my goyish friends and wish them a happy and kosher Christmas.