Who doesn’t have a story of being uncomfortably confronted with Christmas?
Just yesterday, as I was getting my hair cut, I spent several minutes dancing around the stylist’s expectations that I was in the midst of last-minute preparations for this glorious holiday, trying not to lie but at the same time not wanting to embarrass him, until I finally gave up and confessed that my children had already received their presents because we celebrate Hanukkah. In other words, we are Jews, okay! Jews. He asked me when did Hanukkah start. I told him it had already ended. He asked me if I could recommend a Jewish bakery in the East Village. I could not. It was all kinds of awkward, and totally seasonal. Fa-la-la. Oy.
But Sheila Heti’s story takes the fruitcake.
She is a writer, the author of, among other things, the weird and wonderful novel How Should A Person Be? So you should also read her account – The Special Duty of a Christmas Baby – published last year around this time in The Globe And Mail. Still, I love this story, so I’m going to tell it, too.
Heti, a Jew like you, happened to be born on Christmas. As a child, this coincidence was mostly unproblematic, although one time she and her parents tried to have a festive dinner out and ended up, “rather pathetically,” she writes, at a diner called “Fran’s.”
As an adult, her birthdate would be largely irrelevant to her, but for the fact that as citizens of a global bureaucracy, we are all and always giving our birthdate out for various official and semi-official reasons: when you call up the doctor, or the bank, etc.
So she must negotiate this interaction year round, poor thing. She tells people her birthday is Christmas, they get all excited or they sympathize with her because they assume she gets fewer presents. She either tells them she’s Jewish, in which case it gets strange, or she lies.
But most importantly, she came to realize, that being born on Christmas gives her the special but tedious responsibility of continually testifying to the existence of difference.
Here’s the punchline, and the payoff, for Heti.
One Christmas-season day about a decade ago, she came home to find a third obscene message on her answering machine. She called the police and gave her particulars, including her birthday, to which he responded:
“Oh, you’re a Christmas baby! I bet you get jewed every year!”
Heti hung up and laughed at the irony of receiving a racial slur when calling to report an obscene phone call, but also had this inspiring thought:
“At some point, whatever is unique about you has only one effect: to bring you into contact with a small angle on the world that other people don’t see. Transcendence comes when, instead of the repetitive drudgery of being the explainer, for the moment you are the sole audience of a good, dark joke.”
Sing it, sister.
And season’s greetings, Jews.