In Joseph Heller’s long ago Coney Island world, “Nothing succeeds as planned.” And, “Every change is for the worse!” Heller’s visionary double dicta have proven surprisingly accurate when it comes to modern cultural encumbrances like Jews, Christmas, and, yes, even Texas. They just don’t seem to fit into the same toilet kit. Yet somehow, if you pack very thoughtfully and expeditiously, they almost do.
Now Jesus, the guy the holiday was named after, liked to travel light. He rode in on a jackass and rode out in a Yom Kippur Clipper. He looked a lot like Brett Kavanaugh at a toga party. All this notwithstanding, as a Jew I’ve got enough fucking holidays to celebrate without having to deal with “Crit-mas,” as we pronounce it in Texas.
As a lonely, solitary Jew coming from a small, ill-tempered family, I frankly find Christmas in Texas to be stultifyingly dull. Of course, I find many things to be stultifyingly dull, like golf. Maybe Christmas is exciting in other places like New Jersey, for instance. But that would no doubt depend on which exit Jesus took in the Yom Kippur Clipper. For those who may be wondering what the hell is a Yom Kippur Clipper, as I told you in these pages many menorahs ago, it is a Jewish Cadillac. It stops on a dime and it picks it up.
You may wonder, since I’m a fucking Jew, how do I know so much about Christmas? Well, for one thing I read. I’m 73 years old but I read at a 75-year-old level. As a young child I always wanted to grow up to be a black Baptist minister. It never happened of course. Or maybe it did. The only thing wrong with the Baptists, I always say, is they don’t hold ’em under long enough. But back to the Jews.
The nice thing about being Jewish is that you can feel spiritually out of place almost anywhere you go. If you keep the faith you don’t fit in. If you assimilate, you disappear altogether. Meanwhile most Texans never think about these matters. All they really think about is barbecuing large amounts of pork.
There is nothing wrong with this. Texans are loud and proud and they don’t need a wandering Jew lurking around in a tailspin of black despair fucking up a festive occasion like Crit-mas. Anne Frankly, the Jew doesn’t need it, either.
Nevertheless, the Texans remain friendly, maybe a little more so than necessary. The Texans love the Jews! They’ll often invite a lonely, stray Jew to the Pre-Crit-Mas tailgating party. Somewhere along the line someone will undoubtedly make an unthinking joke about whether or not the Jew would like pork chops. Amidst the good-natured laughter for the oldest joke in the universe the Jew vaguely wonders if this could be anti-Semitic. He doesn’t realize that this means that he has been accepted. Besides he is not too sure about Israel but he likes pork.
As the Pre-Crit-Mas tailgating party gets into high gear everyone is laughing and drinking Mexican mouthwash, sometimes known as tequila. A big Texan comes over, pours the Jew a shot and offers a toast. “Here’s to Honor!” he says. “Git on ’er and stay on ’er!” The Jew wonders if the toast might be a trifle sexist but he dutifully downs the shot which immediately sends him into a fugue of coughing and choking. The big Texan begins slapping him on the back. “This ain’t your father’s tequila,” he tells the Jew. “This is your grandfather’s gardener’s tequila.” The Jew wonders if this comment might be somewhat racist.
But not to worry. It’s just that everything’s bigger in Texas. It’s the hyperbole capital of the world. And some of it isn’t bullshit. Christmas does seem bigger in Texas. The Christmas trees seem taller, the three wise men wiser, and Jesus looks a lot like Andy Gibb. So what is the spiritual intersection of a lonely, introspective Jew seemingly forever on the outside looking in at the celebration of the birth of another tormented Jew, who is ostensibly the reason for the season. Hell, even the crosses are bigger in Texas, where we sometimes forget to remember that the Lord never gives us a cross bigger than we can carry.
That, of course, is what the Christians believe. The Jews take a somewhere different approach to the subject. “We didn’t kill Jesus,” they say. “We just contracted the lumber.”
Thus we see that of the many tales of Jesus, from the cradle to the grave and perhaps beyond, his was basically the story of a nice Jewish boy who got in a little trouble with the government. After that, the crowd did what it usually does if given the chance. It shouted, “Kill Jesus!” “Free Barabbas!!” That’s what they did and that’s what they have been doing ever since. To paraphrase Voltaire, the majority is always wrong. Thus it was that the Jews gave the world Jesus, and the Christians gave the world Joel Osteen.
Perhaps this sheds some eternal light on why Van Gogh could never sell his paintings, why Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave, and why a state that salutes its ubiquitous glass towers still knows in its heart that the most precious piece of real estate we have is a fragile broken-down little mission in San Antonio called the Alamo.
Nevertheless, there is a certain arcane linkage between the Jews and Christmas, not only in Texas but all over the world. It is the fine Jewish hand one discerns in the enduringly popular music of the Christian holiday. It should not surprise anyone that much of the music was written by Jews. They did everything else. Why the hell not?
For anecdotal evidence I offer my recent Uber driver. Perhaps because I am, with the possible exception of Jack Ruby, the most famous Jew in Texas, the driver quickly established that he, too, was a member of the tribe. Then he vouchsafed something that knocked my dick to my watch pocket. His grandfather was the man who wrote “Frosty the Snowman.”
Of the veritable Jewish pantheon of songwriters who helped create and define the notion of the Christmas spirit, John David Marks, the Jewish World War II hero, was among the most prolific. Marks wrote “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” for Burl Ives; “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” for Chuck Berry; and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for almost everybody else.
And then there was the little 5-year-old Jewish boy from Russia. His earliest memory from childhood was his family’s home being burned down in a pogrom. He arrived in America not speaking one word of English. He was able to teach himself to play the piano using only the black keys. The Christmas song he would write would forever set the tone for the season. It would proceed to sell more than 100 million copies.
The man was named Irving Berlin. The song was called “White Christmas.” The poet Carl Sandburg once said of the song, “It’s a little sad and a little lonesome. But when we sing that song, we don’t hate anybody.”
From all of us at Tablet, Merry Christmas.
Kinky Friedman is a singer, songwriter, novelist, humorist, politician, and former columnist for Texas Monthly.