As most commandments of the ten, the command of the Sabbath is not only about the seventh day of the week, but about any proper festival that requires a meaningful ritual. In the ancient world, they took these festivals seriously. In the Old Testament there was a time when everyone was to hold a day of celebration. Then the law was read to them, and they were grieving with guilt. But the crowd was told not to grieve, it‘s not the day for that. Grieve tomorrow, they said. The day of celebration can’t be marred with it.
In Kieslowski’s narrative, the holy day is Christmas Eve, a day of presents and celebration. Januzs dons a Santa Claus outfit and is generous to his family. Then Ewa, his former lover with whom he had a long standing affair, shows up at the door. She says her husband has gone missing and she needs help finding him. Januzs decides to help her out, lying to his wife that his car was stolen. And off they go.
Clearly, the last thing Januzs and Ewa is doing is keeping the holy day in a holy way. They are spending the night with their adulterous lover, lying to everyone from his spouse to the police, and in general making many people’s lives a bit more difficult. They are no Thelma and Louise, but they aren’t bringing peace on earth that Christmas night.
Or are they? Their intent is to find and to care for Eva’s husband, to bring him back home and to make sure he wasn’t injured. (spoiler!) In the end, it is discovered that Ewa’s real intent was to prevent her from committing suicide, for holy-days are family days and she had no more family. They also visited a drunk tank, where they prevented the sadistic caretaker from abusing his charges, if only for a moment. (end spoiler!)
There are different kinds of holiness. There is a ritual holiness, like going to church. There is a superficial holiness, like staying away from one’s lover on a night when we are supposed to be with family. But often in the Bible holiness has to do with God’s mercy, which is unique among the living beings of the universe and those who show that mercy. Mercy like helping your former lover who is on the brink of death instead of being with one’s family. Mercy like supporting the drunks, objects of derision. And if Christmas isn’t about that merciful kind of holiness, then what is?
There are a number of fascinating details in this hour of television, but I’d like to point out the names of the two main characters. In English, we may note that Ewa’s name is “Eve”, like Christmas Eve. But I think the name more pointedly is to the Bible’s Eve who tempted Adam to sin, even as this Ewa tempted the male protagonist to abandon his family on Christmas. His name is Januzs, which is from the Greek mythological character Janus, who had two faces. I believe his name was chosen because he is both looking toward his family and his ex-lover, trying to appease them both, but can’t.
One final detail (spoiler!). The last scene shows a conversation between Januzs and his wife, where she indicates that she knows he spent the night with his former lover. She then responds, sadly, “Does this mean you will be gone at nights?” Her resignation of a lonely life without her husband and father of her children is heartbreaking. His encouraging response does little to heal her continuing pain from living in a broken marriage. A heartbreaking ten seconds.