Time Off for Good Behavior: The Weekend as We Know It
AS told in Genesis, the world was created in seven days. The first five gave us oceans, animals and, of course, light. On the sixth day the human race made its first appearance on the stage. Finally God decided to take a well-earned break and declared the seventh day a day of rest.
What, no weekend?
This flaw in the divine plan took thousands of years to correct. Initially, in a blatant case of overcompensation, Adam and Eve were given nothing but days off — an endless weekend. That didn’t work out, for obvious reasons. Without the weekday grind to provide contrast, the weekend has no meaning. It lacks dramatic tension. It may have been sheer boredom that led Adam and Eve to the apple and expulsion from paradise into the world of toil, sweat and tears, the place we all inhabit today, and from which we escape under the two-day work-release program known as the weekend.
It took forever to wrestle those two days from the bosses. Before the 18th century, agricultural societies celebrated all manner of religious holidays, and work was forbidden on the Sabbath. But it was not until 1879 that the word “weekend” appeared in English, and even then, most workers stayed on the job until Saturday afternoon. In New York it counted as a victory when offices began closing at noon on Saturdays. The weekend as we know it — the two full days off that Witold Rybczynski, in his 1991 book “Waiting for the Weekend” (Penguin) has called “the chief temporal institution of the modern age” — did not become standard until after World War II. (Insidiously, the cellphone and e-mail are now trying to take it away.)
But the meaning of the weekend has not changed. In a profane world, driven by the work clock, it is a chance to recover a bit of paradise lost, to engage in the unwavering rituals of strolling or brunching, grilling or golfing, or gaping at stage or screen and thereby enter a sacred time, that is, time beyond time, a place where time stops.
The British jumped on the weekend quickly. Despite the lingering half-Saturday, they managed to perfect a certain approach to leisure expressed, joyfully, in “The Week-End Book.” Originally printed in June 1924, “The Week-End Book” became a runaway best seller, and a fixture in country houses across Britain. Overlook Press will reissue the book next month, and there’s no reason why Americans should not get double pleasure from it.
First, “The Week-End Book” is a useful mini-encyclopedia, filled with games, recipes, bird-spotting information, first-aid instructions and random, often wacky instructions for, say, making a cup out of a sheet of paper, or the proper way to kiss in the ocean. (“The lovers should stand about ten yards apart up to their necks, empty their lungs, and crawl towards each other along the bottom with their eyes open.”) Second, the book provides an entrée into the milieu of Agatha Christie’s mysteries. This is the world of the interwar middle classes (both upper and mid-middle), so lovingly detailed in countless hours of “Masterpiece Theater.” The book assumes that the reader will be putting up at a country house and then, at first light, heading out with walking stick in hand to roam the hedgerows and stop for lunch at a heavily beamed village pub.
As the sheer variety of “The Week-End Book” suggests, the end-of-the-week break can take many forms, but there are, broadly speaking, two great divisions: the stay-at-home weekend and the out-of-town weekend (even if it’s no farther than Hoboken). Both have their pleasures and their happy rituals, as well as their drawbacks.
In New York, the stay-at-home weekend offers a chance to rediscover a city experienced, during the week, as a series of infuriating obstacles. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that most New Yorkers, eyes fixed on the square foot of pavement in front of them, rarely notice the buildings that define the city for the rest of the world. The weekend opens things up. It’s possible to slow down and stroll, to look and listen.
For a brief interlude the natives get to live a little like tourists, savoring their surroundings and exploring a complex world that, on workdays, can become tightly circumscribed. There are wonders to behold in Brooklyn (Floyd Bennett Field) and remotest Queens (Alley Pond Park). It took me years to find them. I’ve lived in Astoria for 25 years, but still have not gotten around to visiting Steinway Village. Maybe next weekend.
The drawback, for New Yorkers who stay put on the weekends, is the temptation to spend Saturday and Sunday catching up on work left undone. Or, conversely, to strain the pleasure principle beyond its natural limits. It really is not a good idea to see two Broadway shows, five films and “Parsifal” on the same weekend that you check out three new restaurants and take a walking tour of the cast-iron district. New Yorkers overbook during the week, and they can easily overbook on the weekend.
In “Waiting for the Weekend,” Mr. Rybczynski discusses a shrewd distinction that G. K. Chesterton made between leisure and liberty. In its most debased form, leisure becomes self-imposed work. Its highest expression is the sweet freedom to do absolutely nothing, which an out-of-town escape can more or less guarantee.
But there is, I am told, a curious distress that afflicts the happy few with vacation homes in the Hamptons. It is the specter of the Long Island Expressway, a malign deity that poisons beach weekends starting as early as Sunday morning. The entire eastern end of Long Island, on sunny summer days, is a heaving mass of anxiety, as drivers scheme and fret about the return trip. How early can they leave, in an effort to beat the traffic, and still call it a weekend?
L.I.E. Syndrome is punishment meted out to the rich. But there is a snake in the weekend Garden of Eden for everyone. Its name is Monday. As death is to the happy life, so Monday is to the weekend. It is the skull at the feast, the fly in the ointment, the bill that comes due.
Many societies have found a way to cheat. Britain has the three-day weekends known as bank holidays. In the United States, the calendar has been modified, ingeniously, to sandwich the summer season between two holidays, Memorial Day and Labor Day, that always fall on a Monday. That seems to me to be just about right.
Everyone needs to stretch a weekend once in a while. But too many three-day holidays would fatally undermine the weekend concept. Five days on, two days off, has worked its way into the national DNA. Do not tamper with it. Autor: WILLIAM GRIMES