Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Quakemas

I haven’t always been bah humbug about Christmas.

As a child, I loved the ritual of the tree. Our neighbours had two large pines, that all the local kids climbed. I'd come home sticky with resin, having had wistful conversations about the Faraway Tree, sitting on a branch near the top with my best friend Peter. Mid-December (never too early, my mother forestalling the inevitable pine needle problem) my big brother would clamber up with a saw and lop off a branch. They were never straight but back in the 1970’s. The tree was dressed with tinsel, glass balls (that diminished by the year), frayed paper lanterns and a small abandoned doll that doubled as an angel.

The best thing about the tree was not the decorations, it was the presents that grew underneath them. Shaking and prodding the wrapped offerings was discouraged and most made it through unscathed to Christmas day.  For a while there was an American family living next door. Their tree, of course, was huge and perfect. We were shocked to hear a third of the presents hadn’t survived the rigorous prods and shakes from the boisterous children, before the 25th. They got to eat exotic and colourful, sugary cereals every day as well.

For a year or two I took piano lessons once a week, with an ancient but stylish purple haired woman. I was one of a stream of ungrateful children who came to thump out scales on her grand piano. If she was in a good mood, there may be a Mallowpuff offered at the end of the lesson. My pudgy little hands would never grow to reach an octave. With no sense of rhythm and terminal impatience, I’d never be a pianist. But for a couple of years I’d clumsily attempt to play one handed carols on the piano at home.

I only began to detest the sound of carols after leasing an office in the centre of Melbourne, close to a busy corner that was favoured by the Salvation Army. From the 1st of December I’d be blasted by a trio of amateur musicians, playing carols on brass instruments all day.

By the time I was twenty I’d already had two Christmases away from home. The first, in Melbourne with my sister, was spent schlepping across the city by tram to lunch with a nice family that I didn’t know. It was odd observing other people’s traditions. Though alien, it was more boring than uncomfortable.

The next was when I was nineteen, with a boyfriend and a few waifs in Sydney. We drank cheap sparkling wine and perhaps because of that, I have no memory of what we ate. It was my inaugural kidult Christmas, and I rather liked it.

Back at uni in New Zealand, I was living in a shared house and a new yuletide ritual was born. We were quite a social trio* and often shared breakfast on the veranda together on sunny weekends. On the 25th we ate croissants and drank Bucks Fizz, fortifying ourselves for a day spent with our respective families. Bubbles at breakfast carried on through the decades, only screeching to a halt the year I had chemotherapy on Christmas eve.

In the intervening years I’ve chosen to have many solo Christmas days. Having lived in another country to my family for over half my life, coupled with being both an atheist and a non-meat eater, the season has lost most of it’s meaning. Many of my non-Christians friends talk about Christmas being about family and ritual but in the absence of a mother, a sibling and the turkey, it’s become a very hollow tradition.

But please save your pity. I love (and currently sorely miss) my non-Christmases. While most of you spend the day rushing around and being polite to people who drive you mad, I’d be lazing away the morning in bed reading and listening to the radio. Then eat a Spanish omelette or something simple for lunch, and recline in the backyard in the sun with another good book during the afternoon. I love the silence, not having to travel anywhere or making small talk with other people’s relatives.

There were also the Christmases spent deliciously coupled with a partner. No festive food, just a simple picnic, eaten on a blanket in a nearby park. The Not Boyfriend had his one and only Christmas alone with me a few years back, though his mother struggled to understand why I couldn’t possibly fly interstate for the day. Having just been pumped full of poison, I reclined on cushions in the park, only able to eat a solitary dolmade. The NB declared it his best Christmas ever! Two atheists enjoying the peace and quiet under a tree. Perfect. Except the bit about being nauseous and exhausted, in the shadow of cancer.

In recent years I’ve reluctantly made the pilgrimage ‘home’. As my mother descended into dementia, it became clear that I was the only family member capable of putting a meal on the table. Working in my business up to the 23rd, hopping on a late flight across the Tasman then getting my poor sleep deprived body up early to do the food shopping, is a modern ritual that I’ve come to dread. But as each year ‘might be the last’ (and certainly was for my mother five years ago), duty calls.

It’s odd having Christmas with two of our small family missing. There are also no grandchildren, nor a tree or turkey (sorry dad).  I’ve taken on my mother’s job of providing three cooked meals across the day. It starts and ends with the only surviving family rituals – fresh cherries before breakfast and chocolate mousse for dessert. But all the others have gone, especially with only one omnivore left standing.

Perhaps the most endearing tradition of my childhood was our trip to town on Christmas eve each year, with my father. We’d go to James Smith’s on Lambton Quay and choose our own ‘pick ‘n mix’. Afterwards we’d catch the cable car up and down the hill, sitting on the outside seats so we could try to touch the insides of the tunnels with our feet. Whether it was the sweets, the ride or just spending time with our workaholic father (or more likely the trifecta it created) this was one of my happiest memories of the season. Mum, of course, was at home wrapping presents, preparing the next day’s meal and hopefully having a gin or two in preparation for being awoken before dawn by three very excited children.

I look forward to the day when I can have non-Christmases again with the NB, but know they will come at a cost.

For now, I’m streaming RRR on full blast and having cooked and cleaned up after the first meal of the day am about to embark on the next.

I hope the 25th goes smoothly wherever you are, and however you spend it. It’s just one day and tomorrow the sun will shine!

*Vale Bruce my wonderful housemate who spearheaded this tradition. He died unexpectedly this year. I suspect each Christmas will bring a fresh sorrow from now on.

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