One more sleep till D-Day… but this year, I’ve actually felt good about Christmas. It’s not a familiar feeling. In my adult life, Christmas tradition has involved ambivalence tending to hostility, a fortnight of creeping despair, then curling up after a bottle of cognac to cry in a corner and throw up mince on the rug. Many of those years, if the bloke in the red suit had existed, I would have left him out a roast leg of venison and hoped that the reindeer could smell it on his clothes. No doubt many of us go through stages like this, where we want to go out and club a ringy-dingy elf right in the head.
And no wonder. The season can’t compete with how it was as a kid, when days were as long as novels and “Ten more minutes” was a judicial sentence. The heat somehow arrived earlier. The lead-up to Christmas stretched out to the horizon, as afternoons led a charge deep into the evenings and the grass dried to gold. Stepping outside to air already hot before we’d dressed for school. The toy shops excruciating in their possibility. The advent calendar crawling by, glue and crappy chocolate marking days that dragged out their final demise like a row of dying grandparents. We packed three summers in before the holidays even began, then those final few pre-Christmas days, the wonder of a sky still light at 8pm, peeking through the leaves behind the little church at Research, the chirping of insects mixing with the sound of carols and the smell of evening air.
But with adolescence, the scale of time compacted like osteoporotic spines on a Bolivian bus ride. December came too soon each year, this unwelcome guest that muscled its way in, a bunch of K-Mart catalogues telling us how we should feel. The migraine stink of high-gloss paper and the shriek of Harvey Fucking Norman drill sergeants hounding us down our hallways into discount whitegood dreams.
Perhaps it was spending those early days in stifling primary-school portables that had conjured the feel of endless summer. But with our internal hormone supernovae boiling through our skins, we faced the world with simmering resentment. While still too close to childhood, and too disgusted by children, to allow nostalgia to flourish, we recognised the shift. Like most of life before the hormones hit, Christmas had been easy, and now it was not. Whatever it was, it was dead to us.
That view persisted. So with adulthood, and the options that it made available, I slowly withdrew from Christmas, an ever-more-peripheral participant. The year I dealt roulette at Melbourne’s casino was the death knell, and not just from being rostered on Christmas Day. While previous employees will no doubt remember fondly Kerry’s staff hampers (probably since axed by James), I remember the cas floor playing a 50-minute loop of Christmas songs on repeat from November through to February. Ten times a shift, five shifts a week…
Nor are we talking some classy Stille Nacht chorale here, but the most gut-churning discharge of kitsch to be excreted, hot and thick and yellow, from the pus-gland of the season – think ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ sung by seasons-old reality TV contestants, or some Bing Crosby fake doing Busty the Snowman (ten percent of the lyrics changed to avoid royalties), all sung in that breathy, idiot-grinning voice that fuckwits use to speak to children. As corny as an Aztec turd in a tortilla, and about as appealing.
On Christmas Eve, with a packed table in front of me and the dull drumbeat of murder behind my eyes, I spun a floater – one of those anomalies of physics where the ball hangs on the divider between two numbers for several minutes and refuses to drop. The only recourse is to wait. ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ filled the interim, caressing our ears like a gang of chainsaws fighting in fast-forward.
When the ball finally fell, away from the number that an agonised gentleman’s pulsing forehead veins had been urging, all I could say was a cheery “Looks like the Baby Jesus doesn’t love you!” as I swiped the table clean. My humanity had crawled back within some dim recess to die, and dragged the twitching corpse of Christmas with it.
From then on, Christmas saw me travelling, working, only using it as a means to examine other places. Years ticked by but that ambivalence remained undimmed. Then last December, recently returned from a long trip away, I led a house party in a 3am chorus of ‘Jerusalem’. After the neighbours yelled at us, my friend Em suggested I should come to carols that week.
“Arrright, sure…” I said, extricating myself from a fence.
“No, you’re just drunk,” she said. “As if you’ll do it.”
She was right about the first part. But as with many, alcohol in my system will see even the most innocuous challenge met with bloody-minded resolve. “Oh really? Is that right? As if. I’ll totally do it. I’ll go the day before. I’ll see allll the carols before you even get there. Whatever. I don’t care. Hey, chips.”
Drunken honour being what it is, I went. Em’s old school choir sang in the sweeping vault of St Paul’s. Those songs started creaking themselves out of the dusky corners of memory. Once in Royal David’s City, stood a… whosy-whatsit… yeah…
And all of a sudden it just felt right. I mean, I’m no fan of any religious doctrine, never sure why long-dead cultures should define our moral code. Something doesn’t quite gel about taking our cues on sexual conduct from people who thought that impregnating twelve-year-olds was a pretty sweet way to pass your day. But the more harmless traditions can be comforting, and there is much to admire in the Church’s art. In the strains of those songs and the glow of candles, the clock wound back. A certain stiffness of the heart fell away. Something felt like Christmas, and I left smiling.
I spent the next two weeks in my family home. The service had tagged a starting point, and now there was a prelude, not just December tripping over itself into a pile of tinsel. In the days leading up, I sat in the house where I was raised, the doors open on their screens, my father playing the piano, my mother mixing Christmas cakes dense as antimatter on the broad kitchen bench.
All those twinges from childhood came back. The memory of heat. Up late at night, when that alone had an illicit thrill. Coming down the stairs in short pyjamas, a tree all pulsing colour and gold. The residual happiness from singing, latent food aromas behind the sharpness of fresh pine. A sense of ease, like everything and everyone was sitting back, the way Dad and I would sit together late when it was too hot to sleep, an hour or more without a word. The insects talked for us and the leaves were still and the night air gave warmth and sustenance like amniotic fluid. That and the quiet and the lights dimmed to burnt orange made it feel like we were floating in amber.
Yesterday, collecting a sack of dead poultry from my parents’ butcher, I drove past my old primary school, yawning vacant with holidays. On a whim I stopped and wandered in, for the first time in uncounted years. Between worrying that I would be picked up by the cops as the world’s tardiest kiddy-fiddler (come on man, iCal that shit), I was struck by those things I’ve read to cliché but hadn’t yet experienced. How the whole place seemed to have been miniaturised, its most epic expanses shrunk to a few dozen steps. How strange and yet familiar it was – around the new buildings and refigurations were the old roofs I’d climbed, old railings I’d sat on, the path to my Grade 5 classroom leading to a portable that was no longer there. Concrete trailing off into long grass like a half-finished sentence.
Across the road, the church whose yard had once meant Christmas had now been turned into a childcare centre, the old shortcut to the shops fenced off, the short sharp hill where I broke my leg landscaped to a child-friendly gradient. But the sense of it remained. Our early lives can be that close, if only we reach out for them. Poignant moment of reflection aside, I got home to learn that Dad had managed to trip over the dog and fall into the pool with the whipper-snipper.
This Christmas, I count my blessings. Despite their efforts, my parents and my sisters are alive and well. One sister is far from us in Canada, but she is safe and she is whole. This is not the case for so many families, who live with painful gaps around their table.
And this year, Christmas feels right. December’s skies are gold and salmon-pink, the evenings lie open in their mildness. Tonight I will meet my friend for carols again, and sing those songs that won’t seem so unfamiliar. Afterwards, late, I’ll sit in my family kitchen, hulling stone fruit, listening to the piano. Then sitting, still, lights dimmed to amber. And tomorrow my family will wake in a leisurely fashion, no small people driving us to early-morning ritual. We’ll cook, and eat, and make each other cry with laughter, and choose not to wonder how many more repeats of this we’ll be allowed. The season has its stories. Through them all is that little stomach-twist of anticipation, an echo of what I felt as a child. I can feel it stirring.
And so this is Christmas. And what have we done? We’ve done this. Not the way that junk-mail brochures told us it should be, but this, our own thing, that we have made. My lifetime’s worth of stories, and the gratitude that the collection may be added to. However long it took, I’m glad I found my way back to them in the end.
First published on The Punch.