Monday, December 22, 2008


It's Christmas week.

My childhood family celebrated Christmas in a traditional Christian way. My parents were Irish-Italian, mostly Irish if one really gets into it, and the roots of Irish Catholicism ran deep. The whole affair, from my perspective, started with school holidays, and the blessed relief of the end of exams. It was all about the summer holidays.

Yes, Christmas cards were a big deal, the Christmas tree was a very big deal, and coloured lights, the little ones, rainbowed the curve of the stone arch that lead to the front porch. Midnight Mass was romantic for the staying up late, the ceremony, the incense, the music, the coming home in the early hours of the morning, seeing our house twinkling through the front garden, and most of all the magic of walking into a darkened house lit only by the tree, now surrounded by presents.

Christmas day centered around the midday meal, the table elaborately dressed, candles, lollies, muscatels, bonbons, a flower from the garden at each place, and a genuine sense of happiness and well-being. And lots of hydrangeas. They grew freely in the shade by the creek, and were now great clumps of blue around the house, lasting for days, their stems crushed before they were soaked overnight in the big concrete tubs in the downstairs laundry.

Dad would say grace and add his thoughts on the meaning of the day. Dad was softly spoken, generally underwhelming in his public thoughts, but he somehow managed to touch the essence; perhaps it was his natural reticence and lack of gravitas evoking an effect which was just the opposite. We all took notice. He spoke about the birth whose anniversary this whole feast was about, but emphasised it as a birth into poverty and a birth which was to define, for us, as a family, our standards for living, and the birth of a man of whom we should always ask 'what would you do' in our uncertain moments. It is Christmas when I most remember Dad.

I also remember the heat. Heat waves, cicadas, bush-fires, sunburn, and the regular and very Australian ocean deaths by drowning. By New Year, as the Davis Cup played out on the radio, it was all over, and we were back where we started ... the holidays.

So when on Friday the American wife of a work client wished me 'happy holidays' in her twangy Texan accent, I very unreasonably cringed. I just managed to stop myself bleating out another 'happy Christmas' (I refuse to embrace 'merry', never have - it is a word reserved for something I have yet to discover) and smiled back a 'and you too' kind of response. She was, after all, right, if for all the wrong reasons. I can't think of anyone at work who sees this as anything but the end of the year and the beginning of the holidays. The place is littered (decorated is far too complimentary) with Christmas things, loud and gaudy Christmas things with all the look, and sincerity, of having been bought from some department store sell-off, where they once were as genuine in intent as this consumer driven event allowed then, zip. There is nothing other than the sense of relief that we have made it through again. There is certainly no joy. It's joyless. Didn't someone (Annette Benning's character) say that in American Beauty? And there are parties, parties and more parties. They're called Christmas parties, but they're not, they're end-of-year parties.

Despite a particularly jarring and appallingly literal stable-angel-animal-star-wisemen contrivance outside St Mary's cathedral (itself scrubbed and restored to perfection, the contradiction obviously escaping the collectors of congregational funds), the city doesn't look too bad (Taylor Square remains an exception, whatever its curse, it is not being lifted any time soon) and Clover Moore I am your greatest fan. And I readily acknowledge those who do take the meaning of all this to heart, Bill Crews for starters.

But what I can't find, yet I hope is out there, is the sense of any connection between strangers, some recognition that we all have something in common, that something in common my father
spoke about before Christmas lunch, wherein lies the essential message that doing unto others is doing unto self.

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