Christmas wasn’t a huge deal for my family when we were kids – something about being Jewish atheists?
On the other hand, my parents, Julie and Paul, love giving presents, and my mum grew up with Christmas, so we always ended up in a sea of wrapping paper.
Dad didn’t want a Christmas tree or any decorations at home but my grandma lived in the flat behind us and she would put a tree in the corner and we’d help her decorate it. The story of Jesus leaked in. We were at a church primary school and I remember the smell of hay in a manger and learning how to spell myrrh.
There were no food traditions. Mum made plum pudding once or twice but she was the only one who would enjoy it. Grandma made mince pies but I wouldn’t eat dried fruit.
It was a time we would mark but it wasn’t charged, there was no weight to it. We’d even change the day, moving Christmas to the 24th, then getting in the car at 5am on the 25th, beating the traffic and heading along an empty highway, the car piled high with camping gear, dad wearing his red holiday cap.
This season has changed for us over the years. My brother and sister and I have kids of our own. I married a guy whose parents adore Christmas. Family has seemed more and more of an immense fortune as the years have gone on. Never more than this year.
During Melbourne’s second lockdown, I knew we were working towards a “COVID-normal Christmas”. I trusted the grim project. But in the dark days of August and September and Forevertober, I didn’t believe it in my bones. On days when I dropped food to my parents’ front porch and we stood there with masks on talking case numbers, it was not possible to believe we’d be banqueting together in December. So for me, as for many of us, Christmas 2020 has been especially sweet.
I have been wondering about the victory of joy. My father is a Holocaust survivor. He was a refugee. Every celebration, every family gathering is a triumph. Celebrating Christmas is ecstatically gratuitous – all that ham just because we can. It’s also the Australia I want to live in – a mishmash of tradition, an open-armed banquet where you build your own stories and find meaning in being.
There’s lots to be sad about now – those separated by the pandemic, families bereaved by COVID, people with bare tables and empty stockings. I’m also distressed about the Biloela family, alone in detention on Christmas Island, and the refugees imprisoned at the Park Hotel in Carlton. All the mess of trouble humans propagate, the ample cruelty.
So with this heaviness in heart, what place joy? Is it an unthinking slap, a gross misreading? I hope not. The human project uses light to bleach the shadows out of existence, to transform. So I see my merry Christmas thus: as a talisman, a gleam, a joyful parade in prawns and pavlova, a hard-won and heartfelt victory of the possible.
PS: Check out my dad’s website.
PPS: You can listen to this story on my podcast.