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.

The author has rediscovered the wonder Christmas held as a child. Why we illustrated that point with this picture is anyone's guess.

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.

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30 comments

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    • Fiona says:

      10:46am | 26/12/11

      Beautifully written Geoff, thanks for sharing.

    • Steelbreese says:

      11:01pm | 24/12/11

      , I met with my lawyer yesterday, and on his advice I wish to say the following:

      Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress , non-addictive, gender neutral celebration of the summer solstice holiday practiced with the most enjoyable traditions of religious persuasion or secular practices of your choice with respect for the religious / secular persuasions and / or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all
      I also wish you a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2012, but not without due respect for the calendar of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make our country great (not to imply that AU is necessarily greater than any other country) and without regard to the race, creed, colour, age, physical ability, religious faith or sexual preference of the wishee
      By accepting this greeting, you are accepting these terms:
      This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal
      It is freely transferable with no alteration to the original greeting
      It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for her / him or others and is void where prohibited by law, and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher
      The wish is warranted to perform as expected within the usual application of good tidings for a period of one year or until the issuance of a new wish at the sole discretion of the wisher.

      Best Regards (without prejudice)
      Name withheld (Privacy Act)

    • stephen says:

      02:10pm | 25/12/11

      Pursuant to what Act ?
      (Not you, the Greetings.)

    • Rod Thompson says:

      10:18pm | 24/12/11

      I was enjoying this article until I found it had a happy ending.  What happened to the rage?

    • NESLIHAN KUROSAWA says:

      10:10pm | 24/12/11

      Hi Geoff,

      Curling up in front of an open fire with a bottle of cognac sounds really, really good!  If you could also have the actual white Christmas experience as well.  You could not ask for anything else really!  In most European countries they will experience the White Christmas with all its beauty & glory unlike most Australians.  May be we will just put another shrimp on the BBQ for the rest of the people braving the bitterly cold winter weather, right now!

      However,  living in Australia we just to our imaginations!  Having all those days off during the holidays & lots of good food combined with good company, should be more than enough for a total relaxation mode.  In order to help us with our New Year’s Resolutions to make us happier & fulfilled individuals.  We all have bad habits such as eating, drinking & smoking too much. But that is OK because we intend to change all that for the better in 2012!!  Best regards to your editors.

    • Jim says:

      08:57pm | 24/12/11

      Fantastic creative writing style as mentioned by others, I’m a recent convert to Atheism however I do love Christmas as it is one fantastic tradition! Like many other traditions, a lot comes from religion. I had similar feeling that the romance of Christmas and other festive events have bypassed me. This year is different only because I’ve chosen to embrace it for it’s social and good feeling even if not believing in the notion of god and what it represents. Religion has so much to offer however the so called ‘facts’ of Jesus Christ born in the Middle East 2000 years ago to spread the word of ‘god’ while other civilizations existed in the same era around other parts of the world having completely different gods just baffles me!
      Good on you Lemon, for having the guts and honesty to say what you feel. Keep tradition alive! Sing with your heart, enjoy life and be kind to your fellow man. You don’t need god to be kind and know your place on the Earth. Merry Xmas everyone!

    • Dave C says:

      07:32pm | 24/12/11

      I was bought up Prodestant (Uniting) and am now a very recent covert to being an agnostic/atheist. However tonight I went with my catholic wife and in laws to an outdoor mass. The reason is I resepect Christians of all denominations and a good genuine Christian is a genuine good person. For this reason I say lets not be disrespectful towards Christians especially on one of the most important days/times of the Christian year. The thing is many atheists just cant resist to put the boot into Christians and mock them. Genuine modern Christianity isnt hurting anyone.

      As for this article normally I bag out Lefty Lemon as a typical Christian hating athiest lefty. But not this time, this was a great article about the battle between bad and good childhood memories and how those memories effects us today.

      Merry Christmas Geoff and to all readers

    • RyaN says:

      09:30pm | 26/12/11

      Dave C: You are clearly not an atheist then, I don’t believe but I certainly couldn’t stand to be classified as an atheist considering how pathetic, infantile and stupid they can be. Agnostic is probably a better word, at least you aren’t one of those scum bags who haven’t really come to terms with whether they believe or not, they just want to not believe and try to justify their position by disrespecting others.

    • splash says:

      10:21am | 25/12/11

      Dave,
      i am catholic and agree with you. God has given all a free will to think and choose as we please. it all comes down to faith.

      The atheists and lefties can mock and put down Christianity as much as they want, it means nothing to us.

      But what is noteable is that these same people have not got the balls to degrade islam and Allah, or the jewish religion .
                      .They would be in big shit if they did.
      One can draw conclusions from this about religion and the people that kick Christianity.

    • Utopia Boy says:

      07:27pm | 24/12/11

      Nice article.
      Missing my kids right about now….

    • Clay says:

      03:16pm | 24/12/11

      As with Beth I also greatly appreciate your writing style. It’s nice to be surprised by good journalism every now and then. To make a personal point, I am a recent convert to Christianity having been an atheist my entire life. As such, I share your new found enthusiasm for tradition and the importance of the rituals of culture that provide a steady continuity to our civilization.

      I’m afraid the idea of Christmas has been hijacked by the secular rituals of materialism and kitsch in the same manner that the pagan festival of Saturnalia was hijacked by Christian ritual. We are a modern, busy affluent people. By virtue of this we are then left wandering and unconsoled by the very real transcendent qualities of our existence. However, there is a path back from this. A path that leads away from the materialism and kitsch into a place of ecstatic longing for the source of all truth and goodness, of all beauty and joy.

      The path to the source is difficult, but the journey is simple. The simplicity is hidden within what matter’s most to all of us and is universal, but we seldom recognize it. It is the unconditional love for one for another , it is the courage of the soldier, it is what is present in Beethoven and Rembrandt but what is lacking in Lady Gaga and Andy Warhol, it is the uncorruptable naivety of childhood. The snapshots of our most treasured moments.

      Merry Christmas and peace and good will unto all mankind.

    • Clay says:

      11:42am | 25/12/11

      ‘it is what is present in Beethoven and Rembrandt but what is lacking in Lady Gaga and Andy Warhol’ Just to be clear here, I’m referring to these peoples artworks and not their personal characters. Although it undoubtedly reflects.

    • Clay says:

      11:37am | 25/12/11

      @Tom Andy Warhol is a joke and his career was built on that very fact. There is nothing expressed in anything he’s done that reflects anything real. Just mocking the past for it’s own sake. Kitsch. His greatest irony is the fact that he lived in a house surrounded by classical artworks.

      @acotrel Read again, closely. Never once did I mention god nor exclude anyone from peace and goodwill. Assuming Lady Gaga and Andy Warhol are aliens of course, which isn’t a too far out consideration by the look of them.

    • acotrel says:

      05:52am | 25/12/11

      What have Lady Gaga and Andy Warhol done to be excluded from ‘peace and goodwill unto all mankind’ ? Is our god selective ?

    • Tom says:

      11:23pm | 24/12/11

      Yes to the memory of Saturnalia and no to the apostrophe in “matter’s” and the bagging of Warhol.  Happy festive season to you and all.

    • I, Claudia says:

      02:51pm | 24/12/11

      I hope this happens to me one day.

    • P. Darvio says:

      02:18pm | 24/12/11

      Embrace Christmas?  – I’m now more leaning to start celebrating “Happy Holy Circumcision Day” on the 1st of January - surely a date far more important than the 25th December because for 1200 years (almost as long as Christmas itself) Christians celebrated the “Holy Foreskin “ until it went missing in mysterious circumstances not that long ago.

      I know all Christians (maybe even all Atheists as well) will want the missing “Holy Foreskin” found – because it’s the only real possible physical evidence Christians have and it is mentioned in the Bible - and one can only hope they do find it and then start to celebrate “IT” again on 1st January.

      http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/12/31/happy-holy-circumcision-day.html

      Happy Holidays, may Santa (a secular tradition) bring you all lots of goodwill and gifts, and happy Boxing Day (another secular tradition), drive carefully and avoid those cars with a fish symbol on their back window as they can’t seem to drive very well.

    • SydSteve says:

      09:48am | 28/12/11

      @ Zac
      “thinks you are one intolerant package, they are ashamed of your comments”
      “Why atheism is a demonstrably dangerous creed—and a cowardly one
      Why atheists fear the Big Bang theory “

      Those in glass houses Zac.

    • marley says:

      09:46am | 25/12/11

      @SimpleSimon - like P.Darvio, you are ascribing to all Christians the beliefs of what are now fringe groups.  The whole concept was never accepted by the protestant churches, and is not followed by mainstream Catholics today.  So attributing belief in the holy foreskin to all Christians, as Darvio does, is intellectually dishonest.  And limiting one’s criticism of religion to one religion only is hypocritical.

    • acotrel says:

      05:40am | 25/12/11

      Doesn’t that mean that Jesus was Jewish ? And possibly black ? Pauline Hanson wouldn’t like that !

    • Zac says:

      01:23am | 25/12/11

      Darvio,

      Even the residential Athiest or Brightist (LOL) community out here thinks you are one intolerant package, they are ashamed of your comments. No wonder many have started to realise the intolerance of many Atheists like you and wouldn’t want to label themselves Atheists.. This Christ-mas day you are just informing readers Atheists don’t need a god to be intolerant.

      Here is a Christ-mas present for you Darvio:

      WHAT’S SO GREAT ABOUT CHRISTIANITY
      by Dinesh D’Souza

      Why Christianity explains the universe, and our origins, better than atheism does

      Why Christianity and science are not irreconcilable, but science and atheism might be

      Why the alleged sins of Christianity—the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Galileo affair—are vastly overblown

      Why atheism is a demonstrably dangerous creed—and a cowardly one

      Why evolution does not threaten Christian belief

      Why atheists fear the Big Bang theory

      Why Christianity is the ultimate defense of man’s free will

      Why ultimately you can’t have Western civilization—and all we value from it—without the Christianity that gave it birth

    • SimpleSimon says:

      09:49pm | 24/12/11

      @Marley - Holy Circumcision Day is legit and still celebrated, particularly in parts of France, despite a papal decree to stop people talking about Jesus’ boy parts. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Prepuce

    • marley says:

      04:48pm | 24/12/11

      @P. Darvio:  Funny.  I don’t remember you making equivalent comments when Diwali came around a couple of months ago.  No doubt you missed that one.  But I’m sure you’re gearing up to satirize Eid al Adha. Aren’t you?  And what about Hannukah?  Surely that one’s worth a paragraph or two as well.

      I look forward to your witty, insightful and educated comments on these and other religious festivals in the coming year.  But I doubt I’ll see them.

    • scott says:

      02:01pm | 24/12/11

      Thanks Geoff. Just thanks.

    • beth says:

      01:24pm | 24/12/11

      great article, i love your writing style. Just wanted to give a different view on your point about following old cultural teachings, i know you were just trying to show that it isn’t relevant today, but christian’s don’t follow an ancient culture, we follow the teachings of Jesus, who being God transcends time and culture. In the bible, when Jesus wakes Jairus’s 12 year old daughter from death he he calls her ‘little girl’ even though back in that time and culture she would have been seen as an adult

    • The Galah from Hervey Bay says:

      09:56am | 26/12/11

      Acotrel…it’s not a matter of professing one’s following Christ’s teachings….it is a matter of one’s declaration of faith in what he had to say whilst he was here on earth. ( oh and please acrotel - can the usual challenges to an individual’s faith - you will never shake that faith )

    • acotrel says:

      05:35am | 25/12/11

      @beth
      ’ we follow the teachings of Jesus, who being God transcends time and culture.’

      Surely you mean that you PROFESS to follow the teachings of Jesus ?

    • scumbag says:

      01:15pm | 24/12/11

      It’s all been done today, move on, post an artice AFTER New Years. That and Xmas (note not Christmas), is bound to bring family or solo experiences. Meanwhile, Geoff, take a break, knock yourself out, and come back with some wit shit in NY. Cheers mate.

    • Ricky_B says:

      06:13am | 25/12/11

      Awwwwww, poor scumbag, having to watch Australia & half the world celebrate one of our christian holidays.What happened to cause such hostility scumbag? Did Christmas bully you at school? Have a VERY Merry Christmas (note not xmas) you bitter grub smile

    • Coop says:

      04:51pm | 24/12/11

      Good name. It suits you.
      Merry Christmas Scumbag

 

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