My family tree has exceedingly stunted branches - one boozy, Irish and Catholic, the other teetotal, English and tepidly Protestant. Childhood Christmases were therefore a muddle of Orange and Green attempts at festivity, neither of which were much fun. My worst Christmas was NOT the one at which I was served a slice of my own finger after impetuously reaching for a piece of turkey while it was being carved.
All around me my classmates propped sunburned forearms on their desks, licked their Black Beauty pencils, and scribbled happily with effortless Total Holiday Recall, while I sat paralysed by Complete Holiday Amnesia. The little I remembered was too shabby or too shameful to reveal and so I wrote accounts of purely imaginary holidays.
Holidays which didn't involve boredom, tears, divided loyalties or a father who blundered into stationery objects when he'd had too much to drink. These lying essays were probably my first formal forays into a genre which now has a respectable name: creative non-fiction.
Which brings me to the difficulty inherent in this particular posting. It's got me feeling the way I did back in primary school - burdened by the need to report in glowing terms on a Christmas full of Drummers Drumming, Pipers Piping, Lords-a-Leaping, Ladies Dancing, Maids-a-Milking, Swans-a-Swimming, Geese-a-Laying, Gold Rings, Colly Birds, French Hens or Turtle Doves and of course that infuriating Partridge in a Pear Tree.
However, five decades have made me bold enough to come out as a person who enjoys a slight Christmas. I've thrown aside the childish impulse to make my Christmas bigger and better than real life. In fact I’ve decided that smaller is better, that it’s often the ephemeral moments that are the most special and for which I am most grateful.
1. An early morning Christmas berry-picking expedition with friends. The berry farm is quiet and still and the air smells as sweet as candyfloss. The pendant berries on the sunny side of the vines are hot and luscious. The fruit on the shadowed sides of the vines is chilly but succulent in the mouth. We leave the farm with hands stained crimson with berry juice and old ice-cream containers brimming with berries.
2. I make an elaborate Christmas package to send to my daughter in Melbourne. It involves a homemade card with a large mock stamp sealed inside a transparent envelope. I go to the Post Office for a stamp. It’s crowded and the air is full of barely suppressed impatience. The scanning of dozens of mental to-do lists is almost audible. It only occurs to me as I join the inevitable queue, that a standard-issue mailing label will obliterate my creative packaging. By the time I reach the front of the queue I'm resigned to the probability. However, the kind woman behind the counter takes in my artistic efforts at a glance. She swiftly chooses a Christmas stamp which complements my package. Then she applies the stamp and an airmail sticker oh-so-carefully, that my package looks even better than it did before.
3. friend has volunteered to keep the Victory Community garden watered over Christmas. Early one evening I go along to help. She tinkers with pumps and switches and a big sprinkler begins to throw lazy arcs of water over the centre of the garden. Meanwhile I stand, thumb over the end of a hose, plying marigolds, lettuce, parsley, cabbage, tomato plants with water. The smell of water on parched earth is delicious. Unbidden, William Carlos Williams poem about the "red wheel/ barrow/glazed with rain/water/ beside the white/ chickens" comes to mind.
4. At high tide on Christmas morning, friends take me to a swimming spot off Rocks Road. It's a revelation. People of all ages and sizes are perched like gannets on the concrete ledges above the water exchanging local gossip and Christmas greetings. They move happily along their perch to accommodate new arrivals, or shift their feet out of the way of those departing wrapped in towels and sarongs. The swimmers in the water, heads sleek and wet look like seals. For my friends, this dip off Rocks Road is an almost daily ritual during summer. For them water is a source of renewal, almost a meditation. For me it's usually just cold wet stuff to be avoided. However, on this Christmas morning I dive into the clear cool water and understand, as if for the first time, the pleasures of a land-based creature who can chose to become amphibian for a while.
That’s it . . . the simplicity and kindness I enjoyed this Christmas. and I’ve laid to rest all those ghosts of Christmas Essays Past.
To commemorate this triumph perhaps I've revised the lyrics of that old Bing Crosby classic
"I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas"?.
It goes like this . . .
"I'm dreaming of a slight Christmas
With every e-card that I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be slight.
I'm dreaming of a slight Christmas
Unlike the ones that laid me low,
Where there's no family frisson/
And the children glisten
May all your Christmases delight".
FOR THE TRADITIONALISTS:
The old version of I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas