Monday, December 25, 2006

“It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas”

...or so the song goes. That was not my experience during my first December in Australia.

How can you tell Christmas is coming without the saturation marketing? In Ireland it is as if products not directly associated with Christmas have no sale value at all. But however kitsch the plastic Santas and neon snowmen might look, they were auguries for the Yule season. And while they may have been unwelcome in and of themselves they were the backdrop to the run-up to Christmas and a sign of happy times to come.

This is not the way of things in Australia. Yes, animatronic carollers and baubled fir trees sprout up in department store windows but Christmas is not absolutely in-your-face at every turn. In addition it is the middle of the summer. Father Christmas tends to look a little overdressed in his winter woollies when it’s 37 degrees outside.

In a sense it is not obvious what function Christmas serves during the summer. In the northern hemisphere Christmas is something to look forward to during the long descent into cold, wet, dark days of winter. When it arrives, it is a sign that the days will finally get longer rather than shorter still. Christmas is a counterbalance to the misery of the year’s end. Frankly it’s not needed in the Southern Hemisphere.

If you ask Australians, there childhood memories of Christmas correspond to lengthy summer holidays from school; barbecues and beaches go hand-in-hand with Christmas. Except for those who grew up with an expatriate European matriarch. These were forced to endure the full gamut of festive food in the middle of the summer heat; turkey, ham, gravy, hot puddings and mince pies on sweltering day at the height of summer. Poor souls.

So when does it feel like Christmas? It would seem this depends very much on your personal experiences growing up; maybe your family had a pine Christmas tree, maybe your Dad lit up the house so it was visible from space, perhaps your family went shopping in the bustle of a city centre on Christmas eve or did you all go to midnight mass.

For many the smell of fir trees indoors is the quintessential Christmas mnemonic. Our family’s commitment to a ‘real’ Christmas tree was intermittent at best. We all loved the smell of pine in the house but a real tree was condemned as generative of too much housekeeping. So more often than not we made do with a rather sterile plastic affair. But there was a tradition of sorts around assembling and dressing the thing.

As a child the first harbinger of Christmas for me was coming home to an open fire in our living room. From November on it would get colder and darker earlier and earlier. And by the start of December a fire would be warming the house from the time I arrived home from school. We’ve long since abandoned having a fire in the hearth in favour of other technologies for dispelling draughts and purveying heat. But I still insist on a big open fire on Christmas day. The smell of the smoke, the crackle of coal – that’s Christmas.

Lighting a coal fire indoors, during December, here will warrant a visit from the fire department and will most likely get you arrested. At the very least you'll be (rightly) regarded as eccentric bordering on the insane. And so it doesn't feel a lot like Christmas at all.

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