I was chatting to Santa the other day about who’s getting what for Christmas. Just checking that I hadn’t doubled up on anything. Actually, this year, we're giving a sort of bulk present, in the shape of an honorary water-buffalo, or perhaps a llama or some chickens. We’re all so stocked up with goodies that it feels only right to share the semi-aquatic bovine love with a family somewhere else who needs livestock.
You might want to duck as it flies overhead, though.
But there are still a few special presents to take care of, and Santa said I could do the honours. All right, who’s first?
Aha! Come over here, New Zealand, and sit on my lap. Oof. Gosh, you have grown, haven’t you?
And have you been a good country this year? You have? Granting basically equal family status to everyone via the Civil Unions Bill, nice start. Cutting out loathsome smoking in bars, good on ya. Letting that unfortunate Mr Zaoui out of prison in time for Christmas, although a bit late for Eid Al-Fitr… Anyway.
I’ve got you something rather nice, something I’ll be sending by airmail : my friend Alice TePunga Somerville. After earning her PhD over here at Cornell University, Alice will be teaching Maori literature at Victoria University, starting in the New Year.
Now, Arihia would kick me if she knew I was writing this. Kaore te kumara e korero mo tona ake reka -- it is not for the kumara to speak of its own sweetness, after all. So I thought I’d give you a few tasting notes. She’s a stellar person, a scholar and mentor without match, and you’re a very lucky little Aotearoa indeed to have her back on the job. Crack open a cold Tui for her, she’s earned it.
I’m also sending you a couple of cuzzies, Gaz and Caro, who’ve been doing the OE thing. They came to stay with us on the final leg, and I'm so very glad they did. I hadn’t seen Gareth for quite a while, and my wee cousin has turned into a handsome young man of consequence -- with a partner to match. You’ll be glad to have them back, too.
Them, and everyone who’s arriving home this season with big gifts and good ideas. Think of it as a little present from the expat fairy. Off you go, New Zealand. You keep being a good country, and make your Mum proud.
Who’s next? Oooh, Mr Hubbard. You have been a naughty boy. A lump of coal for you, despite your invention of the awesome feijoa breakfast cereal.
Yes, I’m talking about your “think of the children”
Yes, I’m talking about your “think of the children”stunt.
Let’s be clear. I have no objections to thinking of the children. I think about the children all week, in all sorts of ways.
I think about Busytot, who wants to grow his hair long, and who knows an awful lot of colour words for a boy, who’s statistically likely to grow up straight but you never know. I think about his big six-year-old girlfriend, who is his personal guide to all things girly and pink; her mum literally wrote the book on pregnancy for lesbians, and is one of the coolest parents I know. I think about the sisters we hung out with over the summer, whose mums were "best women" at our wedding. They're the picture of a regular happy family.
Then I think about the children who aren’t so lucky. The ones who are endangered by alcohol, neglect, over-investment, sarcasm, sexism, the trans-generational effects of a culture of abuse – a whole list of things that doesn’t include having two parents of the same gender. I think about all the children growing up in unhappy homes despite having a Mum and a Dad. I think about all the kids in foster care who’d give anything for one good parent, let alone two. I think about some of my students, children of divorce, whose sadness is still abundantly visible years later; and others who wish their parents would just get it over with.
And I think about kids growing up in families and communities that don’t honour their whole selves, kids who learn early on to hide who they are, because the message is that they aren’t really human beings if they love someone who is too like them.
Dammit, I want all of those kids to have a happy life. And I want them all to grow up knowing that they can, if they want, have a “happiest day of their life” with someone they love.
Of course we should think of the children, Mr Hubbard. We should think of all the children. But I happen to think we should meet them first. Not conjure them up out of bogus statistics.
What’s that? A guarded apology? Good start. But wait, you want to check the statistics again just to be sure? With respect, sir, I suggest you check yourself.
Who’s next? Oh, Busytot! You are a happy chappy, aren’t you? All full of big fancy smartypants talk. The other day, for example, you said, quite out of the blue: “Ooh, I like your outfit. Who’s your tailor?”
I was flattered and impressed. Turned out it was a quote from your sacred Muppets video -- the one with a young Mark Hamill flouncing around in his intergalactic Luke Skywalker safari suit. (This is the same video that inspired you to suggest “I know, I’ll be Paul Simon, and your bra-strap can be the guitar. Twannnnnng! Loves me like a rock!”)
Lately you’ve developed what counts, for you, as a fussy palate. The boy who eats everything was heard to say “I don’t like the octopus. It’s too… octopussy.” Cue James Bond theme tune.
You’ve also gotten rather bossy. I overheard you manipulating your father like a Ouija board as he sat there with pencil and paper:
Daddy, can you draw a train for me?
Start with the smokestack and the dinger. And the puffer. (It needs a dinger so it can go DING DING! And a puffer to go PFF PFFF.)
And also wheels and a face. That's what my trains have!
Also a driver, please. Can you draw me a driver?
Can you draw a caboose?
Ooh and a coal pretender. That will be good.
Thank you! That's good.
Ooh but I need a pusher blade on the front too. A cow catcher. It pushes cows out of the way. Draw a pusher blade.
Now take it to the bideo store and show it to the man so you can get a train bideo for me. Yes, that's what train bideo I want. Take it to the bideo shop cos they have bideos there, and I want the Thomas bideo, cos it has all sorts of trains in it.
True, you were sick and lying on the couch with a hand to your fevered brow, but by the time you’d finished your dictation you were bolt upright and quite healthy-looking. Laughter is the best medicine, but that tank engine comes close.
You’re quite the trainspotter these days. Every day you set up a complicated track, assemble the various engines and appoint any handy grown-ups as drivers. You direct operations with a firm hand and an even firmer voice (secretly, we call you the Fat Controlfreak).
And you’ve certainly gotten the Christmas spirit. We assembled the tree – a handsome seven-footer, hunted and gathered by Daddy and Aunty Lizzie on her weekend visit from London – and you put the Santa up on the “very high top.” Every day you ask “What day is it today? Is it Christmas yet? Can we open the presents?” and tomorrow, we’ll say yes.
And now for Ken the Fireman. I’ve joked about fantasy firefighters before, but you, sir, were the real deal. Busytot sailed through his first visit to the dentist because we’d promised him a visit to your fire station next door. Teeth polished and new toothbrush in hand, we headed off to inspect the engines (he got it into his head that he would like to hug a fireman as well, but I wasn’t promising anything).
You saw us coming and invited us inside, where you gave one delighted three-year-old the royal treatment. You sat him up in the driver’s seat of the biggest engine and switched the lights on. You showed him your boots and fireproof gear and oxygen tanks. You explained the impressive dials on the side of the engine, and Busytot told you how brave he was at the dentist.
You answered our big question (“Why why why why New Haven fire engines are white? Why they are?”). And then, for the coup de grâce, you ran up two flights of stairs in order to slide down the fireman’s pole – setting off a gratifying fit of giggles by screeching to a halt halfway down.
The best gift of all was that not once did you take your eyes off the little boy in front of you to wink or roll your eyes or crack a joke with the parent. You listened to everything he managed to squeak out in his awed little voice. You treated him like a person in his own right. And at the end, you gave him the hug he almost didn’t dare ask for.
As we walked off, Busytot seemed a foot taller. “I have a big friend,” he chirped. “He’s a FIREMAN!”
May your own holidays bring you such unassailable joy.