Happy Christmas! Hey, what are you reading this for? Go out and get some sunshine! What am I writing this for? Ah, well, on our side of the dateline it’s still Christmas Eve. The small boy is napping, and the big boy and his dad have gone off to procure some last minute trimmings for the pavlova we are taking to dinner tomorrow, in a gesture of antipodean fellow-feeling – we’re doing Christmas dinner with Australian friends. (Hopefully it won’t all end in a fist-fight about who invented the damn thing.)
There will even be a flaming pudding, mate. And, unlike the resourceful lads in The Big Six, our latest instalment of Swallows and Amazons, who light theirs with methylated spirits and eat it with extra sauce to take away the aftertaste, we’ll be using the traditional brandy.
We’ve also made dozens of miniature Christmas pies, and some cup-cake sized Christmas cakes, from a recipe in the NZ Women’s Weekly that arrived by accident this week instead of my Listener. Not that I’m complaining – it’s a very welcome surprise for the homesick expat at this time of year, overflowing with news from the old country and glimpses of home. Spice Wars Backstage Catfights! What the Royals are Doing for Christmas! And some lovely pictures of baby Borat.
I feel all caught up now.
Pretty soon we’ll be picking up the phone and calling the families back home. Of course the big boy is hip to the notion of time zones and has been making a detailed, eloquent, and persistent argument that he should already be opening the presents that came all the way from New Zealand. I’m holding the line so far, but call me around dinner time and see if it turned into a Maginot line thanks to the six year old's rhetorical blitzkrieg.
We’re basically so non-religious as to be cheerfully irreligious, so his understanding of the reason for the season is haphazard. I’ve given him the comparative belief system primer on how most cultures that live in the northern hemisphere have some sort of celebration in the dark days of winter, usually involving candles or lots of twinkling lights. Makes sense to him, although he thinks fireworks would be more effective.
He’s also picked up the odd bit of info from school – which is officially non-religious (the music teacher can give them Jingle Bells, but no mangers, no angels, and certainly no confusing lyrics about ground young virgins) but at the same time concerned to represent all the children’s experiences. So at first he came home bursting with the news that his friend Benjamin celebrates Harmonica, the birthday of God-David.
A few corrections later and he is able to inform anyone who wants to know that, and I quote, "Hanukkah celebrates the bravery of the Jewish people." Also, that it involves eight nights of presents. EIGHT NIGHTS! Whereas Christmas, that inferior version, is merely the birthday of God-Jesus and involves only one present delivery, thus celebrating the parsimoniousness of the non-Jewish people.
He is less clear on the details of Kwanzaa and Eid, and Festivus didn’t get a look-in at all. (Matariki? Well, as the lady in the lift at the library said the other day when I answered her question about where I was from: "Nope. Never heard of that one.")
He is, however, a fundamentalist Santa Clausian, a devout believer in the entity you might call God-Santa. (Funny, his only other knowledge of gods comes from Astérix: "By Toutatis!" is a new and regular exclamation around these parts, along with excellent coinages like "Holy flipping cripes!")
The real-time Google Earth Santa Tracker from Norad has only confirmed his faith. OMG, check out Santa swooping past the Sky Tower! (I know - Norad? Talk about swords into ploughshares! We really are post-Cold War: no nervous nellies hitting the nuke button at the first glimpse of Rudolph’s Chernobylised schnozz).
They didn’t have online Santa trackers when we were kids. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe, I say. Mind you, we did have hard visual evidence in the form of an empty bottle of beer and the crumbs of a Christmas pie. Yes, I know what you're going to say, you knavish unbelievers. It was Mum and Dad who ate it. Well, it wasn't. We asked them, and they swore they hadn’t, and that’s good enough for me. Amen.
I know there’s plenty of debate about whether it’s healthy, wise, or moral to promote fictional deities, especially ones destined to cause an inevitable and possibly traumatic loss of innocence. It's funny, though. Despite being pretty smart on the whole physics of time and space, our little John the Baptist buys the Clausian creed hook, line, and sinker -- even though one of his grandfathers has spent the last few weeks playing Santa, perhaps in a mall near you.
My compromise is to reject the whole "naughty or nice" clause, because that just seems unfair, not to mention unwise given the tendency of Big Days to lead directly to Meltdowns. A gift is a gift. And besides, if giftiness is correlated to naughtiness and niceness, it means all the poor kids have been very wicked indeed and all the rich kids are paragons of youthful virtue. Which just ain’t so.
Some kids clearly get a kick out of this moral accounting, though. Czech friends of ours take part in an annual Bohemian tradition, whereby on the eve St Nicholas’s Day children are visited by a fearsome trio: St Nick himself, the Devil, and a friendly Angel. The Devil’s job is to menacingly ask the little ones if they’ve been bad, in which case he will put them in his sack and take them away. Sensible children deny everything and hide, trembling, behind a parent. Our little mate Pepichek is always the first to volunteer to ride with the devil. I guess it looks like more fun. Or maybe he can see his Dad under the totally dodgy black make-up.
Anyway, our Santa will merely fill the stockings with small treats, whereas the big gifts will come from family. Theoretically this should make the eventual transition into disbelief a little easier. I’m looking forward, a few years from now, to inculcating the bigger boy into the joyful mysteries, so he can help preserve the magic for the little guy. Just coming up two (how did that happen?), he is mostly obsessed with trees, good little pagan that he is.
Our tree this year is unconventional: some large branches from one of our lilac trees that didn’t make it through the summer, spray-painted silver and hung with decorations and lights. It makes the lyrics of "O Christmas Tree" moot, but it looks super-cool, we don’t have to water it, and it doesn’t drop needles on the floor.
Plus there was the unexpected entertainment value of watching the wildlife adapt to the gap in the garden. Christmas tree: free. Naughty squirrel, scared off the birdfeeder by brave cat Huckle, doing 360 degree flip when jumping for now nonexistent branch: priceless.
So it’s off to wait for the guy with the big beard. Part of me wishes that we’d thought to come up with our own seasonal deity, like these guys. Irving the Snowchicken? Pure genius. Plus, it’s true: pants are bigger than stockings.
Here’s one final seasonal link, by way of a reward for reading all the way to the end of this when you should be out on the beach, in the bush, or simply lying around in a python-like state of digestion.
Best dinner-party trick ever: turning citrus fruit into candles. All you need is a sharp vege knife, some relatively firm-skinned mandarins (Spanish clementines work very well), and some olive oil. It works best with as long a wick as possible, so you might have to casually peel a few offstage to really set it up. They look and smell beautiful, and cast a gorgeous glow.
Of course, you lucky buggers with your long days of summer will have to wait longer than we will for it to get dark. We'll be lighting the candles around afternoon teatime. Fair's fair, you were Santa's first stop.
Happy solstice-type-thing, whichever way you celebrate it. Let there be light! Ho ho ho!
Stop Press! Australian friends prostrated by tummy bug! Christmas feast cancelled! Looks like we will be having that pavlova fist-fight on our own. A chance to start our own tradition after all...