A quiet Christmas: just D and me. Sent me thinking about the last few Christmases, and memorable Christmases in the past.
My parents left Western Australia in 1950, arriving in Sydney in about 1954. They were part of a cohort of fellow Western Australians. Many, including my father, were scientists for whom there was little in the West: they were internal expatriates. Most of them lacked Sydney relatives, and even before I was born, they had taken to spending their Christmases together, and specifically the evening of Christmas Day. This became for us as children an ad hoc Christmas extended family. Save for a few Christmases which for one reason or another we spent out of Sydney, we gathered this way every Christmas in this way up until, I think, 1986, though by this time my sisters had left Sydney and the only other family involved was that of my father’s best friend, with whom he had moved out of college into a flat in 1945.
We were also friends with the Lxes, who initially moved in across the street in 1963, and later moved just down the road. Usually we would see them on Christmas morning, when presents (apart from those urgent ones which just could not wait) were exchanged. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Lxes were also without an extended family in Sydney, as they (or to be precise, the parents and the first two children out of four) had migrated from the UK.
There wasn’t much overt religion in all of this at all. My main contact with religious Christmas was through music, first in a boys choir, and later at a church school, where Christmas was an important part of the musical year.
OK, I’m being coy about the year. Allow me my foibles.
The Christmas after I left school was my first Christmas singing in the choir at St James King Street, Sydney. For some reason, I went to the morning service on Advent Sunday. (This was not entirely out of the blue: from time to time when at school I had gone to evensong on weekdays at St Andrews Cathedral on the way home.) At this time at St James, the practice in Advent was for the clergy, followed by the choir and accompanied by the various processional accessories (crucifer, thurifer, etc) to process around the church singing the Litany, which is a set of penitentially-minded prayers. To each prayer of a long series, the choir would respond (in 5-part harmony based on a setting by Tallis) “We beseech Thee to hear us, O Lord.” I was hooked, and joined the choir that very day. This was the beginning of almost 20 years of involvement in church music and the ecclesiastical camp which that entailed.
I can’t say that I have ever been able to believe in God in any but the most metaphorical of ways. In the same way that converts motivated by dispensation of food by missionaries are sometimes known as “rice Christians,” I was in truth (despite some initial enthusiasm) a “music Christian.” In addition to the music, the emotional rhythm of the church year was something which definitely resonated with me. One part of that rhythm is the way in which the greatest feasts are preceded by preparatory penitential seasons, namely Advent and Lent (Good Friday has always been my favourite day in the church year). Even though now I do not profess any religious faith, I have to acknowledge that Christmas approached in this manner is more rewarding than the tacky agglomeration of Santas and reindeer which seem to make up so much of the televised popular Christmas.
The high point of Christmas at St James was definitely the midnight mass, celebrated with a packed church and generally in sweltering conditions (we often wore very little underneath our cassocks). It normally finished with Adestes Fideles some time after 1.00 am, by which time we would all be exhausted, exhilarated and dripping with sweat. Christmas Morning itself was usually something of an anti-climax.
Even in the two years in which I lived and worked in Canberra after I first graduated, I returned to Sydney at Christmas and sang at St James. When I returned to Sydney I rejoined the choir. The choir aspired to be a men and boys choir in the Anglican choral tradition, though necessity and circumstances diluted this with some girls and women. I drifted away from the choir and the church at some stage not long after I became a school teacher. The atmosphere and primarily homosocial environment were too much like work.
I could be wrong about the year for this – it may be 1987. I cooked my own Christmas Pudding (try asking for suet at a butcher’s!). I spent Christmas, sweltering but well fed, in the tiny Newtown terrace in Bailey Street with my then housemate/sub tenant, Hz. This was my first Christmas spent away from my parents – not because I had moved away, but because my father had moved away – to Canberra. By this time both my sisters had left Sydney.
There is a rather good picture of this occasion which I will try to find and put up later (I don’t want to delay this already over long and overdue post on its account).
In 1989 I had returned to university to study law. On my way to Glasgow to compete in the World I-V (Intervarsity) Debating Competition, I stayed with my elder sister, L, in her non-centrally-heated (and not very heated at all, in fact) house in Holloway, London N7. We were joined just before Christmas by my younger sister, R, and her then boyfriend, G. They had left Sydney the previous August for their big trip round the world and were subsequently to stay in London for another 18 months. This was our first Christmas reunion as adult siblings.
My friend Lars, whom I had first met in a music shop on Unter den Linden in (East) Berlin in 1987, arrived by train for his first trip to the west following he coming-down of the wall. He travelled with a bag full of apples and hard little cakes together with his entire family’s allowance of foreign currency.
Funnily enough, two memories which have stayed with me from that Christmas involve beggars. Two nights before Christmas, at Covent Garden on our way back from the ballet (very cheap tickets arranged by a friend), Lars, who to my knowledge only had ₤3.50 to tide him over for another week, gave 50p to a beggar. This was a tourist experience for him as East Germany did not have beggars. I was dismayed, not to say furious, because I was sure that the beggar had more cash than Lars, and because I knew that it would fall to me to make up the shortfall. I wasn’t so flush with funds myself. I also remember being abused by another beggar on our way to midnight mass at All Saints Margaret Street the next night. I used to be able to remember more of this exchange but now I just remember the scene and rejoinders exchanged whilst rushing to get to the service.
This Christmas was spent travelling as a (paid for but not paid) pianist and bass in the choir of the school where I was teaching. We spent Christmas in Paris. On Christmas Eve, I went with A, the (married, female) organist to Sacre Coeur for Midnight Mass, where her former teacher was the organist. Midnight Mass from the organ loft was a memorable experience, but not quite so memorable as the sinking feeling when, having dallied for post-mass conversation and winding down with the organist, we missed the last metro. No taxis were to be had, and we ended up spending the night at the organist’s place sleeping on couches. This caused no little consternation back at the hotel when, by the next morning, we had not returned, as the choir was singing the main morning mass at Notre Dame. A, in particular, was needed to play the organ. We were back in time for breakfast and the service, though I had to have a nap back at the hotel and missed a by all reports splendid Christmas lunch before returning to sing a concert at Notre Dame that afternoon.
L came out to Sydney with her then new (and still, in 2007) boyfriend, Ix. It was a very hot summer and this was probably a shock to Ix, especially as they were sleeping on a mattress in the living room of my one-bedroom flat (a quarter of a house) in Petersham. The first day they arrived, they drove into the city to pick me up an take me to Clovelly for a swim. My car had blown its head gasket, so that Clovelly was pretty much the limit of its range before it would boil dry.
This did not bode well for our trip down to Canberra to spend Christmas with my father and stepmother. Taking the exit just before Campbelltown to fill up on water, we drove straight into a police random breath test. I did not have my licence with me, not having seen it around my flat for some time, and I probably didn’t help things when I explained this to the police officer, telling him that I had lost it, but “literally, not figuratively.” (What I was trying to convey was that I had not been disqualified.) Fortunately, he could see that we were in for a long trip ahead and he took pity on me and let us proceed. It must have taken us 7 or 8 hours, pottering along no faster than 80 and stopping from time to time to refill and cool down.
At Canberra we went swimming au naturel in the Murrumbidgee at Kambah Pool. This included a memorable encounter with an AIDS outreach worker who clearly loved his job…
I declined an invitation to Canberra for Christmas because I wanted to spend it with my then (and first announced to my father) boyfriend, O.
In Perth with D. R, who had given birth to a son, M, that September, joined us from Geraldton, and L flew out from London. Various other West Australian relatives, as well as M’s father, joined us. Although we had been living together for 3 years, this was D’s and my first Christmas together, as previously he had always been in Shanghai with his family leading up to Chinese New Year. In January, D and I flew off to Shanghai, leaving both my sisters in residence in our house before they went their various ways. I later learnt that they put up with no hot water for three days because the pilot light in the (outside wall-mounted) gas hot water blew out in a strong wind and they didn’t know how to or think to re-light it.
Back in Sydney. L came out from London; R and M from the West. My father and stepmother came up from Canberra. This was my sisters’ and my father’s and my first reunion in almost 10 years.
D and I flew from Perth (where I was working up to the very last minute) to London, and spent Christmas with L and Ix. This was D’s first trip to Europe. Something went wrong with the message settings on my mobile phone and I ended up running up a bill of some hundreds of dollars, mostly attributable to conversations in the nature of (in a supermarket, for example) “what aisle are you in?”
D went to China. L, R, M and my father and stepmother came to Sydney.
2005 & 2006
I spent both of these Christmases in Beijing, where I was studying Chinese at BLCU (Beijing Language and Culture University, though it has now dropped “Culture” from its official name). This was my first time in a non-Christian country for Christmas, which in China is becoming quite a retail festival. If anything, I saw more shop assistants in red santa hats and heard more of those American semi-secular Christmas songs than I had ever heard before. Bizarrely, they were piped throughout the campus at BLCU. In 2005 Christmas fell on a Sunday; in 2006 I had my first ever experience of going to class on Christmas Day.
So what does Christmas mean to me?
D is opposed to Christmas. It offends his communist past and secular present; he objects to its quasi-establishment of a religion which is foreign to him. I try to tell him that Christianity was only grafted onto older festivals, and that it fulfills many of the functions of Chinese New Year (where family reunion is a very important element). My account above shows this, at least by those elements of reunion which I have singled out. D still objects that the Chinese tradition may have superstitious origins but is not theistically religious. That is a tricky point for the drawing of even negative analogies because as far as I can gather the role of deities in Chinese religion/beliefs of the supernatural is quite different from the Western tradition.
I watched with a slighly awful fascination the various Christmas outdoor carol services broadcast on TV. To me they are pretty tacky, mainly because they gather so much of the kitsch of Christmas with so little of the religious element. On one show somebody even sang Irving Berlin’s “Let it snow” – which is the height of our topsy-turvydom, since it is about the winter which we lack. To be fair to these occasions, and to own up to my own mixed feelings in this regard, I’m not much happier with any religious content delivered at them. Like opera in English, the more demotic the cultural form becomes the less I find it conducive to even a temporary suspension of disbelief. It is also possible that the reduced religious content of these affairs is owing to a perfectly decent circumspection about imposing religion on the audience who by now are really after something quite different – even if, for D, there is still not circumspection enough.
I also watched or listened to some of the more churchy occasions, though I think if I went to church I would be bored – all those years as a participant in church services make me impatient of a role as mere spectator! In all of these I couldn’t help being struck by the frequency of cut-away shots of parents with their children.
This brought me to the not altogether startling thought that Christmas is about children – either actual children now, or of recreation in some way of something recalled from childhood. I don’t think it is entirely coincidental that my fellow blogger Jim Belshaw has found himself meditating at this time on cultural memory. In fact, Christmas as we experience it now is a historically recently invented tradition (think Dickens and Prince Albert for starters). I wonder if this served to synthesise traditions when the industrial revolution had done so much to break up much else of traditional life. Subjectively, however, tradition doesn’t need to go back very far to seem almost timelessly inscribed: our own childhoods are about as far back as we can go, supplemented by memories related (such as by way of parental recreation for our sake) to us. Elizabeth Farelly has turned to something of the same theme in the Sydney Morning Herald.