Christmas has many meanings, and a complex history. On a personal level, its meaning has changed for me as I’ve aged. When I was a child, it meant presents — sometimes not much at all, because we were very poor for years — and whatever meal Mum was able to cook up; at its best, when we were better off, turkey or chicken, piles of roast vegies, gravy, and for dessert, Christmas pudding with real silver coins in it. When I grew up, it meant family; when there were young children, it centred around them. For many years I was separated from my children, which always hurt, especially at Christmas, but the consolation was family dinners, with my eldest brother and his wife and my mother, when she was alive, the central figures in a large extended family. It was joyful when my daughters were allowed to spend Christmas with me and share the Houen Christmas, which didn’t happen very often.
When I went to live in Western Australia, I missed my family terribly. My first Christmas there was very hot; it was just me and the man I’d gone over there to be with, who became my second husband. I felt really miserable, and couldn’t hide it from him. I’ve had other miserable Christmases, though I wasn’t alone. And even when there were family around, it never felt quite the same as those big gatherings at my brother’s house. Now, my brother is in a secure dementia unit, and his beloved wife died a few weeks ago. The family I knew, that meant so much to me through the most difficult years of my life, is scattered and some are gone.
This Christmas, because the two daughters who live near me were going away, I decided to do something I’ve never done before. I booked in to Binna Burra Lodge, a rainforest retreat in Mt Lamington national park, in SE Queensland. It’s only an hour and a half’s drive from here. I felt strange at first, going there on my own, when most of the guests were in couples or family groups. But I found everyone I met very friendly, and because of the communal meal arrangements, was able to have some interesting conversations with others. So I enjoyed my stay, and it gave me a perspective on what Christmas means to me, and how that has changed.
I am becoming very aware of the excesses — the shopping frenzy, the rush to the shops to buy up food and alcohol as if there were going to be no more on the shelves after Christmas, the worry and stress for parents who can’t afford rich food and presents for the children, the loneliness of those who are on their own, for whatever reason, the desolation of the homeless — and that’s without even looking beyond our relatively affluent cities and towns, to the fringes, to remote communities, to drought-ridden farmers, to other countries where there is not enough food, or which are war torn, or to those in refugee camps.
What would happen if we reversed the custom of giving to each other, which often means we give or receive something we don’t really need, or may not want, and instead, gave the money we usually spend on that to those who really need it? Me and my children have an agreement not to give each other gifts; but I did break that in one case, because the children are still little, so I gave them something the whole family can use and enjoy.
What if, instead of spending large amounts of money on food and drink, more than we need or can eat, we gave that money to the homeless, to the charities that struggle to support those in need?
I was confronted by the excess that prevails when I saw that 70 people had booked in for Christmas lunch at Binna Burra, at the charge of $100 each. I didn’t, as my package included breakfast and dinner, and I didn’t want to spend so much on something I didn’t need. The lunch lasted for about two and a half hours, and many people complained, when dinner time came, that they were still full from lunch. Why do people want and consume more than they need?
This was brought home to me at dinner the night before, when I got into an interesting and lively discussion with three men, one Australian, one Israeli, and one French. They were an older man and his two sons-in-law. The discussion got quite warm, and could have easily become heated, but we all kept our cool and remained friendly. They were, it emerged, right of centre. I”m generalising here, as there were many nuances, and they didn’t necessarily agree with each other on everything. But to simplify a long and complex discussion, with the father as the main spokesman, they hold to the evolutionary theory of survival of the fittest; those civilisations or groups that don’t adapt will not survive, and it is up to the individual to better him or her self, to rise out of disadvantage; this includes indigenous people, refugees etc. As for the Muslim question …. well, I won’t try and summarise what their argument was, because it may give offence to some. But in essence, they think, we need to protect our values, and we must live in fear and exercise constant surveillance to deal with a threat that is not external, it has penetrated our way of life.
I didn’t pursue the subject of the haves and the have nots, because it was clear to me that these men and their families were privileged by wealth and education, and that they did not consider the problems of inequality and injustice in the way our affluent nation, and others like us, distribute their wealth and guard their privileges.
So … is Christmas really a time of giving, or is it a time of having, wanting, indulging, to excess?
I did one little thing that made me feel a bit better; before I went away, I received a Christmas email from Plan Australia, to whom I contribute to help education of children in 3rd world countries. It prompted me to give: so I signed up to give two chickens to a family in Cambodia, three maths packs to children in Uganda, and to help build a mobile donkey library.