I’m not really a big fan of Christmas. As a child I loved it – the sparkling lights, the colourful baubles, huge tins of Roses and Quality Street in a house that rarely had chocolate; watching the Queen’s speech and then the Christmas movie (unless it was The Wizard of Oz – Mum hated that movie). Sometimes we would play games – usually charades; usually noisily – and always there was a feeling of being cosseted, everyone happy and together. I really did love it. Then I got older and became cynical, saw the rampant commercialisation of Christmas that I don’t remember being aware of as a child. In a normal year it can make people feel inadequate when they can’t afford the latest popular toys for their children; this year I imagine it is far worse.
Has Christmas always been a commercial exercise and I just wasn’t aware of it? There wasn’t much money around when I was a child but I didn’t feel deprived by a lack of presents. My most memorable was the two Enid Blyton books Mum gave me one Christmas (and Dad, of course, although I suspect he had nothing whatsoever to do with choosing them). Mum got pretty exasperated when I kept sneaking away to read instead of ‘joining in’. They were the best books I’d ever read, numbers 3 and 4 in a series, and I was desperate to get the whole set. I eventually did and I’ve still got them, cracked spines, yellowed pages and probably as much tape as paper. I still read them sometimes, and I’m still unable to stop at one; you lose me for a full day if I pick the first one up.
But I digress (yes, I know, I do it easily and often). Any Christmas spirit I ever had seeped away when I switched hemispheres and cold, dark days turned into warmth and light. (Although our first southern Christmas was bloody freezing, with icy horizontal rain; we shivered in the tiny room we had rented, thinking it no different to a northern Christmas, only not dark by mid-afternoon.) I really struggle to write Christmas cards and wrap presents when I’m sitting in a t-shirt and shorts with the warm sun on my back. It’s even more challenging when cards have pictures of a red-breasted robin (ours is grey), or a large man in a red suit that would give him heatstroke if he wore it here at this time of year. Then there’s snow. I spent almost forty Christmases in a country where it coincided with winter, but I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I have seen snow on Christmas Day, or anytime around it for that matter. Don’t get me started on Hollywood’s inability to tell a story in Britain set in December without putting snow on the ground. Still the traditional image is of colourful fairy lights shining within a snowy scene.
Ah, yes, the lights. Part of the magic of Christmas is the twinkly lights shining through the dark, of which there is plenty in a northern winter. I can’t get into a festive mood when lights twinkle against, er, the sun. By the time it’s dark enough to see them it’s time for bed, and the only way you’ll get the benefit on Christmas morning is to be up before 5am. Okay, if you’ve got kids you will be anyway, but half an hour later the sun will be up, and any artificial colourful display obliterated by its rays.
It seems as though anything to do with the season is clearly directed at the northern hemisphere. I still love Christmas music and try to force a festive spirit by playing some. It doesn’t work. A Winter Wonderland and chestnuts roasting on an open fire? In December down here the only place you’ll find anything resembling winter is on the top of a mountain, and a fire will have rural brigades rushing to their engines and calling for helicopters with monsoon buckets. I suppose there is the barbeque, but that generates images of exploding chestnuts and third-degree burns. And there’s something very un-Christmassy about Deck the halls with an invasive weed that chokes native flora.
Getting into the festive spirit feels even harder this year. It could be blamed on a bacteria that is preventing most of the world celebrating the season as they normally would, but a dearth of anything festive around Wellington doesn’t help. The best we get is a handful of half-festive looking flags. A friend bemoaned that her drive home from work across the city had yielded Not one single thing! to suggest that Father Christmas was on his way. There have never been strings of fairy lights adorning the streets (see earlier comments re the uselessness of these) but this year it seems even bleaker than usual, and on a rare after-dark excursion to the suburbs I see no glimpses of sparkling lights through windows that I used to in Sheffield. At least in daylight we can be cheered by the pohutukawa trees that dot the city, their red blooms against dark green foliage evidence of why they are often referred to as New Zealand’s Christmas tree (even if their droppings look like the red weed from HG Wells’ Martian controlled world).
As a child I never understood why some said Happy Holidays – it wasn’t holiday time; it was Christmas. I grew up in a Christian household in a mainly Christian country so didn’t realise it was a celebration specific to one religion. Even enlightened I still don’t understand what’s wrong with Happy Christmas – every person I know who prays to a different God has no objection to Christians celebrating theirs. But I grudgingly concede there is some use for the phrase on these islands – most people take their main holiday at this time of year. I look forward to a couple of weeks away from work and chilling in the countryside more than I do any aspect of the festive season. (Neil and I don’t buy each other physical presents; this year we’ve bought each other a trip to the South Island in February.) So I suppose it would be relevant for me to say Happy Holiday (omission of the s deliberate – it’s only one holiday unless you keep returning and leaving again).
Maybe my feelings are proof that, commercialisation or not, Christmas really is about family and spending time with loved ones. (Or, especially this year, thinking of them if you can’t be with them.) I miss the colourful sparkle of the lights, but more than that I miss the cosy Christmases from my childhood.
Meri Kirihimete me te Hape Nū Ia!