Saturday, December 21, 2013
Generally speaking, the festive season in Australia is a relatively complacent and bourgeois affair. Preceded as it is by droves of determined shoppers ploughing down department store aisles in search of the unattainable – cheap but expensive looking Christmas presents with a furrow marked across their brows, checking their list of who bought them or their children tacky Christmas presents last year, Christmas not only provides a subtle but effective outlet for retribution for wrongs done during the year, it also engenders a sense of civic responsibility in children. For in fostering a festival of hylism, the state provides children with the basic building blocks – demand, demand and demand until you get a supply- of the market economy, and were would we all be without it? After all, paradise on earth truly does consist of possession of the latest iphone, as foretold by all the best market analysts.
This exceedingly important principle has already been passed on to the elder generations. How else can one reasonably explain the proliferation of vast quantities of food – which food is rarely eaten its entirety but serves to garnish the room in which it is partially consumed with a sense of plenty. Of particular note appears to the Greek–Australian obsession with the ritual immolation and subsequent consumption of meat and the blacker the better.
Yet there may be a further reason for this. Around about Christmas time, my mother loves to take time out to tell us the story of her favourite Christmas. This has become enshrined in annual family tradition, so that while the story has now been so committed to memory that I could tell you at exactly which point my mother will make a flourish with her hands or raise her eyebrows in emphasis, one inevitably casts the Christmas shopping list aside and listens.
The story is quite simple. A ten year old girl is sitting on the hard wooden floor of her home, back in the village, crying piteously, because all the other children are at home excitedly sniffing the wafting fumes of their once-a year meat soup. Some of these children’s mothers have hung colourful paper or cheap and tacky tinsel decorations around the room and there is a sense of snowballing anticipation. In the young girl’s home however, there is nothing. There is simply not enough money to go around, not to buy meat, certainly not enough to indulge in frivolous Christmas decorations. The girl is crying because as far as she can remember she has never celebrated Christmas without a gnawing pain in her belly, or a slow, dull heaviness in the heart. Hunched over the stove, yiayia pokes the few charred blocks of wood and watches as some ash escapes through the open door and flies up, up towards the rafters. She remains, as if transfixed, watching the ash dance up and down the current of heat emitted from the stove, until it tires and is whisked away by the cold draft coming in through the roof. She has seen ashes before, in far worse times… In an hour or so, her daughter will return, possibly bringing a few coins, or at least she hopes so. Last year, there was nothing. Grandmother and granddaughter sit silently and feed their hopes with the dying embers. Heavy, careworn footsteps are heard outside. The door creaks open and the girl’s aunt inches into the room, carrying a small package. There is some rice and two beef stock cubes given to her by the lady she works for. That will be Christmas dinner. “I also have something for you,” she tells the young girl. She pulls out five or six large lengths of plain white butchers’ paper. “Shhh, she says. Don’t ask where I got it. Now we will decorate the house.” Aunt and niece get to work with fervour. In half an hour, they have attached the paper to the rafters. For the first time in a year, the house has a ceiling again. The aunt gathers the scraps together and folds them up over and over each other. Then she attacks them with the scissors, dexterously sliding the paper between her fingers. In no time at all, the unfolded scraps become a masterpiece of patterned lacework and the girl claps her hands in delight. Lovingly she arranges the pieces on the only cupboard in the room, resting them underneath the three glasses the household possesses. That was, in my mother’s estimation, the greatest Christmas she ever experienced.
Upon the telling of the tale, my great aunt, who is also listening, rushes off to see how the turkey is doing. It is not hard to draw the following conclusion therefore: Many of the first generation here were hard pressed to have even the barest of Christmas meals. Now, they are overcompensating, fearful that the seven lean years prophesied by Joseph to the Pharaoh, will return. In my mother’s case, the overcompensation comes more in the form of over-decoration, rather than over-consumption, a tendency to which I too, am not immune.
In my estimation and having spent not a few Christmases away from family, Christmas is best felt while traveling. After all, how better to feel the plight of the Holy Family rushing from place to place to be in Bethlehem in time for the census and finding themselves giving birth to the Saviour of the world in a stable. During one particular Christmas, I had to get from dreary Komotini in Thrace to Samos, in time for Christmas. The weather was particularly pernicious that year and on the bus, it was a race against time before the roads would close. In archetypal Get Smart fashion, as soon as we left a city, that city would become blockaded by snow. City after city closed its doors against the cold and as we pulled into Thessaloniki, steeling ourselves for what would become an eleven hour train journey to Athens in which we had no seats and remained upright in the aisle the whole way, singing Christmas Carols with students traveling home to their families and exchanging hopes and dreams for the future I had ample time to come to the conclusion that it is neither sustenance nor presets that make the holidays special. Rather, it is the fundamental need for human warmth – we are but domestic farm animals, crowding around a manger, seeking solace and deliverance. Sadly, this Christmas, the persecuted, the isolated and the lonely will be deprived of the chance to celebrate love and life in a way we here take for granted. In Syria, the place where people were first called Christians, the dwindling Christian population will celebrate the feast in fear of their lives. In Greece, a not insignificant amount of people will celebrate Christmas in conditions akin to those experienced by my mother half a century ago. This then is the perfect time to reach out to one another and to truly celebrate, in the person of the Birthday Boy himself, what we all mean for each other. Diatribe takes your leave with the most fervent of hopes for a beautiful Christmas, wishing you all that is superlative in the New Year.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 21 December 2014