Tag Archives: Christmas

Happy birthsday

When I was in Rome 30 odd years ago with a toddler, we visited a laundromat in the Campo Dei Fiori every couple of days. ‘Buon giorno!’ the woman in charge would greet us. Then one day, she said instead, ‘Auguri!’ It took a bit of nutting out, but I realised that Easter was approaching, and her greeting was the equivalent of ‘Happy Easter!’ Literally, I’m guessing it means ‘Good wishes!’ No need to mention the festival that gives rise to the wish.

Here in Anglophone Australia we don’t have such a sweetly noncommittal greeting. My doctor, who has a mezuzah fixed to the doorpost of his surgery and wears a yarmulke, wished me a Happy Christmas the other day, and I didn’t know what to say in reply. Then I didn’t know what to say to his receptionist, who didn’t have any obvious signs of religious heritage.

I’ve heard people wish each other Happy Holidays, but that sounds like an awkward transplant from the US. ‘Seasons Greetings’ works fine in print, but it’s weird when spoken. Referring to the solstice just feels prissy and evasive – Christmas may originally have built on a Druidic celebration of the northern winter solstice but it’s part of the Christian tradition in its present forms.

I’ve been ruminating on what Christmas means to me. When I was little it was important to me that there was a baby in the middle of all the celebrations. Christmas was like a birthday, except that presents were given, not just to one special person, but to everyone. Unpacking that thought: if on someone’s birthday we celebrate the fact that they are alive, regardless of anything that they have done or endured since their birth, then at Christmas we celebrate all of us in the same way. And you know, in the crowd competing for attention at the fish market counter this morning, the mood was so amiable and generous, that it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that the often mentioned  Christmas spirit is actually about something of the sort. Sure, some people see it as a sectarian event or a consumerist orgy, but I think for me its secular meaning is a celebration of our common humanity. The baby Jesus is a symbol of what Quakers call ‘that which is of God within each of us’, a formulation that an atheist like me, stuck for words, will accept as good enough.

When I tried to talk about this at dinner last night, the conversation became heated, so maybe I’m being controversial here. But Happy Christmas to my readers anyhow, and if you don’t celebrate it yourself for whatever reason, I’m still thrilled to share the planet with you and say Hi in the name of our humanity.

Obligatory seasonal post

I jumped the gun with my Tim Minchin post, and now I’m left feeling that if I don’t say something here about the last couple of days my silence will be eloquent with a meaning I have no intention of conveying. So here you go, my seasonal post.

A number of people whom I respect and like have taken up anti-Christmas positions. It’s not just that they hate Christmas. They believe that the only people who should celebrate it are practising Christians, that the rest of us are just being suckered in by capitalism to perform environmentally, socially, politically and/or spiritually repugnant acts, that we’re also playing into a sidelining, or worse, of people who come from non-Christian religious and cultural traditions.

I respectfully take a different view. (So do my Jewish next door neighbours, but that’s another story.)It’s not just that Christmas is (in this hemisphere) a summer solstice festival, or – like the current incarnation of Australia Day – that any public holiday is cause for celebration. Christmas, in my atheistic mind, is specifically about something real and humanly central.

When walking the dog on Friday morning, I tried to think why it mattered to me. I decided, with striking lack of originality, that at the heart of Christmas is an image of a newborn child, the idea that the birth of a child is a cosmic event. That’s something that has meaning for me. I remember in the middle of all the intense emotion around my own first baby’s birth having a sense of having engaged with a deep mystery, and the phrase in my head that expressed it, ‘Unto us a child is born.’ That is to say, all the singing and talking and reading about the Manger etc in my childhood had been laying down templates, had been a kind of preparation for parenthood.

If your birthday is the day when you are celebrated just for having been born, Christmas is the day when we, or at least I, do that for all of us. It’s a time for celebrating the fact that we were all babies once, for acknowledging our shared humanity (‘goodwill to all’), our connection with each other – friends and family, mainly, but also strangers walking their dogs and, for people more civic minded than I am, the homeless and potential recipients of  Oxfam goats.

That’s it. Happy Christmas!

My ruminations did move on, to wondering if this emphasis on the child is particular to the Christian tradition. It occurred to me that Eid l-’Aḍḥā, described by one of the participants in Bankstown Pressure Cooks as being about ‘the sacrifice of the sheep’, is connected. There’s no cute baby, but the event being celebrated is the angel’s intervention in Ibrahim/Abraham’s sacrifice of  his son (Isaac in the Hebrew Bible, Ishmael in the Holy Koran), and directing him to sacrifice a sheep instead. I think of this story as a record of the moment in the history of the Semitic peoples when human sacrifice came to an end. Obviously I don’t have any of the insider’s grasp of the emotional meaning of the Eid, but it seems a fair enough speculation that it too is about a joyful honouring of the human.

Belatedly, Happy Eid!

Any thoughts on other traditions, anyone?

I really like Christmas too

Just in case there’s anyone who reads my blog who doesn’t read Neil Gaiman’s here’s a wonderful Christmas song for you

Sadly I don’t imagine it will ever make it as a carol.

’Tis the season

The nursing home, which is run by a church organisation, has a number of celebratory events at this time of year. Last Tuesday was carols evening, attended by residents from all the organisation’s nursing homes in the region. The home’s vast garage is hung with tinsel; there’s a gigantic throne for when Santa makes an appearance, and a number of life-sized Santa statues. A troupe of school children sing carols (some of the same ones that have been piped in from a CD player as the masses assemble. A chaplain (or ‘Director of Pastoral Services’) gives a brief talk about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’, which apparently is that her allocated time is far too short. There’s ice cream and cupcakes and softdrink. Mollie joined in the applause and waved her cup of lemonade in time to the singing, and that makes the event a success. Personally I’d rather have teeth pulled, or even listen to Bob Dylan’s latest album.

On the weekend it was the residents’ Christmas party: more softdrinks and carols, though this time sung by a crooner with a finely developed sense of his audience, and mingled with other less single-minded tunes. There were lots of visiting relatives, including young ones, and a genuinely convivial mood. The dining room was cheerfully alive.

And yesterday morning Penny decided we should experiment with taking Mollie out. She’s been pretty much living a wheelchair for a couple of months now, which has its own disadvantages, but paradoxically creates opportunities for greater mobility. When Mollie used a walker, her progress was so painful that to walk any further than the small outside garden would have been an ordeal. Yesterday, we dared to wheel her out – through the front doors into the astonishingly bright sunlight, down the short street with its occasional rose pushing through a cast-iron fence, across Balmain Road, and to the ultra-cool DiVi Cafe, where Mollie drank a cup of not-too-hot hot chocolate and watched a number of small children playing on playground equipment. She smiled and nodded (language has pretty much deserted her) and I realised that the simple, basic pleasure of being around small children is something that nursing-home residents have very little of. Those couple of minutes sitting in the sun, feeling the light breeze, sipping a lukewarm milky drink and watching a little girl play on a slide and a little boy try to give his father a fright had an awful lot of joy in them.