24 December 2022
When I was small, Christmas meant visiting my nan in St Ives. Her house existed in a state of chaos, overflowing with small, brightly-wrapped presents. They sat in sacks between the antique couches and lay in piles that had slouched against the walls over the preceding days. Her doorbell was rung nightly in the week leading up to Christmas by panicked parents, hastily passing late gifts to my nan through whispers as though she were a secretive drug lord.
There was no bureaucracy. No health and safety overlord. No diversity and inclusion officer or busy-body councillor complaining about the difference in value between presents not being ‘fair’. As far as I remember, the only ‘organisation’ surrounding the whole affair came from my nan’s handwritten notes and word of mouth on the street.
Even as a child, I understood the sacred duty that the adults around me were undertaking. Seeing the magic behind the sleigh did not dampen my fondness for irrational festive events – if anything, it warmed me to process of joy for the sake of it. The idea that busy parents working two jobs to stay afloat in Keating’s nightmare interest rate hell managed to show up at our door and trust us with a gift for their child was somewhat of a relief for the mental state of the local area.
In the late afternoon on each Christmas Eve, when the air was cool and shadows fell over Catherine Street from the odd mix of cultured English trees and straggly invasion of bush from the Ku-ring-gai national park behind, one of my uncles would arrive and carefully dress himself in an old Father Christmas suit that used to belong to my great-grandfather.
The presents, along with my uncle, would be loaded into the Bush Fire Brigade truck and – with the street lined with parents and young children – ‘Santa’ would roll in on his crimson chariot and, to the astonishment of children, call them up to receive their present. A local choir (or perhaps just the parents) provided carols free of charge.
Instead of the typical screeching that meets shopping centre Santas, the allure of a present had the children clambering up onto the firetruck, paws outstretched.
It’s a wonderful tradition started by my great-grandfather when the street was little more than a gravel track with a few dozen families clinging to the edge of civilisation. Greta, my great-grandmother, sewed the Father Christmas costume that was worn for generations, and the firetruck was chosen because they were the only force throughout the year that stood between residents and the tinderbox of bush in the valley behind.
It can be difficult to explain to foreigners what it is like to live at the fringes of dense bush – always looking down at the valley through the pale blue haze, the air shimmering in the heat, wondering if a stick or leaf might erupt into a firestorm. This persistent fear of obliteration by the Australian landscape is what drove remote communities together, and why festive events like Christmas – though celebrated differently to our European peers – formed a cornerstone of community life.
While the children enjoyed their presents and ogled Santa in awe, the parents paid their respects to the bush fire brigade which kept their street in one piece. The only other time I saw that truck as a child was during the 1994 Eastern Seaboard Fires – an event that, if it were to happen today, would send children into howls of apocalypse. Sydney was completely cut off by raging fire fronts and I had been evacuated from Wahroonga where the sky was raining molten cinders underneath dense black clouds of smoke, lit from beneath by flames sweeping up the mountainous regions at the back of the North Shore. Just like Scott Morrison, then Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating was on holiday at the time, and the largest firefighting effort in Australian history was left to Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe. Ash fell over the CBD for days. As usual, the vast majority of the fires were labelled ‘suspicious’.
Despite what the painful and – quite frankly – selfish class of perpetually offended activists say, Christmas is an inclusive affair by definition. There were never any ‘Christianity checks’ at my nan’s door. Indeed, all the members of my family orchestrating the event are irreligious. It is done for the love of community, tradition, and to give children a sense of wonder.
A firetruck with Father Christmas might seem odd for our Northern Hemisphere readers, though not as odd as the second evolution of the tradition that we embarked on up at the farm where Santa (my father) rode in on a tractor driven by my brother for the kids on a forty-something day in high summer wearing sunglasses.
My nan passed away several years ago. The presents are no longer collected at her house – which has been torn down and replaced by apartments – and our male relatives no longer wear the original Santa suit, with the costume being handed to other people. The event has since been ‘formalised’ by teams and while I remain thrilled that it is continuing in some fashion, it is difficult not to feel as if the Australia we grew up with is being lost to a colder, over-engineered future.
The richness of our heritage is being sanitised to make it palatable to ideologies that practice exclusion as their primary ethos. Those who wish to carry on the traditions either no longer have the money to do so, or are constrained by petty regulations.
Until a few short years ago, Christmas was an event that Australians celebrated together in the way that best suited them. For some, it remained a deeply spiritual festival which involved periods of worship for a religion held dear to a majority of citizens. Plenty sat in the middle, singing carols by candlelight and dutifully reciting religious stories to kids. Others, like our family, embraced an older version of the Christmas festival which traces its roots back to the Roman and Pagan solstice celebration of gift-giving between the 23-25th of December.
Yes, Australia is in the wrong hemisphere for this – no, it doesn’t matter that we’re singing ‘White Christmas’ in the sweltering heat. Australia is culturally broken in all the best ways that make it work – held together by a ‘she’ll be right’ mentality that extends to preserving traditions that, objectively and rationally, make no sense. They’re not supposed to. It’s culture.
The point is that it doesn’t matter why you celebrate Christmas – only that the wider culture embraces the collective festive air that rejuvenates society, breaking up the year with a shared period of giving. Human cultures have always revolved around festival dates and, as a Western nation with strong European heritage, Christmas is a wholly appropriate national holiday.
Those individuals who wish to be miserable and bitter about ancient history are free to do so, as long as they do not seek to make everyone around them miserable. Indeed, those that find Christmas ‘offensive’ should have their guilt-ridden psyche alleviated by forfeiting the public holiday. They can work through, at their normal rate, covering shifts for their Christmas-loving colleagues who will be off either with their families or having a much-deserved Christmas party.
Set the grinches to work. That way, they can feel better about excluding themselves from whatever ‘ism’ they think Christmas involves, while the festive season rages around them – full of magic, joy, and nostalgia.