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Nostalgia, untruths and the passage of years – essential ingredients of Christmas

As a boy it was all about the anticipation of Santa Claus arriving. There was magic in that night back then
 ‘Recently, I’ve returned to the Christmas dinner table. My little family unit joins other little family units for large collective feasts. I’ll buy prawns and oysters, a leg of ham’ Photograph: MilosStankovic/Getty Images

The best part of Christmas is Boxing Day. The family obligations have been put to bed for another 12 months, Christmas lunch is halfway digested and there’s Test match cricket, a sailing boat race and a damp pillow-sack of ham to pick over before the new year. My preference is to do it on a riverbank, listening to the radio with an esky of cold cans within reach. It’s my Christmas statement: an emphatic punctuation mark on yet another year.

It hasn’t always been my Christmas story. Obviously, as a boy things were vastly different. In my first decade, I was more inclined towards Christmas Eve, naturally. It was all about the anticipation of Santa Claus arriving and the ritual of setting out the glass of grog and a slice of boiled fruit cake.

There was magic in that night back then. I recall a handful of them still: lying in the tray of a ute watching a shower of stars shoot through an evening sky as my uncle drove towards our home; waiting up to spring the big jolly man and being so fatigued I actually heard sleigh-bells jingling on our corrugated iron roof; half-waking in the humid, skinny hours of Christmas morning, green frogs singing, the pine aroma of our tinselled tree suffusing the lounge room, as I dream-watched a staggering figure, silhouetted by the glow of multi-coloured Christmas lights, clumsily scoff cake and gulp down the rum and milk.

For a few transitional years between that first decade and my second, the focal point shifted to Christmas Day. The morning discovery of Santa Claus’s largesse gradually gave way to the excitement of distributing the presents under the tree to family. The proceedings verged on a formal affair. A capable delegate was nominated to hand out the parcels one by one and evenly dispatched among the assembled party, with a reasonable bracket of time afforded for appreciation purposes.

Then, a year or two further on, with Santa dispelled entirely and fewer family members present in the group photos in front of the tree, my interest shifted to the Christmas table. Lunch in those years consisted of roasted vegetables, chicken, pork, ham on the bone, and every second or third year an over-baked duck. Dessert involved custard and boiled-fruit pudding, perhaps a trifle, and pavlova, which I invariably avoided on account of its sweetness making my ears ring.

Two tables pushed together accommodated the lot of us, and around them there was exchanged nostalgia of Christmas Days before my time, when so many people congregated at our place that we had to put three tables together.

In the following years, I avoided Christmas. There are some photos of the Christmas lunches I skipped: lunches set on a single table.

Some of my most memorable Christmas Days happened in my 20s, a long way away from that country.

I slept through one in its entirety after smashing Christmas Eve in a disco above a Gold Coast casino. Another, waking midday after work the night before, I slipped down to Richmond’s Victoria Street in Melbourne to buy a precooked duck out of a restaurant’s window and six bottles of pink sparkling from the bottle-o in the Vietnamese grocery store next door (blessed are the Buddhists).

Another year, again spending the day alone, I took a drive along Melbourne’s deserted streets. In those days I drove a prime-coat grey 1967 EH wagon with a slippy gearbox and a driver’s side window that began whistling the moment I eased over 80. Together we shrieked down Punt Road and across to St Kilda to see the drunken backpackers dance on the beach and the street workers dawdle along Grey Street.

Recently, I’ve returned to the Christmas dinner table. My little family unit joins other little family units for large collective feasts. I’ll buy prawns and oysters, a leg of ham. Sometimes I’ll insist on a duck. Even Santa Claus and the tinselled pine tree have returned, with my now two-year-old son counting off the sleeps and bugging both his parents for what he calls “the Christmas stories”.

My favourite is lifted from a scene in the 1995 film, Smoke, where the central character Auggie Wren – played by Harvey Keitel – provides a yarn for a neighbourhood writer who is struggling with a brief to write a Christmas story for the New York Times.

Auggie’s Christmas story begins in 1976 with a book thief who enters his tobacco store and attempts to steal a skin magazine by sneaking it into his shirt. After being caught out by Auggie, the thief bolts out the door and a foot chase ensues.

During the chase, the thief – a kid– inadvertently drops his wallet. Exhausted, Auggie collects it, discovers no money inside, just a licence and three or four personal photos. One is of the thief sitting with his elderly grandmother; another is the thief as a schoolboy proudly holding a trophy. Moved by the pictures, Auggie can’t bring himself to call the police on this “miserly little punk”.

Eventually Christmas rolls around and Auggie decides to finally return the wallet. He finds the address on the licence which puts him in “the projects”. Auggie knocks on the door and somebody shuffles towards him from inside. Auggie identifies himself, but the voice of an elderly woman mistakes him for her grandson. She unbolts a series of locks and opens the door.

The old woman is blind and reaches to hug Auggie. Suddenly he finds himself willingly playing the role of her absent grandson. He hugs her back. “It was as if we both decided to play this game,” says Auggie. “I mean, she knew I wasn’t her grandson. She was old and dotty but she wasn’t so far gone that she couldn’t tell a complete stranger from her own flesh and blood. But it made her happy to pretend. And since I had nothing better to do, I was happy to go along with it.”

They both go into the apartment and spend the rest of the morning talking. As Auggie’s story unfolds, viewers learn his “good deed” was likely the old woman’s last Christmas.

Auggie’s yarn perfectly captures the actual essential ingredients of Christmas: untruths, communion, nostalgia, food and drink; the evolution of culture; and the unabating passage of the years.

So, merry, merry Christmas. And give me Boxing Day every time.

 Jack Latimore is a Guardian Australia columnist

Source : Thegurardian

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