December 2015 - January 2016


A beautiful mess

By Robert Skinner
When European Christmas meets Australian suburbia

My mother was an atheist, but she was a Catholic atheist, so she had certain expectations. At Christmas she watched us run around in the heat like savages, chasing cricket balls, frisbees, each other. Our Christmas crackers were filled with jokes that never got old, partly because they were never new, but it’s hard to imagine Christ reading any of them out loud. Everyone wore party hats, and by 3 pm the table would be littered with empty champagne bottles. In general, our celebrations had the atmosphere of a birthday party, which – by some readings of Christmas – is exactly what it’s supposed to be. But to my German mother, who pined for the Christmases of her youth, it felt like there was something missing.

Mum emigrated from Germany when she was 28, on account of falling in love with my father. For the first few years they rented a weatherboard house in Sanderston, east of Adelaide on the other side of the Mt Lofty Ranges. It was mallee country, or used to be. The land had been overgrazed to the point of ruin, and the summer winds blew dust up the driveway and bent the brown grass double. For news from back home Mum had to ride 3 kilometres along a corrugated road to the mailbox. She had moved from the middle of Europe to the middle of nowhere.

Dad worked in a piggery, but once a week he taught at TAFE in Adelaide, and he and Mum would drive down together in their old LandCruiser. Adelaide was where she first witnessed the incongruity of the Australian Christmas on a large scale: sleigh bells ringing on 40-degree days, baubles reflecting the glaring sun, and rugged-up shopping-mall Santas fainting from heat exhaustion. One year, in the ungodly heat of the Glenelg Christmas Pageant, we saw Santa Claus get into a fistfight with one of his reindeer. They were on a raggedy float at the back of the parade, and had been jostling for a spot by the fan. When the float came past we saw that Santa had the reindeer by an antler and was swinging wildly with his left. The reindeer appeared to have Santa’s balls in one of his hooves. Things have a way of escalating in that heat.

Later that morning we saw both of them in their costumes, drinking beer together in a local cafe. Blitzen had a black eye. We watched them for a while, my dad standing tall between my younger brother and me. Dad cleared his throat. He said it was an important thing for us to see, and then tried in various ways to explain the spirit of Christmas, but he never quite got the dots to join up.

In December, our European visitors are always saying, “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas.” They are referring to the heat, usually, and the way their beloved traditions have been woven half-heartedly (and sometimes gaudily) into the fabric of Australian society. And it’s true, that when we think about their crackling fires, their neatly hanging stockings, their carols by candlelight, and we consider what we are doing on the same day (disowning an uncle over an LBW decision), it’s hard not to think that everyone else is celebrating Christmas with more dignity than we are. But those traditions are purpose-built for their climate, not ours. Surely it’s easier to behave yourself if it’s minus 5 degrees and dark outside. How much mischief can you really get up to in mittens?

When we moved to Adelaide, we tried to make Christmas more sophisticated for my homesick mum.

“I just want it to be nice,” she said.

So we sat around the Advent wreath and tried to think about the year that had been, but it was too damn hot for that sort of introspection. We dressed up and went to the local church, where we sang boisterously without knowing the words. The following year, possibly because of our disruptive influence in the pews, my brothers and I were asked (or perhaps Dad volunteered us, as part of a character-building exercise) to join the church band. We all played different instruments, so we were a little surprised that the scores they gave us were identical. There were no basslines or harmonies or rhythm sections; the instruments clung together like sheep in a storm. And every song was in the key of C major. I tried to play a B flat once, and the pastor stopped the whole band and said, “Not in this church, buddy. Maybe with the Presbyterians.”

The music – under that regime, at least – was far too didactic to cure anyone of their homesickness. So we gave it up.

And then the trees started coming under attack. Mum was not the sort to settle for a fake one, but the pine trees on offer compared very unfavourably with the ones back in Germany.

One year we came home to a bare living room.

“What happened to the Christmas tree?” we asked.

“Your mother doesn’t like them. She thinks they’re too straggly,” said Dad.

“Well, where are we going to put the presents?” we asked, with growing concern.

“We’ll just lay them out under the television.”

The next year Mum started setting a eucalyptus branch in the middle of the table with a few baubles hanging from it. This was a big move for her, because eucalyptus had caused her much aesthetic grief over the years. She was used to orderly stacks of pine. Our own woodpiles were full of snakes and looked like they’d been drinking heavily the night before. The logs of red gum were gnarled and knotty and went off in all directions. Dad held two of them up to her once, and demonstrated the implausibility of a tidy union. “I’ll never be able to give you the woodpile you want,” he said. “We just don’t have the right fucking wood!”

And Mum, with the strength and pragmatism of a woman who’s lasted 30-something years in a foreign country, stood on tippy toes and grabbed him tenderly by his ear.

“I want whatever woodpile you can give me,” she said.

The timing of the Australian Christmas (coinciding as it does with the end of the school year, the university year and the work year, the start of the summer holidays and the onset of various heatwaves) meant that everyone arriving for the big family lunch had the appearance of staggering over a finish line. And so we got rid of gift-giving. No one could remember ever receiving a gift that made the manic shopping for other people’s worthwhile. The relief was palpable. Certain family members felt that this would allow us to dedicate more time to the making of toasts. Our family is gung-ho for toasts, to the point where it gets in the way of the actual drinking. Often family achievements will get a mention, or if no one managed anything notable that year a toast might focus on a more immediate success, like, say, someone’s hat. Some of the older men inevitably get carried away, and when they start making toasts to previous toasts, or to actual toast, the whole thing has to be called to order.

In the early years, my cousins, my brothers and I would take off for the fields. We played with an energy that is unfathomable to us now that the heavy drinking has started. Drinking brought a novelty and a momentum of its own. Then, in my 20s, our family celebrations started to drift a little. The older generation was dying off and no one was quite sure what it was we were carrying on anymore. For a while we drank too much, and looked, to all appearances, like a family in need of a good hobby.

It became common practice to invite guests to the family get-togethers. It was good to hear stories beyond our own shrinking family circle. My uncle would get to explain his new theory of universal spirituality to the Chinese woman down the road, who was confused because she thought they were still talking about the salad. Some guests, who might otherwise have spent the day alone, just sat through lunch beaming at us all, and it wasn’t always in terror. Having guests seemed to bring out better versions of ourselves. It elevated the occasion beyond just a ritual or an obligation. It was also a useful ploy if you were having a bad year, a good way of diverting the glare of the familial spotlight. If your guest comported themselves well, it was even possible to receive a positive toast at lunchtime: “Now, it’s true that Robby’s business went tits up this year, and that what’s-her-name walked out on him, and there was that incident with the horse … but if he can make a friend like young Ahmed over here, then he must be doing something right.”

And then the new babies started to arrive on the scene. The party hats, the drunken singing, the stray tinsel floating in ice-filled eskies were suddenly imbued with a fresh poetry. There was even a renewed interest in Christmas crackers. Probably to an unformed mind it really is exhilarating to discover that the best way of getting rid of a boomerang is to throw it down a one-way street.

My mother discovered a penchant for speechmaking. In her toasts she would curse cheerfully and shockingly, with a recklessness born of not quite understanding the potency of certain words. Other times she would declare how happy she was just to have us all in the same room, and start to cry. Her best toasts were usually a combination of both.

If you ask her now whether she misses the European Christmases, she says, in her German-Australian accent, “Naaah. Too cold.”

And these babies! It’s mostly them on whom we should be heaping blame. We want to give them things, we want to give them the world. So we pass on what we have: this whole, beautiful mess.

Robert Skinner

Robert Skinner was born and raised on the Adelaide Plains. He is now based in Melbourne.

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