The double-edged nature of Christmas

Christmas is always bittersweet.

Ostensibly a festival which gives hope to all human beings, tidings of comfort and joy, all that, it’s never been that kind of happy-clappy thing it appears on the surface.

Partly it is because the double-edged nature is built into the festival, into its myths. The best example perhaps is in three wise men who brought the gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The gift of gold appears straightforward enough: frankincense is more ambivalent and myrrh is an embalming ointment. It prefigures the crucifixion, suffering and the fact this child will be tortured to death.

The most memorable carols are often ineffably sad: ‘Silent Night’ is incredibly melancholy, and as a child, for years, I would avoid it.  Partly because I associated it with an episode of ‘Lassie’ in which Lassie had gone missing and Little Timmy had to sing it in the town choir. I must have been about four when I saw that.

That double-edged nature of the festival carries into the secular songs associated with Christmas, often in bizarre ways.

One of the most popular modern Christmas songs, the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, is a duet between two people at the end of every tether they could have reached the limit of: in a drunk tank, insulting each other with foul epithets (‘you scumbag, you maggot’ ‘you cheap lousy faggot’ etc) and yet managing to be somehow uplifting at the same time.

A more bizarre one is the loved and hated Snoopy’s Christmas: a childish celebration of a mythical duel above World War One’s western front between the lovable cartoon dog Snoopy and the real-life, somewhat cold and probably psychologically disturbed Manfred von Richthofen. Who was, after all, the greatest fighter ace of the First World War, whose specialty was sneaking up behind reconnaissance machines and setting them on fire – and then, if they, as they usually did, fell on his side of the lines, scouring the wreckage for souvenirs amid the bodies.

It is a deeply weird song.

Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly wrote one of the great Christmas songs, about a bloke phoning his family home from prison at Christmas. ‘How To Make Gravy’ is a song which builds and builds, emotionally: I wrote a bit more about it here a few years back. 

Christmas can be a jarring time: it is supposed to be about home, not just about physical home but also the feeling of being with someone you are meant to belong with.

The other double-edged thing about Christmas is it is poignant because you remember previous, happier Christmases with loved ones who aren’t around anymore.

Or who might be there this time but are under a cloud of some sort or other which throws into question whether they will be there next year.

That brings me to another great, non-seasonal Paul Kelly song – Deeper Water, a song following a young boy being taken swimming by his dad, to feeling out of his depth as he grows up and life’s experiences, both joyous and sorrowful, threaten to overwhelm him.

‘The clock moves around 

The child is a joy

But death doesn’t care just who it destroys

The woman gets sick 

Thins down to the bone

She says “where I’m going next,

I’m going alone….”‘

Like I say, it’s not a Christmas song in the least. But it cuts to the heart of the joys and sorrows of life in the same way Christmas can.

Setting the religion aside for those who want to take it literally, I think the great power of Christmas is, in fact, this double-edged nature.

It seems we humans need to mark these apparently incompatible things together, somehow: both joy and sorrow, grief and celebration, silly toy cartoon characters and disturbed real-life sociopaths, alcoholic abusive degradation and  uplift and hope; and, yes, a figure who has come to give hope to all humans who is publicly humiliated and tortured to death.

It is a reminder that we are all these things and that all these things – at some metaphorical level anyway –  are part of our lives.

That joy and suffering are at the core of human experience.

And that both lie at the heart of this strange thing we call love.

‘That’s the great thing about Christmas. It comes around again so you get another shot’

“That’s the great thing about Christmas. I comes around very year so you get another shot,’ Paul Kelly writes in his recent autobiography.

Kelly wrote what to me is one of the great Christmas songs…one of the great lump-in-the-throat songs about anything, in fact.

I’ve seen him stop a hall dead with a live performance of ‘How to Make Gravy’. It’s a real wrencher of a number.

Kelly’s recent autobiography tells the tale of how he was invited to take part in a Christmas compilation and plumped for ‘Christmas Must Be Tonight’ by the Band, but it turned out some other singer had dubbed that, so he told the person compiling the album he’d have a crack at writing his own.

This was the result.

“There’s something about ‘White Christmas’that rings down the ages – a longing for home, for childhood, warm safety and the sway things used to be…Irving intensifies the feeling of Christmas by writing about not being there.
‘There’s clue,’ I thought.”
Kelly relates how he invited the compiler  – a bloke called Lindsay – to come around and listen to the song, only warning him that the tune didn’t have a chorus, and it was also set in prison.
‘The next day he sat in my small back shed while I played it to him, my head down, partly from nerves but also to read the freshly scratched lyrics in my notebook on the floor. When I looked up at the end he was holding his hanky.
“It’s supposed to be a comedy”, I said.
“I know”, he replied, wiping his eyes.’
Christmas, in my experience, intensifies and brings to the surface feelings that are already there. If you’re away from home – or, emotionally, away from where you want to be – it can be a lurching time, on the inside.
So for everyone who isn’t where they want to be in whatever way, this year: here’s to you, and here’s to next year.
And for those of us who are, give thanks.

Ghosts of Christmases past….

Ghosts of Christmases past:

As a kid: my siblings and I had what today would be seen as a fairly churchy upbringing, I suppose, but it didn’t seem that way at the time.
And it was the sort of churchy upbringing they don’t seem to do now …these days it seems either bible-worshiping (as opposed to God worshiping) threat-laced sermons, which do seem to fill the pews; or cringing apologetic ‘Jesus was a Jewish prophet rather like Karl Marx’ sort of thing.

There was little of that. We had the Sunday School thing, which was mostly about Jesus, and some songs which even I could tell, at that age, were pretty dire.

Church was as much a social thing as anything else: most of the churchgoers were farmers and the catch up chat on the forecourt after each session was often longer than the formal part of the proceedings. This gave me my first exposure to what I call the ‘Farmer Farewell’ – this begins when one of the parties says ‘Well, better be going’ and then thinks of something else to talk about. Departure takes place a minimum of 40 minutes after the first utterance of ‘well, better be going’ and in severe cases can be over an hour.

Back to Christmas…There was a sense of wonder, and it wasn’t just to do with the presents. It did provide, I suppose, an experience of something transcendent. It was there in the carols, especially. There is, in all the Christmas story’s sheer unlikelihood, something wondrous. Also there was a very tall Norfolk Pine on the edge of town which used to be decorated with lights. It was an awesome sight for a kid – and I use the word ‘awesome’ in its true sense.

Mind you, by the time I reached Bible Class I was starting to wonder about a few things. This is not the time or the place to go into my own religious crises which blighted my mid-20s… but I will say one thing: a pre-Christmas reading in front of the whole church perhaps did not help.

It was not standing up and speaking in front of a whole lot of people. Yeah, I was a bit nervous about that, but not excessively. I’d overcome my stammer by this point, and besides, I was related to most of the congregation. Some of them more than once. And of course there was a script. From Matthew, from what I recall. No, the bad bit was…well, I agreed to do the reading when the minister phoned and asked – the minister was a great guy, btw, a very open and practical man, so I’m not blaming him. But when I went and looked the bit he wanted me to read, it was about how Mary, despite being unmarried, got told she was going to have a kid. Now, I was 15 or 16, a fairly self-conscious age. And it seemed every second word in this passage was virgin. I got through the reading OK, I think, but rather rushed it.

Later Christmases:
Down with flu, Christmas Eve – proper flu, the aches, the temperature, the hot and cold sweats…in my small shoebox flat in Whakatane and wondering whether to can the four-hour drive for a family get together in Waiuku. It was a marginal call – until the landlady’s bloke turned up to mow the lawn. My head was already throbbing and I decided, I’m out of here. Hopped in the car, stopped off for a fruit juice at the dairy in Kopeopeo and then on out of town.

Just past Whakatane Board Mills the can, which I’d sat next to the gearshift, rolled under the car pedals. I swear I’d never do anything this stupid if I’d been well, but anyway, instead of pulling over I reached down to hook the can out, and as I did so the car drifted into the oncoming traffic.

By pure chance the vehicle I hit was another car – in front of it was a logging truck and behind it was a mini-bus, and if I’d hit either of those I wouldn’t be here now. As it was a loose seatbelt meant my head smacked into the side of the car as the car spun about 270 degrees on impact. Christmas dinner saw me with concussion to go with the flu.

Nepal, Christmas 1998. Walked into a village after dark on Christmas Eve. It was already pretty cold. We got to the park checkpoint -at the far end of the village – and were told none of the guesthouses in town were open, (we were trekking out of season) although there were people at one of them.

We back tracked down and knocked. The door opened on and empty dark dining hall and, behind that, huddled over a fire, the family. We plonked down in the dining area and I got out some Christmas cake Mum had made and given me before I left. Handed it around. Fruit cake never tasted better. We were pretty bushed, and cold.
The family gestured to us to come into the kitchen area and scrunched up for us so we could share the warmth of the fire. A nice feeling; we shared dhal baht for dinner and crashed out. Early morning looked out the window and saw the Annapurnas covered in snow.

Trekking later that day saw us cresting a ridge and looking up across a landing strip and up towards Manang and to the mountains behind, (see photo) and the pass we planned to go over. The landing strip was to see an emergency flight out a few days later, but that’s another story….

Christmases 1986 and 1987 – my postie years, working out of the old Auckland Central Post Office and studying part time at Uni. Used to tear around the walk to make lectures in time. This meant half walking, half running about 12kms with a load on my back, six days a week. I’d just love to be that fit again.

Christmas was more leisurely (no lectures to worry about)…we had to finish the walk and go back into the Post Office between 2.30-4.30pm to do extra sorting. The overtime was absolutely brilliant. Some of the afternoon sorting was pretty random, because we’d all meet in a pub in Commerce St after we finished our walks, have a pub lunch and a few jugs.

Some people were great. A woman on Richmond Road always used to leave a beer, some Christmas cake and a chocolate bar in her mailbox for the postie at Christmas.
One Saturday I had, in my parcels, some kids book or toy which played ‘Jingle Bells’. Batteries had definitely been included, unfortunately. The destination was at the bottom of Hamilton Rd in Herne Bay, and every time I moved, it seemed, this parcel would start playing.

Which meant the dogs heard me coming a long way off. Saturdays were always worst for dogs because people would be home to let them run around. Bastard Dog Owners.

Also that first year one of the posties got her holiday pay ripped off. She’d left her bankbook – remember bankbooks? – under the seat in her car. Car got nicked and not only did they get the car they went straight to her bank and got all her holiday pay out. Overtime and all.

She was devastated; we had a whip round for her and people chucked in heaps of cash.

Week after Christmas she’s doing her deliveries in Pompalier Tce and sees her car parked alongside one of the houses….nips into the nearest phone booth and calls the cops. Got the car back, I think she even got her money back. Or maybe the bank coughed because they should never have handed over the cash from a woman’s bankbook to a couple of blokes. Anyway, just remember the fluke that the thieves were on her walk. Good one, Santa.