‘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.