01 January 2008

The Best Day of the Year

Let me paint you a picture.

It's hot. Summer has officially gotten underway, and because this is Australia that means that not only are the children crazed because "Sho-o-o-ol's Out For The Summer", they are also increasingly unhinged because it's the middle of December, and Christmas is bearing down like a shiny, gift-wrapped steam roller. Here in the sub-tropics, Santa doesn't venture outside the refrigerated confines of the shopping malls because if he did he would die, thus instituting a new tradition to add to an already confusing set of holiday rituals.

I wouldn't like to say that I hate Christmas, although for the most part I seem to be fundamentally over it. I am sorry about that. I wasn't always this way. Back before I had the entire responsibility for making it all happen at my house, I was very much a Christmas person. I probably irritated a lot of people.

The Christmases of my childhood might offer a clue, but I can actually recall from the dusty archives of my memory holidays that didn't completely suck. My younger sister and I witnessed a private miracle every year. Our crazy mother, Fran, usually declared a Christmas ceasefire and amnesty that lasted for perhaps three days. For some reason she managed to guilt herself into action while our maternal Grandmother, a pro at this game, corresponded with Dad. Between them, this uneasy triumvirate would deliver the goods. Things we genuinely wanted would appear. Cool new toys and a brief, if brittle, peace to enjoy them. Who wouldn't love that? Needs can be simple that way when you're a kid. Tangerines and chocolates, candy canes and the smell of new Barbies straight out of the box. The soft glow of that usually stretched until somewhere close to midday on the 27th. By then the effort of maintaining an unnatural state of equanimic goodwill would cause something in Fran to snap like a rubber band. Hostilities would resume, prison rules would quickly be reestablished; and Fran, doubtless with huge relief, would return to her default settings of resentful, angry malice within a nearly impenetrable fog of prescription drugs.

Now Christmas is up to me. Months of careful budgeting, and unwelcome reminders tend to rub my nerves in an unpleasant way.

Perhaps that is why I recently found myself tempted to shout "And you can shove it!" at a shopping mall Santa bellowing "Ho ho ho Me-rrrry Christmas!" for all he was worth and clanging a large hand bell. I mean to say, the promotional side of things become unbearable well before December. The Christmas decorations have been on display in some of the shops since late August. I really dislike that. And as the day creeps up the displays in the stores become larger, tackier, and more difficult to steer around and ignore. I don't want to think about Christmas for four months of the year. Instead, my thoughts are invaded by all the lugubrious sentimental favorites "White Christmas" and "I'll be Home For Christmas" whinging out of each and every public address system anywhere you go. Including the auto parts store.

My personal history aside, having the festivities take place in a furnace sucks every last bit of yule out of the tide for me. I'm not alone. Hot weather and holiday/money/family pressures make many people fiercely cross and/or depressed.

I would hasten to mention that I am aware that many people do enjoy Christmas, in all its tacky glory. As I said, I used to be one of them before responsibilities and a decade of working in retail during the holidays drained me of cheer. Never mind. I don't want to ruin it for anyone else. I genuinely feel that being too sour about it myself might dampen the high spirits of others. I'm not a spoilsport. I make an effort to put on a happy face. I enjoy giving gifts as a rule. High spirits are important, and shouldn't be squashed or otherwise mishandled. As I would the soft and vibrantly aromatic Queensland peaches and mangoes, the sole gifts of a subtropical summer, I pass the season's greetings along with good natured care.

Christmas in midsummer is a mish-mash of Christian and Pagan European winter traditions held in a sauna. I thought "Are they kidding?" No, they are not, as I would discover when I moved to Australia from the U.S. in 1990. A Christmas Day so hot already that bauxite could have been smelted in the kitchen before lunchtime. From inside a cloud of steam my mother-in-law whipped, seared, roasted, chopped, boiled, basted, and sweltered herself for hours to produce a scalding English style feast. The finale was a volcano of plum pudding doused in brandy and set on fire at the table. It was beautiful, no question, about it. But no one actually wanted to eat such a hearty meal because the powerful heat and humidity had wrung the will to live from us all.

There's no daylight savings time in Queensland which is a long story in itself. It is full daylight before 5:00 am. The children are up because after months of build-up, there's no holding them back on the actual day. Carefully wrapped gifts are torn into for a brief frenzy of unbridled joy and flying paper. I snap photos because later when my eyes open I'll want to see their happy faces. If I'm quick I might get video footage of the first of innumerable fights over identical toys. It's all over before 6:00 am.

My preferred way of dealing with a hot Christmas is to cook a turkey on Christmas Eve. It's roasted in the thin cool of the night. I might do a pineapple glazed ham as well, also done ahead of time. These are served cold with salads and chilled fresh fruit. And whatever anyone would care to drink.

I make sure there is enough food to last throughout the very best day of the entire year. Yes, there is a day that brings unfeigned happiness and glowing goodwill to my heart. It is the day after Christmas, called Boxing Day, an extra in the holiday tradition of the British Commonwealth. There are several theories about why it is called boxing day, most of them seem to have something to do with giving servants the day after Christmas to spend with their own families. Boxes of food and gifts would be sent home with them. Nowadays, in practical terms it means the person responsible for organizing the whole show, i.e. myself and millions of other mothers, have a day when nothing is required. There are leftovers to eat. There is cricket on the television, a game which generates a relaxing background noise only occasionally punctuated by excitement of any kind.

And best of all, and I can't overemphasize this: next Christmas is as far away as it can possibly be.

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