I hate Christmas

I love Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun”, but it makes me incredibly melancholy, because the words are all about how much he loves to reconnect with his family, and how these are the people who will make his daughter feel safe as she grows up.

That’s not the way I recall my family Christmas. My Christmas was a time of emotional blackmail, shouting, and trauma. Every year it got worse. Every year I dreaded it.

That’s a thing of the past now. Mum’s dementia has progressed to the point that she doesn’t understand the concept of Christmas (or indeed relatives) at all. She is physically well cared for, and emotionally absent.

We’ll have a small family Christmas with my in-laws, and it will be low key and fine, but the ghost of Christmas past claws at my heart and I find it really hard to relax. The whole “peace on earth, goodwill to men” thing has a hard time being heard above the screaming inside my head.

I was in San Francisco for Thanksgiving this year, and I went for a walk in the morning, before visiting dear friends for lunch. I had walked in that neighbourhood the previous three days but Thanksgiving was special. People took the time to wish each other – and me, a perfect stranger – a happy thanksgiving. There was a sense of breathing deeply, and being kind to each other. For the first time in days the air was clear, and it seemed hearts were too.

Christmas here is like that. If you walk on Christmas morning you will see kids trying out new scooters and bikes, roller blades, remote controlled cars and kites. People wish each other a Merry Christmas, and there’s a kindness and compassion in the air that has otherwise felt particularly absent in 2018.

I am a big fan of compassion, but I tend to find it very difficult to be compassionate towards myself. I get frustrated with my Christmas angst, and rail against the tension that ruins my Christmas, and if I’m not careful, the Christmas of everyone around me. Every time I get grumpy I get grumpy about being grumpy, and that kind of thing gets out of control fast.

So this year I have a new plan. I’m going to listen to White Wine in the Sun, and I’m going to spend the time quietly contemplating all of the people who have made 2018 a delight for me. Although I have nominally been working alone, I have never felt so supported. I’ve made amazing new friends, done speaking tours, been to countless conferences, and both I and my work have been hugged at every turn.

New friends and old have supported me and my work in ways I never dreamed possible. I took a flying leap off a crazy high cliff last year, expecting to succeed or fail on my own merits. It never occurred to me that I might wind up crowd surfing my way into the future.

So if, like me, Christmas is hard for you, see if you can turn away from the trauma and contemplate the people who love and support you. Call them, text them, send them an email. Let them know how much you appreciate them. That’s my kind of gift – something to feel truly festive about.

Oh God! But I didn’t get you anything!

Christmas makes me a bit of a curmudgeon. I don’t like the forced jollity. I don’t like the ghosts of Christmases past that haunt me. While I love an excuse to party, I don’t like the compulsion to be happy. The implication that if you don’t love Christmas there is something wrong with you. My kids love Christmas, and I do my damnedest not to ruin it for them, but the truth is that Christmas is far too full of painful memories for me to embrace it unconditionally.

Above all I hate the obligations. The reciprocal “Oh no, she sent me a card so I’d better send her one” frenzy that results in a lot of late Christmas cards and a whole stack of completely pointless “dear X, Merry Christmas Love Y” cards, which convey nothing so much as disinterest.

And yet. Christmas, or at least the end of the working year, can be a great trigger to remind people that you appreciate them.  So I do write cards, but generally only when I have something I especially need to express. There are many I probably should write and don’t. There are many more friends I appreciate and adore who don’t get cards. But people who have been especially present, or particularly life-saving do tend to get heartfelt cards from me. Particularly at work. And sometimes, when I find a particularly relevant gift, I will also give Christmas presents. Unfortunately this comes with the risk that people will feel horribly guilty about not getting me something.


So today I posted this on facebook:

“Here’s the thing – if I’ve given you a gift or a card, it’s not because I expect one in return. That’s actually one of the things I hate about christmas – that sense of obligation, which rips all the spontaneity out of it. I don’t want or need gifts. But sometimes I feel the need to express my affection and appreciation. No strings attached. nuff said!”

and within moments it had attracted a string of likes. It seemed to be striking a chord.

I really don’t need gifts. I always attach “no gifts please” to any birthday invitations I might issue. I’m not a big fan of stuff anyway, although I have a policy of never turning down gluten free chocolate or alcohol. Not that I would knock back a gift, but I don’t need them, not the way I need, for example, hugs. Even though I don’t need gifts myself, sometimes I feel the urge to appreciate my friends in tangible form, and sometimes that urge happily coincides with inspiration for the right gift.  But if I do give you a gift it’s generally because you have already given me far more, so a return gift is entirely superfluous.

Christmas isn’t about gifts. The best of Christmas, to me, is about hugs and friendship and love. So don’t fret about buying gifts. Work on expressing your feelings instead. With a hug, or a card, or a few heartfelt words. Those are the best gifts of all.

Tis the season

Christmas can be a tough time of year. If you are lonely, depressed or bereaved, or if life is a struggle for a myriad of reasons, this relentlessly festive and compulsorily cheery season can be about as welcome as a reindeer in your eye.
My Dad’s birthday is the 23rd of December, and this first birthday and Christmas without him have been unexpectedly painful. Relieved though I am that he is no longer suffering, his absence now hurts more than I anticipated. It triggers all the other losses in my life and has left me with an inclination to hide in the bush being morose and unsociable – which is not my usual style, to put it mildly.
It would be easy to wallow in my grief and unresolved anger, and to focus on all the ways in which my life is really ^%$#@!ing me off right now, so I have decided it is time for a Christmas Thankful Thing. Being an atheist the religious significance of this time of year leaves me feeling more than a touch scroogey. I don’t like all the social pressure around Christmas, and I object to compulsory gift-giving – I’d much rather give people the perfect gift whenever I find it than feel compelled to find something exactly right on a particular day of the year – but what I do appreciate about Christmas is the trigger to tell people what they mean to me.
I don’t want to cruise through life taking people for granted. I tend to the effusive side, yet I don’t always tell people how important they are. So here goes.
To my incredible husband, Andrew, who is always there keeping me going, making me laugh, and picking up the pieces: I am the luckiest woman in the world. I love you.
To my amazing teaching mentor, Cal, who never failed to say the right thing when I was on the brink of screaming catastrophe, always responding to my deranged emails and texts: I don’t know how I would have survived my first two years in teaching without you. Thank you.
To my desk-mate Cath: I am so grateful for your love, support, your thorough devotion to Purple, and your willingness to wield the frying pan of perspective. You keep me in one piece (if slightly bruised).
To all my fantastic work colleagues: You rock. Your kindness, community, support and incredibly nerdy humour has kept me going throughout the last two years. I am so lucky to be a part of this school.
To my astonishing and fabulous students: I walk out of every class feeling uplifted by your enthusiasm, your energy, and your incredible abilities. Each and every one of you is a joy and a privilege to work with.
To Elaine: You’ve been in the country less than a year and you immediately became an integral part of our community. Your kindness, compassion and generosity have been a beacon of hope in a bleak year.
To Tim: For ever present understanding and empathy, for dinners, walks, train rides, yoga, and never forgetting the compulsory coffee and cake.
To Davids 1 & 2: It’s funny how I had to stop working with you in order to start working with you and get to know you properly. It’s been a great delight working with you both.
To my fabulous yoga teacher, Roman: I never fail to walk out of a yoga class taller, straighter and smiling. I don’t know if you are aware of the glow of happiness that spreads outward from you – it’s like a cloud of bliss that follows wherever you go. You are amazing.
To Peter and Ana: for your unfailing love and support. We are so blessed to have you in our lives.
To Joe: for always engaging with what I write, and frequently showing me a different perspective.
To my gorgeous girls: I am so proud of you. I love you both with every fibre of my being.
There are those I have not mentioned, for various reasons, but they are nonetheless important and valued in our lives.
To every one who has loved and supported us over the last year – thank you. You are totally awesome.

To absent friends

stained glass flower

17 years ago, when we were planning our wedding, my soon-to-be mother-in-law insisted that the reception include a toast “to absent friends”. At the time I was blase about it – my friends weren’t absent. They were at the wedding. That was the whole point, wasn’t it?

These days I have a profound understanding of that toast, particularly in the lead up to Christmas, surely one of the most bitter-sweet times on the western calendar. Renowned as a time to spend with loved ones, Christmas contains a heart rending sadness when some of those loved ones are out of reach. It’s a time to ache for friends far away, but even more for friends gone forever.

I have never been good at letting go – limpets have a grip that is positively lax in comparison. I have been known to pine for defunct friendships long past the point where rational people would let go. And I have many dear friends overseas, out of reach of the hugs I long to share with them, but at least there is the phone.

It’s the friends I can no longer call that really break my heart at this time of year. I tend to be expressive and affectionate, so there is not much I left unsaid. I don’t regret not telling them how important they are to me – they certainly knew. But at a time when we reconnect with our loved ones, their absence is a gaping wound in my heart.


They say that time heals all wounds, but it turns out there are some wounds that don’t heal – you simply learn to live with them. 14 years on I still cry for my best friend, Di, killed in a car accident at the age of 24. We never got to say goodbye. And nearly 4 years on I still cry for my kindred spirit, James, whose body finally gave out on him, 15 years after the doctors first predicted his death. He was in his 70s, we did get to say goodbye, and it turns out that saying goodbye isn’t a great help.

This year my friend Mike died of pancreatic cancer. He left behind a young family, and a horde of grieving friends. Another desperate hole in the world, where there should be light and laughter.

Our hearts reach out to those we have bonded with, especially now. For those we can touch, the bond, and our hearts are strengthened. For those we can no longer reach, the ache is fierce. They are alive in spirit as long as we remember them.

Reach out to your friends and loved ones. Make the most of these moments when you can touch them and tell them what they mean to you.  And remember those you have lost. Let them live in your heart. Here’s to absent friends.

Tisn’t the season

My 3 year old is very excited about Christmas. She has been ever since the Christmas decorations appeared in the shops. In October. Frankly, the shops seem to have been a little slow this year.

Everywhere we go, she sees Christmas decorations and says “Look! They’re ready for Christmas! Child care is ready for Christmas too! We made a Christmas tree! We made Christmas decorations! I’m ready for Christmas!” And every time I mutter, scrooge-like, into the hands clamped despairingly over my face: “I’m not. I am SO not ready.”

Christmas balls

In my family, arrangements for Christmas day tend to be made late-ish – sometime around August. The call, or these days the email, comes out: “We’re hosting Christmas this year, we’ve got this, this and that organised. Let me know what you’d like to contribute.” And every year, slow learner that I am, I am shocked and appalled. “Christmas??? I’m not ready to think about Christmas! I’m still wrestling today into submission!”

Every year I am tempted to do a runner and flee to a different country for Christmas. It’s not that I dislike the season, (although my formative employment years in a department store have rather soured Christmas carols for me) it’s the rampant commercialism that simultaneously chills and boils my blood.

Buy something for him. For her. For them. Prove your love with fistfuls of ill-spent dollars, flung into the hands of companies that then trickle a penny or two down into the lap of the people who actually make the stuff. The brittle, plastic, worthless stuff.

I hate to do this to you – it’s a very Greens, hippy, antisocial thing to do – but what are we teaching our kids? That stuff is important? That buying things for people that they don’t need, may not even want, but cost the right amount of money shows your love for them? Many of us base our choice of gift for relatives on the likely value of gifts they will give us. There has to be a rough value match or terrible crises will ensue. Gifts bought from Op Shops would be catastrophic in this context (if anyone ever found out).

I rant and rave about all this, but I still do it, of course. I still fret over buying things for the important people in my life, because I do want them to feel valued. I do love to give someone the perfect gift. I just wish I didn’t have to find 20, 30, 40 perfect gifts all at once. Christmas decorations and ads everywhere urge us to buy stuff, stuff, and more stuff. Is that the Christmas spirit?

Not all decorations are bad, of course. The Christmas tree in my daughter’s childcare is, I must admit, magnificent. Handmade, covered in the children’s green handprints, packed with stuffing by their own eager little hands, it is a testament to all the positives of Christmas (for those of us who are not Christian, at least). They worked together. They packed it with love (and polyester stuffing). It makes them so happy, and so proud. Half a dozen kids point it out to me and drag me over to it every time I go into the room. That’s the Christmas spirit.

So here is my challenge to you. Buy Fair Trade (The Oxfam shop is a good start) or second hand, where you must buy at all. Or make things. Make this Christmas about saving the planet. About empowering people. And about hugging the people that you love. It won’t be brilliant for the economy, but as David Suzuki said, “Economists and cancer cells think they can grow forever.” We need a new economy, based on the things that are really important. Let’s make Christmas more about the people we love, and less about how much we spend on them.