So many people joke that in Australia everything’s different. Compared with the US and the UK, Christmas is also different. For me, anyhow.
Australia is one of the most secular countries on Earth. This has led to Australians claiming certain times of year as secular and not understanding when they’re not considered as secular by everyone else. Christians have to face this, because – looking from the outside – it’s a kind of cultural appropriation. Christmas might be seen to have an obscure past and many people these days claim that it’s really a solstice festival or a borrowing of Yule. This is the thing: Christmas was first celebrated in 336 CE, before most of the Nordic countries had even considered becoming Christian. It’s four days away from the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. The Christian world has celebrated the birth of their saviour for nearly 1700 years on this date.
You noticed, of course, that I say that I’m seeing this from the outside and that it’s their saviour. I only celebrate Christmas when friends invite me. My calendar is older and my customs are older. Nearly 1700 years is recent. I’m Jewish.
Some Jews celebrate Christmas. New York Jews tell me they have a family dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Some only celebrate when their friends invite them, if that.
In Australia, everything is shut on Christmas in most of Australia. Not quite everything. One of my local supermarkets is open for four hours, and there’s a late night chemist open in case of emergencies. Christmas is a day of enforced rest, which is odd, considering we argue that it’s secular in this country.
This makes preparations for the season particularly important. Everyone does what they think will work to get them through. Me, I work. It’s not a holiday for me, so it’s perfectly logical that I work.
When I lived in Melbourne I used to go to exhibitions because the crowds were absent and there is a magic to being alone in a hall filled with wonder. Most were closed, but if there was one open, then there I was, happy. In Canberra they’re all closed, so that’s not an option.
Going to a park or down by the water is not an option either. Firstly, the buses are on a special Christmas timetable and so it would take careful measurement of the hours. I cannot drive, but most of my local friends forget this and suggest excursions, “Why don’t you look down on all of us from the top of a mountain?” or “The lake is pretty in summer.” I would if I could, but there are almost no buses and most of my friends are busy Christmassing. If other friends are at loose end over the season (seldom, but it happens), they visit me and I cook and we watch movies or take out my little collection of historical board games.
“I would if I could” applies in another way, too.
Bushfire season has begun in my part of Australia. One in three Christmas Days is free of fire. It’s safer to stay home. It’s easier to breathe at home, too.
Also, it’s the beginning of our warm season. The daytime temperature is quite likely to be over thirty degrees Celsius. It is not impossible that will be significantly over. Canberra can reach 43 degrees in summer. I would rather not spend my day in that kind of heat, given a choice. I especially don’t want to spend a day in that kind of heat when I have to carry everything myself.
When other people buy their hams and barbecue meat and make puddings and cakes, I make sure I have enough groceries to last a week. I buy water, in case something goes wrong with the tap water or we have a cut-off from bushfire, and I buy milk and fruit and vegetables and… everything I may need to get me and any drop-in visitors through.
One year I didn’t plan and managed to get a virus and was eating instant noodles for three days because that was the only food in the house. Never again.
I’m already mostly prepared for this week. I have a freezer full of delicious stuff, waiting. My big shop is done, and from now I can avoid Christmas carols and musak almost entirely. All I’ll need is fruit and vegetables and milk to see me through.
I make sure I have heaps of work to do and that I have a special treat for 26 December, which is my late father’s birthday. My special treat for this year on Boxing Day is The Princes Bride. My father had precisely the right sense of humour for the worst jokes in The Princess Bride, and it has my favourite sword fight. Also, Inigo Montoya has the right accent for many Jewish pirates, and I’m dreaming of writing about pirates one day.
I start my planning now and I can have a lovely, quiet week. Alone but not lonely. If I don’t plan early, then I have a quiet week with my loneliness shaped by everyone else’s merriment.
Every year I do something special to take care of myself during this period. It takes work and thought to translate loneliness into happy time alone, after all. My special treats this year areJapanese snack food and Korean kimchi noodles.
One part of my work that week will be watching Japanese and Korean TV and I’m going to eat the food while I watch the shows. My back-up viewing in case I’m overtaken by morosity (which can happen, especially when people try to force me to be something I’m not – I’m dangerously obdurate when people do this) is the anime “Fruits Basket.” I’ve an essay about it for my Patreon supporters this week, so that when they see I’m watching it they’ll understand what I’m watching it for. This is how I share my days of quiet, without imposing them on others.
What work am I doing at the end of December? I’m so glad you asked. I have a novel to polish (it needs a lot of polishing) and I want to pull together my big non-fiction project so that I can start thinking about timelines and publication.
I’m going to have a great summer… just not the one most people expect.