The morning of 25th September I’m at the gym, pushing my blushing jellyrolls against the cold indifferent weights. The sound system is tuned to JJJ FM to keep us pumping. Rapper Kanye West growls, “Get down, get down gurrrl…” Then there’s a commercial break. A deeply masculine yet hysterically happy voice cries out, “Tis once more the season! Why not put your new poolside furniture on lay-by for Christmas?” The selling frenzy is on: the first salvo in a three-month campaign to get our shopping hormones raging again.
I’ve got a week to come up with something about The Season. I dread the hollow of Christmas. I’m an Easter type. Specifically, a late night vigil lover, the between-time of not knowing, of darkness and candles and silence, the glorious exhaustion of being torn apart yet willing to hope, certain of it but not yet ready to know. Christmas should be such a time, but you have to retreat from the noise of the party to find it. Christmas celebrates the power of family ties, the gestures that we share to reinforce the social bond, with a bit of Christian storytelling thrown in for some. But many times, in truth, it cannot be those things.
How do you deal with it? Well, while you figure it out, you can think back on a few kiddie-Christmases and draw goodness from them.
Mansfield is your average little town in Victoria. It sits in a big yellow valley of hills and gullies ringed by smoky purple ranges. Sheep and cows and horses hide from the summer sun under big dry gum trees. The orange earth is cool and shadowy under the glare. The nude blue sky burns with heat. The long dry grass hisses with insects and snakes slithering across the cracks in the dirt. The sound on the land and in the sky is like a big brass bowl zinging after it has been struck with a nail.
The mountains to the east are forested, but with scuffed rocky knuckles above five thousand feet, covered in snow during winter. I got teased all through ‘68 at Mansfield Primary School after I’d piped up “we’re going skiing on Mount Buller during the Christmas holidays.” We’d come from Norway a few months earlier.
Mansfield (population 2,000, elevation 500 metres) is a square mile of a few dozen streets near a creek that’s too shrivelled up to swim in during summer. The town has mostly tin-roofed weatherboards with big back yards full of cars and horses and piles of firewood, or cream-brick bungalows with liquid ambers and japonicas and tightly clipped herbaceous borders. High Street, where the shops are, has a wide central plantation of oaks and elms running down the middle. At the crossing of High and Highett streets is the obelisk set up in the 1870s for the three local policemen killed by Ned Kelly (he’s our beloved outlaw now). There are big brick hotels on three corners, the Mansfield, the Delatite, and the Commercial.
I’ve spent the last four months of the school year at Mansfield Primary. On the last day before the two-month summer holidays I get permission to keep our class Christmas tree, and drag it half a mile down Hunter Street to our wreck of an old weatherboard rental. After a couple of weeks in the classroom it has started to dry and shed. The needles have lost their sheen but there’s enough magic left. My little brother and I decorate it with loops of coloured paper and a few strands of tinsel and a week later put our modest little pile of presents underneath, just like in the Christmas cards. We don’t think about Norway, and we speak English all the time now.
One hot Saturday night before Christmas our neighbours take us down to High Street for some fun. We walk down about nine o’clock. Strings of coloured lights stretch between the big trees on the nature strip. The men pour out of the bars and the women and kids out of the Ladies’ lounges. The kids are milling around going crazy with anticipation. The night air is brown with heat. Santa arrives on a tractor pulling a trailer full of toys. He’s big and tanned and sweaty under his stuffing. Mrs Hempenstall says that it’s Mr Nolan the butcher this year.
“Merry Christmurrrs” wheezes Santa, “Maaary Christmerrrs.” Santa has his helper perched on the back of the tractor seat, a big sexy girl with wide hips and long curly black hair. She’s done up in red and white too. It’s Mary Christmas of course. Mary Christmas wiggles around next to Santa in her tight red velvet mini dress with fake fur trim tickling her bursting boob-cups. A few of the rough kids, the ones with scuffed shoes and dark circles under their eyes, are getting very rowdy. Some wired-up dad spits out, “shuddup or yuzz’ll get a smack in the mouf, and yuz won’t gettny fucken toys from Santa.”
The crimson couple climb back onto the trailer and Mary Christmas pops herself down onto Santa’s lap for a moment. You can hear the men’s guts rumbling “hoor, hooor, hoooor…” Maybe she’s the same devil-may-care bird who ka-boom-boomed as “Vanessa the Undresser” in a sideshow tent at the Mansfield Agricultural Show a couple of months earlier. Some of the kids from school had snuck in under the canvas and hid behind the back row of chairs and they told us all about it, the wobbling tits and shimmying spangles, but I was too nice and too scared to do that.
Santa calls out “come on, who’s game for a toy or a smack on the bum, eh?” There’s a big scramble to get up onto the trailer, and Mary Christmas kisses the boys, and fends off a couple of tanned, drunk husbands, big veins running down their copper coloured arms. The wives are laughing, or pretending to. Santa kisses the little girls, who are being very good. All the toys are gone before Norbert and I get anywhere close.
When it’s all over Mrs Hempenstall takes us across to the Delatite and we go into the Ladies Lounge where mum is having drinks with a few of her horsy friends. I’m allowed to have a shandy, and we eat bowls of spaghetti and meat sauce with Kraft Parmesan cheese. They cost fifty cents. I marvel at such sophistication. Real restaurant food at the pub! We get home by eleven and mum tucks us in. Min the bowlegged tomcat sits on the end of Norbert’s bed and Flickie the neurotic sheepdog climbs up on mine. All our pets were rescued from the road or from under a farmer’s gun.
We Coulehan-Lossiuses are “circumstantially” poor, not dirt-road poor, and this year we get the first of many festive hampers from my godmother down in Melbourne. There’s a Christmas cake, with rows of blanched almonds arranged around the top, a tinned ham—the biggest kind available, a boiled pudding, cans of fruit salad, bags of nuts and lots of chocolates. She’s sent us cards with a bright blue ten-dollar note in each one. Auntie Jean is our godmother, honorary grandmother and matron saint. Back in July when she came to meet us at the Melbourne docks I looked up at her thin, wrinkly smile and her cats-eye glasses and cried, “Ooh, you’re so old!” She laughs and reminds me about that every time I see her.
On Christmas Eve mum drives us over to Wangaratta in the old Hillman Hunter. We take the scenic route on the skinny gravel road across the hills. Every now and then mum stops to get us to look at a wombat crossing the road, or to admire the mountains in the distance. We stop to visit my godmother’s brother, “Uncle Geoff”, who is a bachelor dairy farmer on the Rose River. Mum plays baroque sonatas on the oboe that her father once played, and Geoff accompanies her on his old Bechstein. They drink homemade beer and local wine. After dinner we drive further west, down onto the plain to Wangaratta, where there’ll be midnight mass in the big stone barn of a cathedral. It’s grand and solemn theatre, with robed choirboys and the organ. I will sing with them one day.
We drive back the usual route on the potholed two-lane highway. Norbert and I doze in the back seat the first hour of Christmas morning, our heads squished up against a pillow. The warm grimy vinyl smells of dog and horse, leather and lucerne. The cold window glass rattles over the rumble of the back wheels a couple of feet below. You don’t really sleep but it’s a deep sleep anyway. The ghostly gums speed by above our heads in twos and threes. The shrubs and grasses glitter with small marsupial eyes and the glint of broken bottles and beer cans as the headlights sweep by. A big road rig full of sheep passes. The slipstream is almost strong enough to suck the little car under.
Mum carries Norbert in asleep, and I follow with a sleepy little whine. Later, I half wake to see her in her white bra and undies tip-toeing out of our room after putting things in the socks we tacked up on the wall.
Norbert and I are up at six jumping around. My sock bulges with a bag of liquorice all-sorts and a plastic car. Mum groans sleepily as we rush in and out of her room. We get sensible presents. Next year’s shirts and pants and a book each, and bright new beach towels for the swimming pool.
We drive out to the Reynolds’ farm for Christmas lunch. The day is grey and sullen. The cloud perspires and grumbles for a moment, but refuses to cry. The humidity itches like a red infection. If only it would erupt into a pimple and burst with relief.
Mrs Reynolds, one of mum’s old hunting friends from before she went overseas, ushers us in and we have a look at their Christmas tree. It’s a gnarled and lanky eucalyptus branch propped up by the fireplace. The twisted bough is decorated with plastic angels and silver balls. It shocks me and I am embarrassed. The silvery, knobbly kneed limb and its miserly scattering of long crescent leaves, like dried slices of smoky green skin bunched and strung on the ends of bones, is all wrong, all wrong.
We pass around the Aerogard and spray our limbs and necks and wipe our faces to keep insects off. Lunch is served on a trestle table in the yard. All the heavy English trimmings: a turkey stuffed with sausage meat and breadcrumbs, gravy, onions, pumpkin, potatoes and a bowl piled high with peas. For afters we have Christmas pudding, brandy butter and ice cream. In case enough might not be enough there’s a trifle in a big glass bowl, layers of cake soaked in sherry, canned fruit, custard, whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles. The old bathtub is full of ice and cans of Carlton Draught and Victoria Bitter. There are a couple of bottles of Porphyry Pearl, Australia’s sweet sparkling special occasion wine, for any lady who might want it, and jugs of orange cordial for the kids. We eat and eat.
Someone says let’s sing an Aussie carol. Mum starts up, “The silver stars are in the sky . . . da, daa, de daah . . .” but no one knows any more of the words. Mrs Reynolds goes inside and puts Christmas music on the record player. Bing Crosby croons That Christmas Feeling. Then someone else goes in and flicks through the record albums and puts on Songs Of Christmas, with a-cappella holiday chestnuts like I saw mother kissing Santa Claus. Then everyone gets sick of Christmas music and Mr Reynolds puts on a Slim Dusty country album instead. “There was a redback on the toilet seat, when I was there last night, I didn’t see him in the dark, before I felt his bite…”
But then Mrs Reynolds finds the Australian Christmas album, and to the familiar tune we hear,
“On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me:
Twelve possums playing, eleven lizards leaping,
Ten wombats washing, nine crocs a-snoozing,
Eight dingos dancing, seven emus laying,
Six sharks a-surfing, five kangaroos,
Four lyrebirds, three wet galahs, two snakes on skis,
And a kookaburra in a gum tree.”
The Reynolds boys get a game of farmyard football going. I hang around inside making little trips to the kitchen where the sherry trifle speaks to me in tongues.
Towards dusk we lie around dozing. Frogs are snoring in the muddy cow pond, cicadas chafing in the poplars by the creek, and the flies buzz around us as we sleep off the festive heat.
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.