Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas in Australia

Ah, Christmas in Australia.

Every year I find it more confounding and confusing.

Trying to live according to one’s values and beliefs, while being respectful of other people’s values and beliefs, isn’t always easy. Especially when it comes to Santa.

I can understand celebrating the birth of Jesus if you believe he was born to save us from sin. I can admire the way non-Christians celebrate around the Christian dominance of the season, with pagans celebrating the Summer Solstice, or Jews celebrating Hannukah, and I can acknowledge that being Muslim at Christmastime is a little more tricky. Circumventing the Christian message and celebrating Christmas as a time to be with family and friends is written about by Damon Young in SMH. He says, as an atheist, Christmas is a time of creativity, reflection, gratitude and communion. I’m with him on that. I’m always banging on about the need for ritual and community, and how the church fills these needs. Christmas does too. This piece has drawn 277 comments so far.

He drew this comment:
Jesus himself was an atheist when it came to believing in a god or gods that justified self-righteous judgment of others, especially the judgment of life's ordinary punters and battlers.
Right Reverend Bruce Wilson retired Anglican bishop, Leura
(SMH Letters 21.12.10)

I love hearing about Jesus the rebel who criticised the church.

Dick Gross, another atheist, wrote about how Christmas belongs to everyone and has garnered 323 comments.

He suggests that atheists can go with the flow here, that to boycott is churlish and that the story of the birth of Jesus is a story for everyone. I agree. We have to be inclusive and flexible. And I also want to say here that subscribing to a religious institution or religious practice or a form of spirituality can be a personal and fluid and complex thing. I was taught to meditate by a Christian Brother who also identified as Buddhist. I know Christian clerics who are considered rebels. Priests and Brothers and Nuns and Ministers who question the church and do their own thing, or who are more conservative than their congregations. Or religious folk who do not belong to any religious institution but maintain a serious private practice. There is a wide spectrum of religious life. There is a wide spectrum of atheist life. (And that is one reason why I think it is unhelpful to ask children in public primary schools to be slotted into a narrow identifier of religion.)

For many people Christmas is a time to acknowledge great sadnesses - people who have died or have left. At a time when people celebrate togetherness, others can’t escape their aloneness. There is a lot of pressure to be with people we love on the day.

There are lots of things about Christmas in Australia that I don’t understand. We celebrate as if we are in the Northern Hemisphere. We adopt the pagan symbols and rituals as if we are living in the snowy depths of winter. We bring a tree inside and decorate it. We cover shopfronts with fake snow. We eat mince pies and fruit cake and roast dinner. We wear green and red. We sing songs about Jesus and Santa and call them carols by candlelight even though it is daylight savings. During the year we think about the limits of the earth’s resources and reducing our carbon emissions, but come Christmas we wrap lights around the biggest thing we own, our houses, and buy gifts for everyone we know (even family members we hardly ever see, even people who don’t need a thing) and wrap all those presents in Christmas wrapping paper that will go in the bin. We put foam reindeer antlers on our cars. We wear Santa hats. We break bon bons. We buy Christmas decorations for the table. We buy packaged toys galore. We make a lot of rubbish that is going to landfill for hundreds of years.

But strangest of all is the deep and broad conspiracy that is Santa. Every stranger is happy to talk to children about Santa. Every shopping centre has a Santa. Every Post Office collects letters to Santa. The tv is running films about Santa. At no other time of year would we be happy for children to sit on a strange mans’ knee and smile and take their photographs, and accept lollies, and be happy that a strange man is coming into their houses in the middle of the night. It is all very strange. Parents tell children that Santa knows who has been naughty or nice and that you won’t get any presents if you don’t behave. Parents tell their children if they don’t believe, they won’t receive. I wonder if Santa is really a means for parents to try to control their kids. I know a lot of parents really enjoy the pretend of Santa - leaving out a carrot for the reindeer, sneaking out the presents when the children are asleep. Parents say they love the look of joy on their children's faces on Christmas morning and Christmas is a time of magic and wonder and special part of childhood. Because the joy and wonder of the natural world and the human body and the universe just isn’t enough, and the pleasure of receiving gifts from people we know and love isn’t special enough. I really don’t get it.

We tried having Santa when he children were small, but I never felt comfortable about it. A few years ago I only told the children that it was Christmas Day after they had eaten their porridge. There was no-one counting down the days and whipping them into a frenzy. When my oldest child was four she was asking a lot of questions about Santa. If Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, when is Santa’s birthday? The whole logistics of Santa didn’t make sense to her. She said to me ‘tell me the truth’ and I did. I explained the whole thing. That Christmas celebrations took over pagan celebrations. That some people think Jesus was born in April. The way myths grow and change and customs grow from one country to another. I understand how that has happened, but if you step back and look at it, it is all rather bizarre.

If you read the mum forums you will see how much attention parents place on Santa. The photos. The gifts. The pretence. I want to tell them that they don't have to have Santa. He isn't real.

Mothers are running around buying gifts for children, waiting in the Lay Buy queues, hiding presents from their own children and buying for other people’s children. (How many gifts do most children in the affluent west receive for Christmas? Twenty? Thirty?) Mothers are planning and running around and giving the credit of their work to a fictional character. Mothers are shopping for food and planning meals and counting seats and doing the cooking and making the Christmas wheels turn. Meanwhile, news stories report men doing their Christmas shopping on Christmas eve. They don’t care. They turn up on the day for a meal and a drink. They don’t think much about the gifts and preparations.

We need to think about a new way of celebrating Christmas. Sometimes I think if an evil villain wanted to destroy the world, he would introduce Christmas the way we celebrate it now.

So, what I want to say is, lets make Christmas relevant. Lets celebrate in accordance with our values and beliefs, including our concern for the environment. If it is women doing most of the work here, lets rein it in a little. Can we do things differently, and take the pressure off, and find our own meaning, and be a little more conscious about where everything comes from and where it goes and what we really need and what it’s all about?

And, as usual, I’ve been looking for songs, secular Christmas songs. So I’ll leave my Christmas post with Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun.

Merry Christmas

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