I’ve never had a great time at Christmas. Probably because I’m not big on family gatherings, high-calorie meals or countless shitty children, it’s always seemed like something to drag myself through inch by inch, minute by minute. Just call me the Grinch and be done with it. My hair was green once, that counts. It’s become that time of year again – as it does, every year: time, am I right? – where it’s awfully close to Christmas Day and I have not purchased presents for any of the loved ones in my life. I figure that this year, I’m just gonna wrap myself in candy-cane wrapping paper and lie prostrate underneath the tree. For what it’s worth (possibly not very much), the fact that I’m still alive can be my present to people this year. Surprise! So heartfelt. It’s a Christmas miracle.
The year is 2007. It is Christmas Day. This year’s family gathering is held at my Uncle Gerard’s house and is a ridiculously Grand Affair, Gerard himself (and his then wife Adele) overpaying for their children’s “presents from the family” and thereby setting every mother in the family off as they imagined their own child’s reaction to their lesser present in the face of Gerard’s children Mia and Liam (who had received, for this year, a “Holly Hobby” style electrical house the size and price of a small car, featuring carpet, wood-vein and a child-sized couch – domestic bliss.) To give you an idea, Gerard and Adele owned a freezer that made its own ice and a white leather couch with individual seat warmers. The other Aunts and Uncles were livid. What would their own darling child do when they realized they’d only received a few measly DVDs and a Playstation 2 controller? What would they do when they realized their present wasn’t carpeted? It was all highly dramatic.
Early on in the piece, to combat boredom and my general disdain for St Nicholas-themed proceedings, I start on champagne with Katrina, now my brother’s wife. Katrina – unlike me – was sensible and only had a glass or two. In attempts to dull my pain, I swiftly made my way through most of my parents’ champagne and several ciders I’d gotten from somewhere or other (possibly I’d just taken them from a random esky – if I did and you’re reading this and hate me for stealing your now seven year old cider, I apologise. Let me know and I’ll buy you some more). All of this on a 40-something-degree-day: accordingly, I very quickly got drunk and became the victim of champagne heatstroke. Attempting to clear and rest my head, I stagger outside like an angry bear, children swarming around my feet, down the enormous hallway, giant knock-off paintings judging me like Van Gogh himself has returned from the grave, pissed off. My head feels like a saccharine volcano about to burst and I need some goddamn shade.
Darkness surrounds me. I’ve found a comfortable hovel, away from the 40-degree heat, and a place to rest my head. Then, a voice – one that I at first think is inside my head, but that soon stretches out, like the darkness, to surround my very consciousness.
“Who…. Who’s that?”. The speaker is young, high-pitched, and sounds like they have a snotty nose. “Who’s that? Who’s that? Who iiiiiiiiiiiiiis that?”
And another voice, higher still and female: “Chruh… Chruh… Chruh…”
Oh, spit it out, I think, my head throbbing with the heated hellish onslaught of a day-drinking hangover.
The voice takes a breath, then: “Critterfah. Our cousin.”
In a sudden rage, my eyes snap open. I can see Mia and Liam, their faces inquisitive and pressed hard against the plastic window. Mentally, I zoom out, and see myself crammed like Alice in Wonderland in the kids’ expensive Christmas toy, my leg stuffed out one of the windows and red-raw from sun exposure and my neck incredibly sore from falling asleep on the ‘kitchen’ table and basically remaining on a 90 degree angle for an hour or more.
I try to stand up and crack my head on a timber support beam. Fuck. Whoever designed this house had attention to detail.
Probably an actual architect, I think bitterly. Only the best for the children.
“Merry Christmas, kids,” I mutter to Liam and Mia as I ungracefully attempt to inchworm my way out of the too-small doorframe (the house has a light-up microwave, but no front door, for whatever bizarre reason). At least Alice got a magic mushroom and a chimney-sweep lizard to show for her domestic adventures.
From 2012 to 2013 I worked at a high-class Toorak deli (grey bobs everywhere) where the prices were high and the customers were often higher (prescription pills).
Once, when I was still being trained, some customer left a little white baggie on the ground. Steph – a fellow worker, insanely gorgeous, imperious and made up to the gods – tutted as she bent down to pick up the offending baggie.
“Excuse me?!” she chastised it sarcastically. “It’s not Christmas yet!”
The plan, it seemed, was simple. Christmas-Eve-day was their biggest trading day and as such we were all assigned 8 hour shifts. To get through the insanity, we would all put money in a kitty. This money would then go towards purchasing a quantity of speed, which would allow each worker to get through the day. Our manager – Janice, a lovely woman with a kind yet stern and motherly attitude – was the only staff member, as far as I know, to refrain.
“Put it in her coffee,” Steph laughed, flicking at the small baggie of yellow crystals in my hand.
The stuff was magic, and the customers were insanity – there were maybe 20 customers for each worker on duty, and some items in the store we couldn’t sell because there was simply no room to get to the shelves at the back (and this being Toorak, you couldn’t, of course, suggest that a customer could get an item themselves).
Most customers were there to pick up turkeys and salad. The turkeys had, much to mine and Steph’s amusement, been placed on their backsides so they looked ungainly and childlike, and been cooked at a high temperature as quickly as possible. This had resulted in reams of stuffing flowing out of the top of them, making them look less like a child and more like a sidewalk drunk, handfuls of walnut and cranberry stuffing dribbling out of their crisped turkey neckholes like the most violent diarrhea known to anyone, anywhere. In reverse.
“Order number four hundred and fifty six,” a woman announced, pushing her ticket across the bench and towards me with a manicured hand.
“Sure thing!” I said cheerily, full of drugs and under the impression I could do anything, I could be the best damn deli assistant ever.
I found the woman’s order – a turkey and two large salads, all crammed into a pleasant, probably organic cardboard box – and read the receipt out to her.
“That comes to…” I faltered as I reached the price. A mistake, surely?
“Yes?” the woman asked.
“A thousand dollars,” I replied, fearing the woman’s outrage at my obvious mistake.
“Right,” the woman replied, rummaging through her handbag. “You do take AMEX? It’s so hard to find a black card in a black bag, even with all the light in here, a-hah-hah-hah.”
Several hours later, I’ve been released from my duties, and I exit through the store’s front door, now that the customers are mostly gone. Our manager, Janice, stands in the corner on a step-ladder, facing the wall and sobbing uncontrollably, her body shaking dolefully. I’m almost out the door, and I stop and turn stiffly, awkward and unsure of what to do.
“…bye Janice!” I opt for, stupidly, instead of saying that I hoped she was okay.
“Wait!” she replies, turning on the spot.
“Yuh… yes?” I reply.
“Take a cake, if you want one,” she replies. “We’ve got heaps left over,” she gestures. “So… so you can just take one if you want. You all can.”
“Oh,” I reply, taking one of the cakes in hand. “That’s so kind of you.
Janice smiles through her tears.
“And… Merry Christmas.”
A few years previous, I worked at a video store – “Video Busters” – and eagerly stuck my hand up when they’d asked who’d like to work on Christmas day.
This’ll be so easy! I thought to myself as I stepped forward.
It wasn’t. “Video Busters” was in Elsternwick (for non-Melbournites, it’s a suburb predominantly lived-in by Jewish families). Smash cut to me, an hour into my shift, a pile of cast-off DVDs in front of me larger than my face, and an aggressive mother and child combination, the child crying and waving a DVD around that he’s plucked from the shelves – “I Love My Big Sister’s Tits 9”.
“Come on,” the woman coaxes. “Give Mummy the DVD, it’s not for children. Not for kid-kids. Come on. Come on.”
“FINE.” The child intones and smashes the offending DVD to the ground, where it bounces once and breaks open, the disc itself (adorned with a ‘sexy’ photograph of the “sister” in question – the film’s right, her tits are indeed pretty large) flying out, bouncing off the concrete floor and rolling down one of the aisles to hit somebody in the foot.
“What’re you going to do about it?” the woman hisses to me.
“Uh…” I’m genuinely unsure as how to reply. “Go and get the disc from the floor?”
And hope that your kid learns the meaning of the word ‘no’, I silently add.
“Now is not the time,” my manager snaps from her station and presses a few buttons at the computer. Above her, Madonna sings “Hung Up” from the store’s P.A. system, and I think how glad I am it’s that and not Christmas carols.
“It is Christmas,” the woman spits and shoves her chosen films towards me. As she does so, the Star of David around her neck glints bright in the store’s halogen lights.
“Oh. Sorry,” I intone as I appraise her chosen films. Apparently “My Big Sister’s Tits 1-8” don’t feature on their holiday viewing repertoire. “Merry Christmas,” I say.
“Don’t you dare be sarcastic,” the woman replies, and scoops her child up in one: “Hello. Hello. Boo-bub-bub-bub-bub? Bub bub bub?”
My best friend Ali’s father has a life-sized Santa Claus robot that has become synonymous with the holiday period. She’s in Canada, now, but every Christmas gathering she’d have was never complete ‘till someone got the bright idea to switch the gigantic Santa on. This thing is around six feet tall and looks to have swallowed (and consequently been unable to digest) a wooden barrel as well as a motion sensor, which sets its body off, rocking back and forth like a lunatic mental patient, its arms karate-chopping as it goes and something inside it sings in a mechanical baritone with canned Christmas cheer: “It’s the most, wonderful, tiiiiime, of the yeaaaar.”
An hour ago, as I wait for my physio to pick me up from reception, a hospital lunch-lady with metres of red and gold tinsel wrapped round her midriff comes rocketing along with a refrigerated trolley in front of her, wheels sliding madly back and forth.
The woman locks eyes with me in brief recognition as she recalibrates the mechanized lunch-carrying weapon in front of her and hikes up her tinself-belt over her painfully cheery outfit, the t-shirt underneath emblazoned with the less-cheery name: CAULFIELD ACQUIRED BRAIN INJURY UNIT!! And below this: SEASON’S GREETINGS!!
She smiles – more a grimace, really – and hikes up her tinsel again. Apparently it’s not doing what she wants. Then, in one movement, she slams the lunch-trolley into the gigantic wooden doors towards the hospital’s in-patient ward, and bellows as one would to a pack of hungry domestic dogs: “LUNCH’S UP EVERYBODY.”
I was officially adopted into my family some days before Christmas itself, 1988. In those days – of briefcase-sized mobile phones, “Beaches” and “Beetlejuice” – my parents still attended church twice a week. Word spread quickly around the parish that my parents had been successful in their bid to adopt a child, and one Sunday every churchgoer and official congratulated them on their adoptive success. Father Trick – who started his Christmas sermons by pointing to the plastic Jesus in the nearby nativity scene and saying “we are here today because of THAT THING. THAT THING THERE, IN THE HAY.” – came up to my parents after his sermon, taking their hands in his and saying:
“A new son! It’s like a baby-sized Christmas present. Congratulations!”
I was quickly taken in by my extended family and, in rare moments of tranquility – I was a screamer – I’d sit on salmon coloured carpet staring wondrously and glassy-eyed up at the rainbow-lit Christmas tree above me, drooling slightly, as babies are wont to do.
This habit stuck with me for years afterwards, ‘till I was six or seven and would sneak out of my bed late at night just to see the alien glow of those multicoloured festive lights; to take in their ethereal beauty and quiet dignity.
Now it seems, Christmas no longer has either of those things, but maybe that’s just because I know that Santa isn’t real and so, with the magic man gone, the magic itself is gone. (My private drama teacher, in year 4: “Because you all know Santa’s not real, right? Oh, come on Chris, surely you knew!” (I didn’t)).
But, accordingly, there’s a different kind of magic around Christmas time; not one of presents and material possessions, but of simply being with the people you love, of company as the real present, of being an adult, of getting to choose your family and who to spend it with. Because the old adage lied to you: you can choose your family. You’re not stuck with them. Maybe they’re related to you by blood, maybe they’re not, but they mean more than any Hallmark card or clichéd anecdote or advice ever could. Why?
Because you chose them.