Monday, December 26, 2011

Don't they know it's Christmas time

As a jewish kid growing up in suburban Melbourne, Christmas Day was the most boring day of the year. An enforced rest day for backyard test match cricket. My friend Mark was ensconced in a day of feasting and present-getting with his family and unlike most days of the summer holidays where I would show up at his house by 8am accompanied by my cricket bat, on Christmas Day his place was off limits. My parents were conscious that sister Nat and I may feel a bit left out with all of our friends parading their new bikes, scooters, skateboards and fancy games after Christmas and so for a few years gave us a few token presents so we wouldn't be too jealous. But along with the presents, we received the news very early on in life that not only was there no Santa Claus, but indeed there was no Christmas. We were jewish and didn't believe all that stuff about Jesus. Nat hated the idea of not receiving presents when everybody else was receiving them and I remember her bemoaning the fact on a few occasions that she wished we were born christian. It was difficult for me not to harbour similar desires at times. That religion seemed to come with more tangible benefits than our own, including one day dedicated purely to the eating of chocolate. None of our friends seemed particularly caught up in all the God stuff that supposedly went with it. They just got the good stuff. Jews seemed to go the other way with their big days. On Yom Kippur, the biggest of all, you got to spend the whole day bored out of your brain at the synagogue atoning for your yearly sins. Listening to the rabbi go on for hours on end in hebrew, a language I didn't understand at all. The adults (anyone over 13) weren't allowed to eat or drink anything at all from sunset the previous evening until sunset on Yom Kippur night, so it was starvation and thirst as well as boredom for them. Relatives would come over and pinch your cheeks and give you a kiss with their stale breath from having had their saliva completely evaporated, leaving only the stale odour of meals from a previous day. Compared to presents and a sumptuous feast for the christians, it seemed so unfair. And there wasn't a lot of religious tolerance for a couple of jewish kids in the suburbs in the 70s. Where we lived, everybody was pretty much christian so we were the odd ones out. Nat was forbidden from playing with a girl named Susan Baulch because her German mother didn't want her playing with a filthy jewish Christ killer. Pretty difficult for a grade 3 girl to understand when, as far as she could remember, she hadn't actually killed anyone and her activities were more likely to involve Barbie dolls and a Barbie camper than hammering nails through someone's wrist and securing them to a cross. Maybe Susan's mother would have approved more if they were Klaus Barbie dolls and a Barbie transport train. In fact it was only really anti-semitism that actually made me identify strongly with being jewish through my school years. Taunts at school about being a fourby-two (rhyming slang for jew) and being ostracised by kids at various stages for that reason had me identifying strongly with those unfortunates who had to face the spanish inquisition or who were marched to death camps in Germany. In fact the more i came to know of the world, the more it seemed to me that religion was the reason for the majority of the problems between peoples and the many wars that resulted. The catholics and the protestants in Ireland. The jews and the muslims in the middle east. The sunni and the shiite in Iraq. The hindus and the muslims in India. And a litany of other conflicts. All of these religions that had the same foundation at their core, which was purported to be "love thy neighbour" but who seemed actually to be leaving unsaid "but if you don't love thy neighbour in exactly the way we tell you we'll kick the shit out of you". As I got older, I left the present envy behind, but I still came to admire Christmas, because from what I could gather, people seemed to be genuinely more accepting and friendly on that day. Peace and love to fellow man actually seemed true for one day, even from the bigoted bloke down the street who every other day would crack it because some chinks had moved into the neighbourhood. People everywhere smiled and laughed and offered their genuine best wishes. They put up cheesy decorations on their house which I never got into, but it seemed to make them happy which was the main thing. But still, for a jewish family, come Christmas Day, there was nothing. None of my friends could believe that there were no presents (they stopped coming when I was about 8) and not even a special meal with the family. Nothing. In fact that's not totally true, it was always at Christmas time that the interstate jewish sports carnival would be held, typically with the carnival welcome ball being held on Christmas night. The carnival moved from one Australian city to another each year and comprised many sports and had a rich history. My father was a carnival stalwart, representing Victoria in cricket a record number of times and my parents actually met at one Perth carnival. When the carnival was in Melbourne, Nat and I would be bored doing nothing on Christmas Day and then stay home with a babysitter at night while mum and dad went off to the ball. Being interstate at a carnival though was a different story. There, being surrounded by jews, it was as if Christmas didn't even exist. It was a completely jewish sporting and social affair where the world of the christians and their festival seemed a long way away. But here there was a different kind of us and them that became apparent to me as I got older and also started to play cricket for Victoria at carnival. There were those who went to the main jewish school Mt. Scopus and those, like Nat and I, who didn't. It somehow seemed that we were in the minority everywhere we went, even within the minority. And the bigotry, while manifesting itself in different forms, was no less prevalent. There were of course exceptions and I did have friends at the carnivals, but I couldn't help feeling that the kind of insular hierarchical structure that existed was a crock of shit. Especially when I seemed way down on that hierarchy. While undoubtedly the sport was of a high standard and taken very seriously, in hindsight the main function of the carnivals essentially seemed to be to match up the male and the female jews so as to create more jews. But perhaps I'm just bitter because I didn't seem to be getting anywhere near as much sex as everybody else there, even though the pheromones seemed to be dripping from everywhere.

It wasn't until my late teens that I actually got to properly experience Christmas for myself. Albeit somebody else's. By that stage many of my friends seemed envious that I didn't have to go running around the shops frantically at the last minute trying to find presents for all my relatives like they did. Instead I would just casually drop in on various Christmasing families on December 25th and soak in some of their wonderful Christmas spirit. The Spicers. The Mollets. The Martins. They all welcomed me in on the day, and made me feel a part of it all, to which I am still very grateful. They didn't care that I was brought up with different beliefs and they didn't force any of theirs on me. They just welcomed me as a loved honorary member of their family for the time that I was with them. It was only when I started going out with Tori however that I came to experience the full extravaganza that is Christmas. At that stage, there were no kids involved and we were the youngest ones. We'd rock up at Tori's folks' (Mike and Maggie), along with Tori's sister Liz and her husband Malcolm, first thing Christmas morning and the present fest would begin. I'd never seen so many. After about 45 minutes of present opening I recall looking over at their elaborately decorated tree and seeing that no apparent dent had been made in the enormous pile of colourfully wrapped parcels that lay underneath. It was slightly overwhelming but intoxicating all the same. We pigged out until we were completely stuffed with food and then pigged out some more.

At home with Tori, I always felt uncomfortable about having a christmas tree. While the religion from my upbringing has slowly but surely dissipated over the years, I couldn't bring myself to adopt another set of religious beliefs or have them on display in my own home. And having a traditional tree with angels and symbols of the little lord jesus was just too much for me to take. Tori didn't really believe all the religious doctrine but she did love Christmas and all the trimmings that went along with it. So in the end we compromised. A tree, but a native Australian tree rather than the typical symbolic pine. Fancy decorations but no Jesus. Absolutely no nativity scenes. So somehow we've sort of distilled Christmas to fit our judeo-christian-nonbelieving-heathen mindsets. When we were living in England and couldn't be with Tori's family, we had a wild and fun assortment of Christmases together in an array of different places. A white Christmas in the quaint Essex village of St. Osyth. One involving a rare species of Norfolk fungi and some hilarity in the English seaside town of Brighton. Another in Amsterdam that was a little too indulgent on duty free champagne, hotel room service and other local produce. And most bizarrely but very fondly, one on the outskirts of the southern Jordanian town of Aqaba where the two christian girls present were outnumbered by the muslims and the jew, who celebrated Christmas for and with them on the banks of the red sea under a bedouin tent.

Only seven weeks after Tori and I moved back to Australia from England, Christmas eve 2003, I was celebrating with some former work colleagues at their annual breakup when a call came through from my mother. A primeval howl came down the phone that chilled me to the core. I'd never heard a sound like it. Without her even saying one word I knew that my father was dead. Mum had arrived home from work to find dad on the stair landing where he'd fallen after having a massive heart attack. No warning. No previous history. Just game over. I sobered up immediately, jumped in the car, picked up Nat and drove over to mum and dad's house. By the time we got there, the ambulance crew had already placed my father's body in the bed to await collection from the jewish undertakers, known as the Chevra Kadisha. Each of us got to spend some time alone with my father in the hours that we waited for them to come by, which was as it turns out a special way to be able to say goodbye. When they finally arrived and loaded up his body to be taken away it was after 10pm. The jews like to bury the dead as soon as possible and the Chevra Kadisha suggested that we should have the funeral the next day. "Christmas Day?", I questioned. They could see nothing wrong with that at all. I told them that I knew we were all jews, but my father had many non-jewish friends and acquaintances who I knew would want to come and pay their respects. Including my wife and her family. It was not going to be possible to contact everyone in the next 12 hours, have them abandon their family Christmas plans and come to a funeral instead. It seemed to be asking a lot. We agreed then that the funeral would be Boxing Day. That was more fitting anyway as historically I would spend Boxing Day at the MCG with my father. Many people attended his funeral and he was given a fine farewell around about the time that Brett Lee would have been taking the new ball from the members end.

Since Jaz and Finn came along, Christmas has taken another twist. They love Christmas for the presents and decorations and who could blame them. They get so excited in the build up to the day that it almost makes them sick with anticipation. They love singing carols and annually get miffed about my refusal to go and see them singing by candlelight down in Warrandyte. While I have no problem with the fact that judaism has completely left my life as a belief system, I still have difficulty hearing my offspring singing songs about some biblical character who, through no fault of his own, had a major part to play in the persecution of my forebears through history. But I love the genuine goodwill that emanates from this particular day. And I'm happy that I now have a part in it. A set aside special day to share a loving time with family and friends. Where gluttony is embraced and a nap on the couch is the expected outcome. And I still love also that Christmas Day is Boxing Day eve. The night before the first day of the Melbourne test match. That part of my childhood remains intact. After a cricket free day for Christmas, play always resumes on Boxing Day.

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