Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

the silly season

I’ve just experienced my first Australian Christmas. Having arrived here to start a new life two weeks ago, I can’t say I’ve gotten my head around it. Maybe I was never going to be ready, especially after all my disorienting travel. Two months ago I was in the Persian Gulf, then it was late autumn from one coast of America to another. Now it’s summer down under — and it’s Christmastime? Really?

Christmas has always meant a lot to me. But even years ago when I decided to migrate to Oz, I thought I’d have to give up the thought of it. It’s too closely associated with winter in my mind. I know there’s an ongoing culture war over whether the yuletide should be thought of as a commemoration of the solstice — a pagan holdover — or rightfully only a Christian holy day. I’ve never had a problem with it being both; it only makes sense that we celebrate new life at the darkest time of year, just as the days start getting longer. Christmas speaks of winter’s waiting and hoping and yearning for warmth. Caroling, feasting, gift-giving: the rituals of a cold northern place.

This is most poignantly true of the evergreen foliage that adorns home and shopping mall alike at the holidays. Symbolic of eternal life, radiating soothing essences, the trees are synonymous with the season. So too their noble dark greens, especially when splashed with the blood red of hollyberries and cranberries — winter’s precious few dashes of color and cheerful life against the cold white of frost, and midnight blue. Color is the first thing about Christmas.

Everything I’d heard about the antipodean celebration from my wife and others didn’t even sound like the same holiday. Picnics? The beach? Festivals? Summer is brash and loud, energetic, bright with fulfilled promise wherever winter is quiet and dark, subtle and grave. In fact I love summer; if I could have it all the time I would. But I never pictured Christmas in it. And this year I noted without sadness that as the day approached the spirit had eluded me completely. Well, if I wasn’t forsaking Christmas forever, I would at least take a break from it this year. And anyway the commercialism has gotten so bad it was not worth crying over. 

Upon arrival it didn’t surprise me to see Sydney’s shops and public spaces decorated with often artificial holly and pine, and various depictions of snow and snowmen. And reindeer. And of course Santa and his elves, geared up for the North Pole. Obviously forest green and hollyberry red were the universal colors. The tunes blaring on the radio were the usual suspects. (I think even native Aussies can find “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” and “Frosty the Snowman” a bit much.)

So I’m told Christmas in Oz is called the Silly Season. Yes, decorating an Australian mall like winter in Estonia is silly. A bus driver sweating in a Santa suit is silly. (I’ve seen a lot of that: it seems the number of crazy Santa hats and improvised reindeer antlers worn in public goes up with the temperature.) But there’s something to it that goes beyond the cynical, keys into what Christmas is about down here. After a couple of festive barbecues and picnics — well, I was no closer to figuring it out, but I couldn’t help but get into it a bit. Maybe there’s something good about Christmas being boisterous and fun and outdoors? Something great about the season falling just at the start of summer vacation? Sure enough, Australia basically shuts down at this time of year, and the party goes on for weeks.

I made a droll comment on facebook about my first Christmas barbecue last week, and a Hawaiian friend told me that’s how Polynesians always celebrate. Of course! It reminded me there’s half a world of people who take this for granted, who are raised with Christmas as a hot weather thing as much as the Fourth of July is for me. (Since the faith originated in the Middle East, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine. Perhaps early Christians barbecued on their holy days?) The celebration is tied in with winter in the north but it doesn’t mean the rest of the world should just forget about it. 

But I do think Australians should forget about snowmen, and Rudolph, and wooly stocking hats, and find more ways to symbolically combine the sacred and the summery (if not the silly). I’m thinking of Christmas lights on eucalyptus. I’m thinking of gardens of native plants lit up with stars and angels. Visual traditions based on the light and color of a summer sunset or a bonfire on the beach, the explosion of hues found in the flowers. In particular the brilliant magenta flowers of the bouganvillia found everywhere in suburban gardens here caught my eye this week and became my holiday motif. (They are native to Brazil but it fits my antipodean drift.) There is plenty of good old Christmasy green and red in the local flora too. And then there are the birds! The pink galahs, emerald lorikeets, yellow and white cockatoos are like ornaments themselves in the grey-green gum trees or the electric sapphire of the southern sky. Now that’s a celebration. That’s where I would start in designing a Christmas card or window display. There must be music and food and other traditions to match and make for a uniquely Australian holiday.

I’m sure plenty of Aussies think this way already. I just got here; I don’t mean to go on about how things should be different. These are my own thoughts over a few days on what is now a brand new holiday for me. And anyway the hundreds of people I saw at the beach on Christmas morning playing in the waves and surfing and just relaxing in the Aussie sun didn’t seem bothered by any old traditions at all.


Every man has a genius, though it is not always discoverable. Least of all when choked by the trivialities of daily existence. But in this disturbing country, so far as I have become acquainted with it already it is possible more easily to discard the inessential and to attempt the infinite.

This passage occurs early on in Patrick White’s novel Voss, which I’m currently reading for the first time. It’s a feverish vision of nineteenth-century Australian exploration, and, I discover, a modernist classic which put Australia on the literary map on publication in 1957. In fact I had never heard of it before it was given to me by my Australian sister-in-law for my birthday last month — meant to celebrate my departing America to live in Sydney.

I’ve been here a week and a half. My wife and I have been busy setting up our apartment. It’s the Christmas season and the start of summer. I’ve found that Australia basically shuts down for the holidays and it’s not a great time to look for work. I started reading Voss mostly because I needed something to read and it was there in my luggage. But it has gripped me well enough.

Angela may have chosen Voss simply because it’s an antipodean classic — she’s actually given me several over the years, including The Fatal Shore and Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. (She’s helped me immensely with my homework before migrating.) She might have chosen another book and I might have chosen something else for inspiration. But things are what they are and it’s a fine book to be reading right now. It’s kind of wonderful to be sitting in our sunny living room here on the North Shore, listening to the buzzing of cicadas and the passing trains, and immersing myself in White’s fragmented dream of that hot, difficult other time, his sarcastic sketches of that colonial nightmare. Feeling how the noble and ridiculous Voss is bound some troublesome impulse, some inner hardness, to get lost here. Even to be destroyed here.

You will be burnt up most likely, you will have the flesh torn from your bones, you will be tortured probably in many horrible and primitive ways, but you will realize that genius of which you sometimes suspect you are possessed, and of which you will not tell me you are afraid.

Not many souls are given a chance to choose a country. Most people are born in a place and live their lives there. Many never consider leaving; many more think of it but never act. Still others may try and fail.

I am aware of how very lucky I am. I came to this place almost five years ago and fell in love with it. In the years since I decided I wanted to live here; and my conviction only grew as I read about it and thought about it and talked to other Australians. I considered all the factors, weighed options, compared the costs of living and the crime rates. And now I do live here. It all makes perfect sense. Until I think about it again.

It occurs to me that being born to a nation is like having an arranged marriage. Throughout history most marriages were arranged, because that is what suited society the most. Then romantic love began taking precedence over class, money, and property as the main determining factor. Whether romance is up to the task is perhaps up for discussion, considering the colossal rate of failure.

Most people will of course immediately dismiss the idea of arrangement as barbarism. I’ve always thought otherwise, always found it a pretty sound practice. For one thing there’s nothing intrinsic about it that should deny or foil true love. You don’t get to pick your parents or your siblings, yet there is a good chance you love them with all your heart. The same must be true of our native countries.

There are so many things we are born into: our bodies, our families, our nations. We don’t get to choose much. I chose another nation to be my home. Is it a kind of romance?