THE SISTERS' SONG coming in January 2018 from Allen and Unwin. Sign up to my newsletter.

So, Christmas is over and the night has now claimed Boxing Day, too. Ah, Boxing Day, my favourite day of the year. I feel as if I can now exhale: the rush and stress of Christmas is behind me and the holidays can truly begin. I love the day so much, I could dedicate a poem to it.

We had a quiet Christmas — just the six of us. It’s been a few years since it was just us around the Christmas table — we’re usually joined by family or other Western Australian ‘orphans’. I thought it might not feel like Christmas without the big cook-up, but it did. It very much felt like Christmas. And it was peaceful, which, for me, means a lot …

As a kid, each year I looked forward to Christmas with hope. The excitement swelled throughout December and climaxed on Christmas Eve when, in the middle of the night, weary and yawning, my family and I drove to the church for Midnight Mass. The stained glass windows glowed as the congregation trickled up the steps, and inside candles flickered amidst the smell of incense and the breathy odour of beer and wine. We sang each carol boldly and with joy, Dad standing tall with his hymn book, singing louder and more tunefully than everybody else.

Later at home, we’d leave out carrots for the reindeer and a piece of Lions Christmas cake and a Boag’s stubby for Santa.

Off to bed.
My sister and I would linger, eyeing the tree with its tinseled branches that sprawled over the empty carpet below. We knew that by morning, that carpet would be a sea of presents.
Santa won’t come while you’re awake.
We’d scuttle off to bed in our cotton nighties and lie between cool sheets, too excited to sleep as we’d listen to the rustle and bump of our parents setting out the Christmas presents.
I’d hear my sister shift in the dark. ‘I think I heard Santa,’ she’d whisper. Every year.
‘That wasn’t him,’ I’d hiss.
‘I heard his bell.’
‘Don’t be stupid.’
Quiet in there, girls.
Silence.
‘It was his bell.’
‘Do you want to know what I got you?’ I’d say.
‘No.’
‘You use them to colour-in.’
‘Oh … I think I know what it is.’
‘And I didn’t tell you,’ I’d say.
Girls, if I have to come in there …
We’d settle for a minute, then my sister’s sheets would rustle again. 
‘I hope we get the dolls Mum’s hidden at the top of the wardrobe.’
‘So do I,’ I’d say. 
‘And Nan Allan, she always gives good presents.’
Right, that’s it. I don’t want to hear another word …
We’d shut up then.

The next morning we’d wake as the sun was pinking the sky, and creep from our room. Then, we’d stand in awe at the sight:

Christmas early '70s

Christmas early ’70s

It looked as if the skies had opened and poured their heavenly contents onto our lounge room floor. Our sacks would bulge with parcels, and we’d rip off the paper to find the dolls from the top of the wardrobe, and plastic jewellery, and bubblebath, and my brother would have new cricket gear and a Darth Vader doll.

As we’d finish unwrapping our presents, our mother would start unwrapping hers. She’d open her parcels and set them on the floor by the maroon velvet armchair, still in their boxes. ‘Well, better get moving,’ she’d say, and heave herself from the chair. ‘Got work to do.’

And then the argument would start. I remember one year it was because Dad gave her a white Royal Albert teapot and as he put his arms around her, he said, 
’I know it’s not much …’.

My sister, brother, and I would slink away to our rooms, where we’d sit on our beds, dressing and undressing our new dolls as we tried to tune out the angry words and the yelling coming from the kitchen.

Couldn’t remem-bah. Couldn’t remem-bah. But he could remember if he was going fishing. Or to get beer …’

On it would go until the screen door hissed open as Dad took the torn Christmas paper out to the incinerator. He’d stay outside tinkering in the shed, while Mum stood at the kitchen sink talking to herself.
‘Go on, piss off and leave me to do everything. Weak as piss. Weak. As. Piss.’ We’d hear dishes cluttering in the sink. ‘Hope everyone’s having a lovely Chrrristmas’ she’d sing, rolling her ‘r’s’, ‘as I’m standing at the kitchen sink on Chrrristmas Day. Yet another happy Chrrristmas in our household.’

We’d hide in our rooms, spooning pink food into our dolls’ mouths and watching it run out the other end. My brother would waddle in, kitted out in his new cricket pads and gloves or whatever gear he’d got for Christmas, and ask us if we wanted to play. We’d tell him to go away because we were angry that Christmas was ruined. 
So he’d waddle out with his shoulders sloping and sit in his room on his own playing with Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.

Eventually, Dad would return and say, ‘We’d better get going to your mother’s’, and my mother would say she wasn’t going because she didn’t want another day of watching everyone pissing on. The argument and yelling would continue. We’d hear a crash as something was thrown and broken. My sister would start crying and I’d walk out and yell at my mother, ‘Just stop it. You’re ruining Christmas.’

My mother would turn and yell at me that it was my father who was ruining Christmas, not her. Couldn’t remem-bah, that he couldn’t remem-bah his wife, but could remember his fishing. And his grog. Didn’t worry about anyone else because he knew she’d do that. She’d remem-bah for him, good ol’ her. She’d slave away in the kitchen while everyone else pissed off and had a good time on Christmas Day, and she’d get all the food ready while everyone else enjoyed their day, because it was all about them, no one gave a shit about her. What a pack of selfish bastards we all were. Hope you’re all having a lovely time, everybody, while good ol’ me does all the work.

My sister would cry again, and ask Mum to please come to Nan’s and can’t we all just have a nice Christmas.
Mum would start crying, saying that no one wanted her there because, apparently, she was ruining Christmas, and then she’d blow her nose.
So I’d cry and say that I was sorry I said she’d ruined Christmas, we should have gotten her better presents, and I did want her to come to Nan’s.

Finally, we’d pack the ham, the trifle and the pav in the eski, and another eski for the grog, and pile into the car clutching our dolls. We’d sit red-eyed and with a sinking feeling in our bellies as we drove to my grandmother’s for Christmas dinner where we’d pretend none of it had happened.

***

That was all a long time ago, but every December, these feelings return — the ghosts of Christmas past and the feeling that I’m not allowed to enjoy it. But none of this is my kids’ fault, and because I want them to have a happy Christmas, I tamp down my own sadness and try to be swept along by the kids and their excitement.

So I prepare for Christmas: setting up the Nativity, decorating the tree and our home, cooking Christmas food (not that I do much of that), buying the presents. Meanwhile, the kids keep a countdown:

DSC_9333

I see their excitement growing, while for me the sadness of Christmas past sits there. The kids see me cry for no reason and wonder why — it sounds trite to tell them that I’m grieving for a child whose Christmases were ruined.

Over the years, I’ve made a number of private vows to my kids — one of these was that Christmas would be happy. And peaceful. 

Two angels and a baby 2000

Dressed for the Nativity 2002

Carols by Candlelight 2006

2006

2006

Christmas in London

A white Christmas in London, 2010

I’ve done my damnedest to bring peace to our family at Christmas. Actually, I’ve done my damnedest to bring peace to my family, full stop. Yesterday, as I sat around our table surrounded by family and chatter, food and bon bons, my thoughts drifted across the continent to a lady who, because of her hurtful actions over many years, once again was not contacted by either of her living children at Christmas. And, despite everything, that made me sad. For many years, I tried to tell her that what she was doing was hurting me, and later I tried to show her a peaceful family, but she still chose another pathway.

For me, Christmas will always be tinged with sadness, but I have a dream: that when my kids have their families, they’ll be able to join in the fun of Christmas without sadness and without guilt because, for them, Christmas will be associated with happy memories.

I have an even bigger dream, too: I hope that one day there won’t be just six happy people around our Christmas table, but sixteen, or twenty-six, or however many we become …

At least it’s started, this new, happy Christmas traditionAnd that, I believe, is the best Christmas gift I could give my kids.

***

I want to thank all of my readers this year. You have been so encouraging, supportive, and kind, and given me the confidence to keep writing and find my voice. I can’t thank you enough. 

As my family embarks on our holiday, I wish you all peaceful times with your families, because that, for me, is what this time of year is really about:

Family

Nativity

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THE SISTERS' SONG

Coming January 2018 (Allen and Unwin)

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