Since as far back as I remember Christmas Day has been a very special day for me. Now, that is not unusual for many people on this earth, but recently I’ve been pondering exactly WHAT made it so special. Once I believed it was the excitement of getting all those presents from Santa in a stocking or pillow case at the end of my bed, and all the other gifts I received from relatives over the day, but, although that was obviously PART of the specialness, it doesn’t capture it all.
A celebration of family
In recent years I’ve said that Christmas is more about family to me than anything else. This has become even moreso since my daughter was born 10 years ago, but it’s always been about family.
Maybe because I am putting the finishing touches to my new e-book about spending quality time with your kids, I’ve recently been able to identify another key aspect that made my childhood Christmas days so special.
It was the day everyone stopped!!
Well, maybe my Mum, aunties and Nana may not agree with this part, considering the amount of food preparation involved in the day, but, in our community, Christmas Day was the day everyone paused, just for one day, and allowed time to relax, celebrate, connect and share time together.
You see, the community I grew up in was a small farming community – a town of around 80 people (mostly related to me!). In Australia, December is summer and is the height of the harvest season for the grain farmers such as my father, uncle, cousin, and, in my childhood, my Pop (grandfather) and Papa (great-grandfather).
During harvest, when the weather is fine, farmers rarely stop work for anything. They are on the header/harvester until midnight or later, then start again in the very early morning. When the grain is ripe for harvest, it’s a race to get it harvested and safe in the silos; a race against the weather, locust plagues, cockatoos and other destroyers of perfectly grown grain.
The Life of a Farmer
Since well before a seed is sown, farmers have been preparing the soil, sometimes waiting for enough rain to justify the risk of sowing the expensive seed. Then when it is sown, there are many nervous months of watching and waiting to see if Mother Nature will provide enough rain and sun, in the right combinations and at the right time, to allow the seeds to mature to their full ripeness.
Even then, there are many unknown factors that come into play as to whether a crop is a good one or not. THEN, finally, when the wheat, barley, oats and so on are ripe, the race begins.
Any day that is missed, for a funeral, an emergency dental appointment, or an annual cricket trip with mates, is a cause for stress because tomorrow there could be a fierce storm, heavy rain, or even days of drizzle that wipe out or severely damage the quality of the crops.
The Innocence of Childhood
But when I was a child I knew none of this – or very little. I knew it was harvest time and that Dad, Uncle Chris, Pop and Papa, along with the rest of the male members of town were busy day and night on the “header”.
But what I didn’t know was how much of a sacrifice these men made every Christmas Day, especially when it was beautiful sunny weather, as it often was. I didn’t know how much our own livelihood rested on getting those crops off and safely in their protective silos. Or how the stress of this may have been affecting the men (and women) in my family.
But then again, maybe I did sense how special it was for them to give up a day of harvest to be exclusively with their family. Maybe that’s EXACTLY why I knew that it was a special day and one to be cherished.
The Spirit Of Christmas – for Me Anyway!
We are not a deeply religious family. We had a tradition of going to church on Christmas Eve, but that, for me, was more to catch up with all the people who came home for Christmas rather than a deeply religious reason. We also loved watching the Melbourne Carols By Candlelight on our TVs for all it’s beautiful music and pageantry.
But to me, and I believe to the rest of my family, it was more about the people we saw at Christmas and the feeling of connection we felt watching Carols by Candlelight – and our love of music. It was the SPIRIT of Christmas, rather than any religious dogma that we loved (and that I still love).
Our Special Christmas Days
On Christmas Day there was just a different feel to our household and the whole town. People dropped in for a cuppa and Christmas greeting. In later years, we not only had a special Christmas lunch and dinner, but also started having a special Christmas breakfast, which alternated between households.
Usually Christmas lunch was at my Nana and Pop’s house (500 metres down the road for us; next door for my cousins). With all of us there, plus other relatives who joined us (sometimes including my other grandparents who lived in a larger town 20 minutes drive away), there were usually at least 30 people.
Of Course There Were The Presents Too!
Of course I remember the gifts. It was extremely exciting waking on Christmas morning (as early as I could manage without getting told to stay in bed – usually dawn!) and seeing what Santa had brought me. Then excitedly sharing with my sisters and brother what they had also received.
Then we’d exchange gifts with each other (in older years), then usually, as fast as we could manage after breakfast (usually consisting of chocolate and lollies from our Christmas stockings!), we’d run down to our cousins’ place to see what they got. They used to always seem to be very much in Santa’s good books because I swear they got twice as much as us … and THEN, with much excitement, their other Nana arrived from her place (the same town my other grandparents lived in).
Our cousins’ Nana was almost like a second Santa because she always arrived with a huge amount of gifts for my cousins. We would look on with great excitement to see what Nana R had brought them. We lived vicariously (and occasionally a little enviously) through them. But despite it not being US getting the gifts it was still very exciting.
As I write this I can feel the adrenaline pumping like a little excited child. As Madonna put it so well “Living in a Material World” ….
Great Memories …
But it wasn’t just the material stuff, though at that age we would have thought it was. No, it was about sitting down at that long, long table at Nana and Pop’s, eating the lollies sitting in bowls on the table, popping the Christmas crackers, sharing the silly jokes inside, comparing the tiny gifts from inside them and putting our paper hats on our heads, laughing and talking, and sharing a huge feast with all the adults.
The kids usually had a smaller table attached to the end of the larger tables, but we were all still part of it. In later years, my aunt made personal Christmas Bon-Bons that each had a cryptic clue on them. The clue related to someone sitting at the table – something that had happened to them or a story about them from the year just gone. Our job was to, first, guess who the Bon-Bon belonged to, and then, when the person was identified, get them to tell the story (or allow others to tell it for them, as often happened, with much laughter and hilarity).
Traditions Created …
This little tradition connected us all further, and was started by my aunt at a time when we, the grandchildren, were all growing up and moving away from Navarre. It was a way of re-connecting us before Facebook existed!! I’ve always been a lot like me aunty in my/our sentimental ways. As I write this, I love her even more for introducing this beautiful tradition.
After Christmas Lunch … cricket, games … and snoozes
After lunch, the kids would go out and play with their new toys, with some adults joining in a game of cricket or other game someone had received from Santa. Usually photos were taken of the family around this time – before some dispersed to meet with other relatives – and some took the opportunity for an afternoon snooze in a chair.
This was something that I think signified to me it was a special day. Funny how such a thing can do so. But, other than Christmas Day, I don’t remember my Dad ever snoozing in a chair, mid-afternoon on a summer’s day. It just didn’t happen in the middle of harvest. Oh, how much those men must have loved the chance to just stop for a guilt-free day of rest, relaxation and celebration!
And they all stopped to rest …
It was like it was a sanctioned day of rest. I think that’s very clearly what Christmas Day is in the Christian religion, although it obviously has some other more religious meanings, purporting to be the birthdate of Jesus (I’ve leave that to historians to fight out the accuracy of that!).
But after all that long-winded story of how my Christmas Days used to look in my childhood, I come back to my realisation of why I felt it was such a special day – and why I still do.
My Very Modern Family Christmas … These Days!
Last year I had my first Christmas with no partner and no child home with me on Christmas morning (my girl was at her Dad’s until 4pm). I didn’t spend it alone. I spent a very modern family Christmas, visiting my first father-in-law for breakfast (to see my friend and former sister-in-law, her husband and my three nephews), then came home to collect my cheesecakes and salads to go over to my second father-in-law’s house to eat lunch with my brothers-in-law, sister-in-law and family (having separated at the start of that year from their son/brother). Then when my girl came home, we headed north an hour or so to be with my parents in Navarre.
A Day of Stillness … and The Value of That
What I noticed while driving around on Christmas Day was the silence and the stillness. There were no cars in supermarket carparks, few cars on the roads, and very few businesses open (just some small milk-bars and service stations. I think even Macca’s was closed!).
Everyone (almost) had stopped. For one day, they had stopped racing around, working on their to-do list, trying to achieve their goals, or just stressing. Or if they were doing so, they weren’t doing it in public.
And regardless of your religious beliefs or lack of them, having at least one day of the year of such stillness and rest surely must be a good thing for all concerned.
Not always a celebration …
Naturally, for some people, the day is not a happy one. Some are lonely, sick, hungry, dealing with family violence, dealing with every stress they deal with every day of their lives. For some people Christmas Day is no different to any other. They just deal with their unhappy lives with the knowledge that many others are having a very happy day. That must be hard.
Our Hardest Christmas …
I remember Christmas Eve 1985 was a bit like that for a 12 year old girl and her family. That 12 year old girl was me, who found out that day that my treasured Pop had terminal cancer and had been given only months to live.
That Christmas Eve in church when my cousin and I couldn’t bear to hear my Pop’s beautiful tenor voice rise above all the rest of the singers in church, knowing we were hearing him sing possibly for the last time, so we ran out of church and went home (next-door) to her house. My cousins and I grieving together (my Pop thinking we just didn’t want to be at church). Christmas Day 1985 was a melancholy one. Christmas Day 1986 even moreso without Pop or Papa (who had died the same year).
Life Goes On …
But the celebrations went on. We still got our gifts, we still had our great family meal and we still had a house full of love. For if nothing else, my Pop stood for family. He stood for a heck of a lot more too, and that legacy continues to this day in every one of us, along with the football club, the shire and the community at large.
A Day of Thanksgiving, Peace and Family
And I bet as my Pop looks down on me now, he doesn’t care how many days of harvest he gave up to be with his family for Christmas Day. He knows every one of those days was worth it, as we, too, will look back and know that every day we give up work to spend with and celebrate family was worth every sacrifice it required.
In Australia we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. I wish we did. But I think we combine the spirit of Thanksgiving into our Christmas Day celebrations.
And this year I want to give thanks to my beautiful family – those who worked hard to provide a delicious feast for Christmas Day and those who gave up a day of harvest to be with their family for it.
You have given me many treasured memories of Christmas Days spent with family, and given me the motivation to continue to honour and value that day – regardless of my religious beliefs – as a day of thanksgiving for what we have – Family, the harvest of many years of love, forgiveness and connectedness.
Merry Christmas to you all. Living with CFS or ME and other chronic illnesses is not easy. Often days like Christmas Day highlight that fact. But I do hope that you, too, can take some joy and peace from this time of pausing to reflect, celebrate and be grateful for what we DO have. Sometimes it’s a lot more than we give credit for!