The bric-a-brac shop is brimming with glittering tinsel, snow-covered reindeer, cheery Santa dolls and wreaths. I ask for a nativity set and the owner’s brow furrows. “You know,” I say, “Mary and Jesus? The stable?” His face clears. “No, we don’t have that,” he says. And I leave with my big bag of tinsel for the Christmas tree, Santa hats and protruding rolls of wrapping paper.
The prelude to Christmas is stressful. There are presents to be arranged for children’s teachers and Christmas lunches to be planned. Multiple little decisions need to be made such as how to cook a Christmas lunch for thirty people and whether it is permissible to ask for a contribution to the cost and how to put the pragmatic request for cash in a way that doesn’t take away from the magic of Christmas. At school, the parents are trying very hard to keep it together.
There are social events to be attended, school thank you functions, morning teas and parent drinks, more socialising crammed into one month than has been dotted throughout the entire year. Parents are dropping out of these social events like flies because time is precious now, that hour or two spent chatting could be used more productively on Christmas shopping, and parents are flooding the stores, marching grimly up escalators and through crowds, single-minded in their intent, pulling toys off shelves, working off first impressions and gut instinct. There will be time later to allocate gifts; for now it’s all about the buying because once school breaks up and children are home who knows when there will be another chance.
The children are tired. The little girl in the play is crying. Being an earthbound sheep does not meet with her approval when others get to flutter about as angels. The drummer has only just noticed in his music notebook the drumming sequence his teacher wants him to play in the imminent Christmas concert. The children are exhausted after a long year and full of the sugar of candy canes and chocolate Santas exchanged between classmates with Christmas cards.
Workers are hard at it with ends to be tied up and things to be pushed to the point where they can be left for a while. Office workers are getting up earlier to find the time to complete the tasks that buy them some Christmas leisure and occasionally find themselves eating breakfast well into the day.
Some among us have got this Christmas chaos sorted and have quietly, methodically bought gifts during the year and carefully squirrelled them away in cupboards beyond the reach of the small and the curious. The organised Christmas card writers have already penned newsy letters and selected accompanying photos neatly capturing the year’s events. But most who choose to attempt a Christmas summary of the year will do so in haste, jumping haphazardly between half remembered events like foolhardy adventurers crossing raging torrents by slippery stepping stones, just hoping for the best.
Most of us will be scrambling in one way or another warding off unhelpful uppercase thought bubbles like “HELP!!” “I CAN’T COPE!” or “I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE!” There may be no way to avoid the rising tide of pre-Christmas stress save to hold on to the knowledge that peace is coming. Basketball has finished for the year and cricket will soon cease. School will eventually break up and bags will be cleared out. School uniforms will be washed and dried in the December heat, to be sorted into clothes too small, to be passed on to friends, and those that will see out another season.
It may not feel like it but tasks will be completed, responsibilities divested and items on to-do lists ticked off. We will make progress through the noise and the hurrying and as each task falls the stillness will grow as the city slides into sleep, its lights winking out one by one. Our children will finally shuck off the armour they have acquired during the school year and return to us, wholly ours, unfurling, free to share thoughts and ideas unlimited by the restraints of routines, set tasks, homework. We adults will unfurl too, take deeper breaths and tentatively permit ourselves to divert from routines strictly ruled by the clock. We will lighten up and laugh more, remembering the bigger world around us.
In the heat of the Australian summer as we enjoy our ocean dips and long rejuvenating sleeps, when the pre-Christmas stress is but a sigh in our memory, our thoughts might stray to the baby born humbly in a stable; a secret, simple beginning that changed the world.
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