As the countdown starts to Christmas, the end of the year and hopefully a few days off, we seem to be bombarded with distractions. In Australia we’ve endured a long drawnout federal election process that seemed to take forever to resolve. In Victoria, we’ve just had a state election, and again, no clear result, so we look forward to days and maybe weeks of recounts and negotiations about which party can form a government. We seem to be floating along “rudder-less” in a sea of confusion. People are scared to make decisions because they don‟t know the policy implications of a federal minority government and for Victorians, what will happen if we end up with a “hung” parliament? Now don‟t get me wrong, I don‟t consider politics and government a “distraction”, but this lack of a clear direction can be confusing at best, scary at worst. So what do we tend to do to comfort ourselves? Dive headlong into the multiple distractions that are prevalent at this time of the year. We get „wrapped up‟ (pardon the pun) in Christmas shopping. We madly try to finish off work that needs to be completed before we have a few days off. We try to juggle social functions so that we don‟t offend anyone who invites us to a “get together” we don‟t really want to attend. We wrack our brains about how to assist “Father Christmas” in his duties even if it means piling up debts on our credit cards, debts we’ll have to pay back with interest at the dawning of the New Year. In other words, we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with distractions that don’t comfort or relax us, but distractions that stress us physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, socially and financially. And what about people for whom the festive season is a harsh reminder of the absence of someone they love? In 2009 in Australia alone (according to ABS data) 140,930 people died. That means that this Christmas, 140,930 families will be sitting down to Christmas dinner with an empty chair at the table. That means for these families a grandparent, a parent, an uncle or aunt, a child or a sibling will be missing. For these families the joy that is supposed to accompany the festive season is difficult to feel. For these families it may be all they can do to turn on the television, „cause they know every advertisement they see will be of “happy families” romping around on Christmas morning. This is not their reality. And what if there are other kids in their family? How do they try and „maintain normality‟ in the face of their grief? Should they even try? I don‟t know the answers to these questions, because different answers reside in the culture of each individual family. What I do know is that we as the broader community need to start thinking about what we are doing and how we are doing it. Why are we allowing ourselves to get “sucked in” to the marketing hype that dictates the value of Christmas gifts based on a “brand”? Why do we allow ourselves to get brainwashed into thinking that our kids will suffer somehow if Father Christmas doesn‟t bring them the latest technical gizmo that‟s being advertised on the TV? Why do we think that we can “buy” the love and respect of those around us by putting on lavish parties that often, we can‟t afford? It makes no sense at all and in fact it just adds to the ever increasing stress levels that are now seen as part and parcel of a modern, civilised society.
You may think that this all sounds very negative on my part, but I‟ve been struggling with the polarities associated with Christmas and the festive season for a long time. We give “lip service” to the age old adage “season of cheer and good will to all men”, but is this how we really view the festive season in the 21st century? I don‟t think so. What if we changed our thinking and went back to this idea as a „new‟ paradigm for celebrating Christmas? How would it look? Maybe it would mean we spent less money and time searching for gifts, just so we could tick someone‟s name off the list, and spent more time in the company of that person? Maybe it would mean that instead of shopping crazily in crowded supermarkets for way too much food (and then end up throwing half of it out), we spent some time in the kitchen with our kids baking shortbread or making mince pies, individually decorated for each of the people we are expecting for Christmas dinner? Maybe instead of one person racing round in a “tizz” cooking madly for the guests, all of the people coming to the function created one dish with “love” for everyone to share? Maybe it would mean we invite someone to Christmas dinner who would otherwise spend it alone? Maybe it would mean, instead of spending a fortune on “state of the art‟ colour co-ordinated Christmas decorations and creating the “perfect” store replica Christmas tree, we spent some time in the evenings making strings of popcorn, “peg people”, felt mice, cutting crepe paper and talking, laughing and sharing before decorating the tree together? Maybe instead of buying our partner and other adults we love some useless bauble, we bought a goat or a chicken for a family in a third world country? All of this is a possibility; it just takes commitment and a realisation that life is finite. The time we spend on the stuff that doesn‟t matter instead of spending it with our children can never be replaced. Our children are only little for such a short while but if we share the joys of doing things together, the memories we create are eternal. And what of our partners, our parents, our siblings and our adult children? A Christmas will come some time in the future when one of them is missing. When there is just an empty chair. Will we have those rich memories to keep them connected to us? Will we be able to talk about them with joy amidst our sadness? Will we be able to share our memories together and fill that empty space with the essence of who they are? All of this is up to us individually. We can allow ourselves to be sucked in to the commercial world of “buy now/pay later”. We can allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by distractions. We can ignore our kids and those we love because we have too many “more important” things to do. We can forget about the sad, grieving, suffering members of our community. But will this bring us joy? Will this make us feel connected? Loved? For me, I‟ll be pulling out the box of Christmas decorations I started to make the first year I was married. I‟ll be sitting around the tree with my family, pulling out the “peg angels” I made, the felt mice Auntie Kit gave me each year, the baubles and felt bells the kids made as they grew, the funny decorated pinecones my eldest son made in Grade 3, the laminated pictures of every Christmas tree we‟ve ever had that my daughter made last year, the funny felt walking sticks my middle son decorated with sequins. We‟ll pull them out of the tatty, old box one at a time and tell the story of Christmases past. We‟ll laugh and reflect. We‟ll talk about my Dad who died six years ago and we‟ll talk about the new baby due to arrive in the family next year. Then on Christmas Day, after we welcome the extended family, we‟ll all sit around together and share simple gifts, dinner and stories. We‟ll be making the future stories. The stories that will be told at Christmases to come when there is an empty chair at our table. The stories that will keep us all connected, no matter how far apart we may be. This is how we do it. How are you going to do it this year?