Christmas Traditions

Since this is the December edition of the AHHCA’s Informer, I am going to present a short piece about my experiences of Christmas, growing up in South Africa, and how that influences how I celebrate Christmas today.

I am the 6th of seven children, so that makes 9 in my family of origin. I don’t remember much about celebrating Christmas with my family before the age of about 8 or 9, but around this time, Christmas became something very special to me. By the time I turned 9, I had older siblings who had left home, were studying or who were at high school. Myself and my younger sister were still in primary school and were regarded as the “babies” of our large family, and so her and I generally got a bit spoilt. Although I enjoyed being made to feel special, I wanted to associate myself with my older sibling’s lives, not to be thought of as the “baby” of the family at Christmas. My siblings were all growing up, and some of them were young adults, but I so loved the way we all came together at Christmas time.

When I was still little, for my sake and the sake of my younger sister, my parents had developed a tradition of hiding all gifts, then packing us all up and taking us off to midnight mass. (We were a Catholic family). One of my parents would stay back to put out all the gifts. By the time I was nine and my older siblings were growing up, we kept up this tradition but by now I knew exactly where all the presents came from, so we started a new tradition of giving each other gifts. This became very important to me and I would save every cent of my pocket money throughout the year so I could buy each one of my family members a small gift, as well as a few special friends. Feeling that I had contributed to this gift exchange made Christmas even more special to me. As my siblings started earning money, their gifts became, what was to me, quite lavish. I felt so special getting a floral silk scarf from the poshest departmental store in town from my oldest brother, and my first make up set from my older sister. I treasured all the special gifts I received from my parents and my older siblings.

My oldest brother is nine years older than me and we developed a tradition between us on Christmas morning, that after midnight mass and opening all our presents, he and I would walk up to the top floor of the highest building in the city and watch the sun rise. I was a bit afraid of heights but treasured this special time with my big brother. We would talk together about deep and meaningful things.

I thought that this was what Christmas was all about, getting gifts and spending time with family. One day, however, when I was about 12-years-old, after we had finished eating a lavish meal, made for us by our mother, who didn’t like cooking, or anything domestic at all really, my beliefs abruptly changed. After sharing our festive family meal, my oldest brother put away his plate and instructed me to do likewise. He then took out another plate, loaded it with as much as he could, and told me to come with him. I thought it rather strange, us walking up the road with a plate of food, not knowing where I was going. We walked up the hill and then up a set of stairs towards what I knew as the bus stop that brought me home from school. Still not knowing what was going on, my brother told me to sit down as we were going to get on the next bus and give the bus driver the plate of food. He then went on to explain to me that not everyone gets to eat Christmas dinner, some people have to work to feed their families and some people have no food at all. I awkwardly joined in his gifting the next bus driver with the generous plate of festive food. It was not my brother’s words that made an impression on me that day, but rather his kindly actions towards the bus driver, who no doubt had mouths to feed in the township where he lived (this was apartheid South Africa and Black people were not allowed to live in the White areas of the city, or to travel on busses designated for white passengers. Furthermore, they had to have permits to work in the White areas of the city). I have no idea what the bus driver thought about two White people getting on his bus with a plate of festive food for him, but I am sure he, or someone else, enjoyed the meal. After this experience, Christmas was never quite the same for me.

As I grew up, although I still loved Christmas, especially the fact that I got to spend it with my family, it started to take a different focus. By the time I was 18 I had a baby and the focus of Christmas then became making a fuss over her and including her in all the family celebrations. I married at 20 and moved a bit away from home and that is where my family traditions changed again. Also, I had another child at 22 and she was born two days before Christmas, so this changed my own created family traditions a bit, especially the year she was born. I was still in the maternity ward on Christmas day but she was a very settled baby so the mid-wife encouraged me to leave the hospital and go and enjoy lunch with my big family, so I did. It didn’t work out quite as planned because since I was not drinking, I had a glass of Fanta (I never drink soft drink) and this triggered a huge release of breast milk while I sat eating my meal. What’s worse, when I got back to the hospital, the nurse told me my baby had sobbed continuously while I was gone. As proof, there was a huge tear sitting in the corner of her eye!

Some of my siblings had married, moved away and started family traditions of their own. Being married usually means that we need to accommodate two sets of traditions, ours and our spouses. As a young family, for the first seven years of being married, we did this as best as we could. It was not difficult for us because we enjoyed catching up with each other’s families. Later, immigrating as a family would have a dramatic effect on how I celebrated Christmas. For our first Christmas in Australia, we were still living in a caravan in the back yard at my Auntie’s so we were a part of the family celebration. There were so many of us around the table it reminded me of my childhood celebrations.

Once we got a place of our own in the country, things changed once again. Sometimes we joined my Auntie’s big family celebrations at a venue somewhere in Melbourne. There were years when family members would pay us a visit from overseas and this made Christmas an extra special time for us. Christmas sometimes included friends, who had become our new “family”. I also went back home for Christmas one year, a few years after settling in Australia. When my children were little, I always made a special effort for them at Christmas but when my youngest daughter was 12, things changed with the break-down of our family. From there, Christmas became somewhat of a painful experience for my children and although I tried to make it special, it always had an underlying sadness to it. A couple of years after separating, I decided that rather than arguing about where my children should be on Christmas day, I would hold our celebrations when it would suit us all, and do what would make us all happy. The first time I did this was one of the best Christmas celebrations we have had together. That year, I had Christmas on Christmas day, with my older daughter, and celebrated Christmas, with all the trimmings, with my other daughter in late January because she was celebrating overseas with her father’s family over the Christmas period. This approach took a lot of pressure away from the events.

By this time, I was working in the not-for-profit sector, in a transitional housing support service. I realised, that even in a wealthy country like Australia, many people go without at Christmas; young people, single mum’s and their children, the aged, the sick, homeless people and others. Each year as Christmas came around it became more and more of a time for reflection and gratitude. On a personal level, I started letting people know that I didn’t need gifts and that if they were to give me anything, then I would like something handmade, by them, or someone local. It was not just the widespread material need at Christmas that became so obvious to me through my work, but also the emotional strain that so many people find themselves under during the festive season. There is so much pressure from work, family, the media and even our own high expectations about how Christmas “should” be.

Working as a counsellor in a big Community Health Centre increased my awareness of the reality that for some people, Christmas is not just difficult, it is a stressful experience, and for some it triggers all of their trauma responses. Many people go into crisis at Christmas. Some people experience extreme loneliness and overwhelming grief for loved ones lost. Alcohol and drug excess spikes and emergency departments are full of intoxicated people, many of whom are trying to manage their stress levels.

I have spent some of my most recent Christmas periods in Darwin, a place where paradise and poverty sit side-by-side. My daughter and I focus on making it fun for her two boys and we make a point of setting up some sort of a Christmas tree in her lounge room. I am not a scrooge, but for me, the less fussing at Christmas, the better. This means, avoiding crowds and being around people and situations that may make me anxious or stress me out. I avoid the shops as much as possible in the days leading up to Christmas day, especially the big shopping centres. Generally, I try and be as organised as possible for “the silly season” (ending of one year and beginning of new year) and spend as much time outdoors, sitting under the shade of a tree, reading near the water or taking slow, mindful walks in the forest.

No matter how we chose to celebrate Christmas, it is a significant time of the year. It brings the year to a close and gets us ready for the new year. Keeping it peaceful, playful and as “natural” as possible, makes it a joyful time of year for me. Remember, It’s okay to change things up at Christmas time if you need to, even long standing family traditions. It’s important to enjoy the day in your own unique way.

Dr Theresa Jones (PhD) is an intuitive counsellor, incorporating holistic principles and energy healing in her practice, Inner Sense Intuitive Counselling Services. You can contact her on 0458268605