The weekend before last, my kids and I made cookies. Well, mostly I made cookies and Big A had fun helping roll rather lumpy wads of dough and select the cookie cutters. Little A just enjoyed running around the kitchen. And it occurred to me, amongst the semi-madness of flying biscuit dough and worrying about things burning in the oven, that this was a Christmas moment I will savour for many years to come.
For years I have had a love/hate relationship with Christmas. Over the last decade, I have refused stubbornly to set foot in a shopping mall from 1 December onwards. Once my Dad (visiting for Christmas) meekly begged me to go; I stood firm and took him to the hardware store across the road instead, where he actually found the Christmas lights he was looking for. And they were on special.
What is the big deal? As someone with Buddhist tendencies, the extreme commercial consumption of Christmas makes me feel pensive. I feel unhappy when supermarkets begin to already display gaudy goods in October — are we really going to need to buy a plum pudd or candy canes then? Or need glittering plastic tinsel? Then there is all the ‘stuff’ — the oversized pre-made stockings and fillers of made-in-China or worse doo-dads that will break in a moment, assuming we ever use them at all. This reminds me, actually, of a recent article in The Guardian (So you need that smart cuckoo clock for Christmas) about the crassness of Christmas marketing and people’s desire to buy junk instead of happiness.
Did you know that this year Australians will spend AUD$18 billion this Christmas? When you consider the population is only 23 million, this is a lot. And of this around AUD$7.9 billion will be on gifts, many of of which will be things that people didn’t actually want or need. According to the United Nations, almost half the world’s population — 2.8 billion people — live on less than US$2 per day. Viewed in this light, our overspend on Christmas is quite appalling.
But it is not all bad. I quite like some of the Christmas rituals. Every year on 1 December, I put on a CD of Handel’s Messiah on and start writing Christmas cards (okay, I was quite a bit late this year). I love reflecting about the many people who are important in our lives, and sending them photos of our family. I also like giving homemade or meaningful presents to express gratitude. This year, I am really excited about a new Christmas tradition that my sister initiated: we are supporting Assista Sista, which helps rehouse women in the Gold Coast/South Brisbane area who are escaping from domestic violence.
Now that I am a mother, I am re-examining my relationship to Christmas to try to pass on those bits that I find meaningful (and non-commercial) to my sons. I wonder what they will one day remember and treasure. At the moment it is all toys, toys, toys. Unfortunately, our wonderful carer took them on an excursion to a toystore while she was babysitting the weekend before last. So for days afterwards Big A kept going on about the Thomas train he wants for Christmas!! But I hope that one day, once the shiny train track is a distant memory, he might recall other things. Memories of fun times that he wants to recreate with his own children one day.
So this is my family Christmas traditions list, that summarises some of the things I want to share with my family:
- Put the Christmas tree up together. It needn’t be a big one, and in fact since we are expatting it overseas in Taipei, we decided to buy a small tabletop tree. This has also worked out to be extremely practical since it makes it harder for the kids to get to the glass ornaments (although Big A did try a few times last year). There are perhaps some environmental messages about oversized trees and faded Christmas baubles. We like to invest in a few good quality decorations each year. And the recent ones have been handmade by Big A. They might never grace the foyer of a five-star hotel or department store, but looking at those paper objects brings a tear to my eye.
- Light the Christmas candle each Sunday at advent. When I was in high school, I went on a student exchange to a small village in Germany at the northernmost point of the Odenwald. Being part of their Christmas celebrations, with all that Germanic tradition, is an experience that I will never forget. And one of the things that I loved was the four candle Christmas wreath on the table, that was lit each Sunday during advent. After lunch (and a nap), my homestay parents would take me on a long walk through the local village and forests. Then we would come back and enjoy cake with some classical music (usually Beethoven) with the candle prominently displayed.
- Bake Christmas cookies. This is another Germanic-style tradition, but it is also pragmatic because it provides a source of meaningful and homemade Christmas gifts. Big A had lots of fun choosing his favourite cookie cutters; Little A just enjoyed eating the results. The children-assisted cookies were a lot less perfect than store-bought ones, and my attempt at icing was hardly professional, but it was a lot of fun. The recipe is from Kidspot. I have tried many cookie recipes, and I thought this was one of the most family friendly.
- Christmas carols. While I have no delusions about quitting my day job, I really love singing. And so does Big A; he really gets into Christmas carols. His favourite is Joy to the World, followed by Jingle Bells Rock. He doesn’t really know the words, and makes up all sort of strange combinations. It is so cute! When the kids are older I hope to take them to Carols by Candlelight in Melbourne on Christmas Eve.
- Going to church. Hubbie has recently become Christian and we regularly attend the Salvation Army congregation. I am not quite sure where I stand spiritually, but I like the hymns and socialising with the people there, the kids like playing with the other littles, and hubbie is happy. I also enjoy the true Christmas feel. Well, Christmas itself is, as our Minister recently pointed out, essentially something with pagan origins but it is still a meaningful festival for most Christians. And there is something warm and fuzzy about preparing for an event like Christmas with people who care about it. I can’t wait for Christmas Eve and the kids pageant. Little A is going to be dressed up as a sheep. Baa!
- Viewing the Christmas lights. It is hard to top the show in Taipei’s Xinyi District, with the colours of Taipei 101 providing a stunning backdrop to the themes in Xinyi place and surrounding luxury apartment blocks. The cynic in me wants to argue that the lights are there to draw in spenders, but whatever the reason, my kids just love the beautiful lights. The environmental sceptic wants to note the amount of money spent on extra lighting and how this stands in sharp contrast to the subdued reflection of Earth Hour. But at least most of the Taiwan lights are LED, so reduces some emissions, right? The Christmas lover in me can’t help but break out into renditions of ‘Silver Bells’.
- Reading Twas the Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve. This is a tradition started by my mother. Each year, we would read the same dog-eared illustrated book that featured Clement Clarke Moore’s poem. My sister and I can still recite it by heart. Last year my kids were still a bit too young to get it, but hopefully this year Big A will be more interested.
- The Christmas Day walk. When we were kids we used to get up at the crack of dawn to rip open presents. Then there is this need to kill time mid-morning before the big, family lunch — usually we would go for a walk around our neighbourhood. Everyone is so happy on Christmas morning, and there are always kids around playing with their new toys. This is before they get bored of the toys within the next day or so, while the excitement of receiving is still forefront of their minds.
- Panettone for breakfast. This is another of my mother’s traditions. We would have thick slices of Italian panettone with lashings of butter, strong coffee and sometimes fruit salad. It was nice to have a decadent breakfast that was special without being too full-on. And last year, I experimented by making my own Chinese-inspired panettone.
- Making rum balls as Christmas presents. Each year my sister makes these as gifts, and they are so well-received that her husband begs her to make them for his corporate clients. I won’t give away the recipe (yet), but I will say that they work really, really well if you substitute an Irish cream liqueur. Or you can make them without alcohol if gifting for children.
- Jacquie Lawson animated advent calendar. Apart from the fact that this version does not have chocolate, it is so beautiful. This year there is a choice of Edwardian and Alpine themes. Earlier this evening Big A had fun drawing snowflakes, which you could save and print out.
This was aimed at being a post to discuss how Christmas has become commercialised and show how few things you need for Christmas to have meaning. But through this post, I found my own list of ‘traditions’ was quite long. None of these traditions, I should add, involves gluttonous eating or drinking into a stupor (unless overindulging in cookies counts). Nor does it involve fighting with crowds in a shopping mall, spending large amounts of money on tacky gifts to impress people, or doing anything that requires any degree of perfection. They do, however, involve creating moments together as a family.
Merry Christmas from us and I hope it is a good season for you all, full of your own special Christmas traditions. Please share the traditions that are important to you.