It’s only mid-December, and already Christmas has made me cry. The ‘tree’ I bought a few years ago is charming—plain wood and Scandinavian-style. In my head, I imagined it hung with a few beautiful, simple paper decorations. Perhaps folded origami cranes in different colours. Elegant, I thought.
My daughters, Kitty, 6, and Elsa, 9, begged for tinsel. For baubles. And so, because Christmas is about kids, I acquiesced. Once the tree was decorated a few days ago, Elsa declared for perhaps the eighth time in half an hour: ‘I HATE our tree. It’s so ugly. Can’t we go to Kmart and buy a green one in a box like everyone else in my class?’
It was exactly the same conversation with her as last year. And the two years prior.
‘I like our tree,’ I sighed, like a record on repeat.
‘What about a real one then? A cut pine tree?’ she suggested.
‘We’re not getting another tree,’ I said.
‘Can we paint it green?’ she pressed.
‘Elsa,’ I replied, my eyes starting to prickle with tears, ‘Please stop now. I like this tree. I just want this one thing…’
You see, I was born on Christmas Day. And it’s always been both a joy and a curse.
Before my beloved father died at the end of 2012, he’d often tell the story of how he was posted to Wellington, New Zealand. In 1976 five days before Christmas, more than 350mm of rain fell in in 24 hours. The Hutt River burst its banks causing widespread flooding and landslides. Dad told the story of wading back from the Australian Embassy—he was working all hours because of the emergency—through flood water to reach my extremely pregnant mother. She’d been evacuated to a neighbour’s house on higher ground. Early on Christmas morning Dad drove her to hospital to give birth to me, recalling the road had been partially washed into a ravine. Meanwhile, Mum screamed ‘Go faster!’
I was coming at lightning speed (just the way my own babies came) and was out into the world before the doctor ever arrived.
These last few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of official paperwork and picking up items I’ve pre-ordered—both for my businesses and gifts.
‘License please,’ says the lady in the post office. When I was pass it over: ‘Oh Christmas Day baby. That must suck.’
Then I’m at Officeworks collecting my stationary order.
‘License please,’ the bloke behind the counter says, ‘Oh Christmas Day baby. That must suck.’
‘Not really,’ I say, smiling weakly, ‘At least all your family is there with you celebrating. Drinking, eating and exchanging gifts. They’re having fun too.’
I’ve said this same sentence so many times in my life, I don’t even think about whether it’s true. Does it suck? Did it ever suck? Sometimes, yes it does.
This year, after recently separating from my husband, I started noticing the slight feeling of dread around Christmas that’s familiar to many. Families are imperfect. And often on Christmas it’s a collection of people who aren’t usually together.
Perhaps they want to be together but find it hard. Perhaps they don’t want to be at all but feel a duty to be there. There’s old family history and bitterness that surges forward when everyone eats and drinks too much and we’re all jammed together in one place. All the skeletons rise from those closets.
As a social justice journalist it’s never amazed me that on Christmas Day, domestic violence surges. Christmas can also be a day of great loneliness—regardless of whether you’re with people, or actually physically alone.
Nothing like that ever happened in my family. But I do remember sometimes it was stressful—especially for Mum, who always went to so much effort on Christmas Day to make my birthday special. (I fervently agree with Yumi Stynes that Christmas shouldn’t be all women’s work!) Mum always made sure that I had double the presents of my sisters—Christmas gifts and then birthday gifts too. My birthday gifts were wrapped in birthday paper.
On my 16th birthday she made a croquembouche. This is a French dessert made on special occasions. Little choux pastry puffs are filled with custard and piled into a cone shape and bound together with threads of toffee. These cakes are an engineering feat. On this day, it was 40 degrees and my mum couldn’t get the toffee to set in that heat. She made batch after batch of toffee. Yet the confectionary wouldn’t harden and therefore, the buns wouldn’t set into the conical formation; they stubbornly tumbled down.
‘Fuck!’ I kept hearing her scream from behind the kitchen’s closed door.
Hoping to offer assistance, I tried to enter the kitchen and see if I could calm things down.
‘Get out!’ she yelled, red faced from heat and frustration, ‘Everyone get out!’
That year mum’s sister, Sonja, was visiting from England. They rescued the cake’s architecture with bamboo skewers. It tasted and looked magnificent. All that cream oozing out of the centre of the profiteroles with every bite.
This year has been one of the hardest and most relentless I can remember. Writing my dark and violent book, Troll Hunting, gave me PTSD and depression. By the time I submitted the manuscript in December 2018, I was alcoholic and crying and shouting at my kids every day.
A year later, and after specialised therapy, I’ve spoken more than 100 times around Australia and the world about the issue of cyberhate and extreme predator trolling—to the public and to the media. Over and over again reliving the violence within the text.
The upshot is that right now, I’m almost paralysed by life. It feels like I got on the fairground ride the Gravitron in December last year—the one where it sticks you to the wall with centrifugal force—and never got off.
This past fortnight, I haven’t chosen to slow down. I simply had no choice. I’m finding it hard to write, answer emails or my phone or even listen to podcasts or read. It’s like my hard drive got full and busted.
Instead of working, I’m feeding my chickens, planting my garden and baking. But you know the one thing that’s really giving me joy? Collecting tiny little gifts to put in my kids’ stockings and carefully wrapping each one. And just anticipating the thrill and squeals of delight of my children early on Christmas morning when they realise Santa did indeed visit overnight. Their handmade stockings are brimming over.
This is the gift my (ethnically Jewish) mother gave to me. She delighted in this ritual too. And it’s the memory I also give to my kids. Pass it on.