Sometimes I just have to admit that there are some things the English do better. The first Christmas I had in London, I wandered down to Trafalgar Square after work. It was dark and cold. I was homesick and miserable. But there, in the square below the steps, were a group of carollers singing so beautifully I started to cry.
Not long after, H and I stayed with friends in Dorset for Christmas. There was a little church at the back of their house, and as it started to snow (I was beside myself; snow at Christmas!) we pulled on gumboots and plugged our way through the mud to the church. Although I’m not remotely religious, the Anglican service has been drummed into me from chapel every Thursday at school, and I sometimes went with my grandparents to church on Christmas Day to make them happy, and I liked the ritual of it. So when we began to sing the carols a wave of nostalgia slammed into me: I remembered the heat, and the muted colours and dryness of the bush, and I missed my family terribly.
However, it was cosy in the small, brightly lit church. There were gravestones and snow outside. I was among a close-knit community and afterwards in the church hall we had dry mince pies and awful mulled wine, which was positively exotic. Later the next day, shivering with cold, we went in the ute to the paddocks and clipped mistletoe and red berries from the trees. It had been a warm winter, and the birds had eaten most of the berries so they were hard to find. Our friend’s father said the ground never got properly cold anymore, which seemed true: the following year I was shocked to find the trees at the Barbican blossoming pinkly in November.
This year I went along (fully of my own volition, because I like to do new things) to Brisbane’s Carols in the City with Sister et al. Sister is a bit obsessed with Christmas and carols, and had enough excitement to compensate for those who were less enthused. After finishing my Christmas shopping, I found them in the sea of humanity sitting on the dried-out lawn in the Botanical Gardens. ‘Can you stand up?’ I called her on my mobile. ‘It’s a bunfight in here.’
There was a lot of waiting. I got bored. A young lesbian couple in front of us painted each other’s toenails. The woman in front of me asked if her husband was blocking my view and winked at me. I said I was fine; there was no way I was going to get involved in marital discord.
An MC finally appeared on stage amidst purple neon lights. There were wailing songs, then a Baptist rap about Jesus. It started to rain. The children wriggled. A group of seven women dressed in wedding gowns came on and sang their bit. I was startled. Sister bemoaned the lack of carols. A group of immature boys, barely out of adolescence, took photos of the lesbians, thinking it wonderfully funny. I was unimpressed. Niece started to whinge. I remembered when Parental Unit had dragged us to a late night show at the Brisbane Expo some twenty years before. I was cold, bored and couldn’t hear the words, and I whinged too.
Finally, to avoid the crowds that would heave out, we left early. Sister said, ‘There just weren’t enough carols. Why did they have to have all those new songs?’ This, I agreed, blinking back exhaustion as we walked over the footbridge across the river, was not how it should be done.
However, in other Christmas-related activities, I attended Sister’s work Christmas party last night, held in a carpark. I drank too much champagne, resisted the urge to dance (dancing on tables was not Christmas party etiquette, F. reminded us at the start of the evening), and received a surprising award for ‘Most Supportive Other’ or, as a colleague put it, ‘Most Supportive Non-Functioning Other’ which amused Sister and I no end. Then I got fed up with trying to talk and listen to people I didn’t know well (a struggle once I’d had three glasses on champagne on an empty stomach). Heavily intoxicated, I got on my bicycle and cycled home at top speed, which was probably not a very clever thing to do, but it was exhilerating to cycle fast on a balmy night with one's silk dress billowing behind.
This morning I woke feeling very sorry for myself, staggered about for a bit, drank two coffees, put Madge on my Ipod and sat down to clean and oil my bike, which proved most therapeutic.