Does Christmas make us kinder?
Christmas lights at Peppermint Circuit, Woonona. Photo: Adam McLean AMZ
I am not one of those shiny, happy, ho ho types who wear a ‘Santa’s little helper T-shirt’ and Christmas tree earrings or put antlers on their car. I find the mass consumerism of Christmas so crazy I nearly had a tantrum/panic attack in Westfield on Saturday. I know a lot of people even find this time of year lonely, depressing and a bit revolting.
Yet, I’m far from a Grinch, thanks in no small part to a woman in my street.
When I first moved to this area and told locals my address they’d laugh and warn me “wait until Christmas”.
Come December we realised why.
On the first day of the season, my neighbour Erika climbs up on to her roof to string metres of lights and flashing icicles across the gables and through the trees. She transforms her lawn into a wonderland of colour and light. There’s fibreglass firecrackers, a giant Santa Claus, a flashing electronic clock that counts down the minutes until Christmas, a furry reindeer on steroids and a cartoonish Rudolph pulling a sleigh of child size elves. There are inflatable snowmen and Simpson characters blasted by fans and tethered by ropes. (There was an inflated Santa on the garage roof, squashed under a billowing Rudolph. It’s been retired as too risqué because as the red nosed reindeer rocked forward and back in the wind, it looked like Mr Claus was felatioing his favourite steed).
The garage is Santa’s workshop; Father Christmas relaxes before a flashing fire, elves put toys into stockings and shelves are lined with toys – from stiff Lego men to soft Care Bears, from big headed Brats to skinny hipped Barbies, from Scooby Doo to Shrek and from the Wiggles to World Wrestling heroes. The workshop hums with the lights and music of miniature amusement parks.
Last year, the display was guarded by a life sized loose-hipped Santa that danced ecstatically, swinging his arms and rotating on his boots singing -“We wish you a Merry Christmas And a Happy New Year” over and over and over again. I say ‘was’ because one night he danced so much his head fell off, giving one traumatised child a near heart attack. Santa now stands silent, holding a wine glass and tethered to an electricity pole. But never fear, there’s a singing penguin, a bush that plays Rockin’ Robin and a decapitated Bambi that can morph from “tra la la la la la la la la” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in a jiffy.
The extravaganza and cacophony is run on two power points.
Cars slow down, kids gather in wonder, drunken teenagers come to canoodle and adults to laugh. One night I was welcomed home by a Christian Bikie gang having a beer while watching the show.
The first Christmas we moved in, my kids were terrified. My son walked out of our house backwards with his fingers stuffed in his ears while my daughter had surreal dreams of headless Santas and decapitated reindeers. But now they positively scream with pleasure as the instalment goes up.
Erika does it because she loves Christmas. She loves the joy she brings. She knows its kitsch and possibly a touch crazy and vows every year is her last. Then a neighbour with cancer will tell her how it made them want to go on, or another with a disability tells her the display is the only reason they leave the house.
I’m too lazy, tight and disorganised to have a display but I help when I can. One day Erika asked for my skills as a writer; to send an email to Irish-American billionaire philanthropist Chuck Feeney. Mr Feeney’s foundation has put nearly a billion bucks into Irish education, invested in post apartheid reconciliation in South Africa and funded eye care in Vietnam. Erika wanted me to ask him for a life size fibreglass nativity scene.
I wrote to Chuck about alienation in communities, about people living in quiet desperation behind closed doors, about people too busy to know each other. I told him how the Christmas lights had transformed our street into a community that showed love, care and togetherness. I laughed as I wrote and would love to have seen the look on his face if he read the email. Needless to say, Erika paid for her own new baby Jesus, Mary, Three Wise Men and assorted animals.
The letter was some of my best hyperbole but what I wrote was true. In this street we do know our neighbours. We keep an eye on each other. Kids play cricket on the road, hang out in other houses and we have an annual party. At times, it seems like a snapshot of what was good about old Australia. Caring, connected, like home.
Every street needs an Erika. Erika is Christmas. She is community. She is love for others. She is a woman who doesn’t work for money or recognition but to lift hearts and see children skip and squeal with delight. She does reading at her school, coaches a netball team, serves at canteen. You know an Erika, there are some in every suburb. They are the class mothers, op shop servers, meals on wheels deliverers and those who collect clothing and furniture for local refugees. They’re not all women, but are most likely to be so. According to the Bureau of Statistics 65% of women with kids volunteer and community work peaks between the ages of 35 and 44. And please don’t dismiss them as ‘housewives with time on their hands’; most volunteers are actually also in the workforce.
I salute these women and I thank them. I also envy their efficiency. As class mother I suck; I can’t do spread sheets, forget to organise parties, lose money I collect and drop the ball constantly. Yet I sign up for things because I feel I have to contribute. And when I do, I do feel closer to my community. At times, too close, but connected all the same.
Yet, as women take on more demanding careers and accept their right to professional success, I’m finding those like Erika are burning out and stepping back. She swears her Christmas lights are up for sale and I confess quitting as reading helper in term two. One of the things I love about this time of year is that people have time to come together, to loosen their hold on themselves and to give to others. They may notice a need they’ve not seen before. Some then vow to be better connected. To not just let others do the helping and become better members of their community.
I wish you peace, love and happiness this Christmas. May you give as well as receive.