Killing Christmas: no more noels?


In the weeks before Christmas the star on the top of the unnaturally symmetrical Christmas tree in the grounds of the Bethlehem Town Centre is askew, hanging sadly to one side, a realistic symbol of pre-Christmas bureaucratic attitudes to “Christmas”. “Christmas” is bureaucratically on the outer. Soon Christmas trees, nativity scenes, multi-ethnic performances of Christmas carols by small children and communities, and Christmas crackers will be like corkscrews – something we only remember?

I was born in England not long after Christmas. I’m told I was baptised by my Mother with tap water over the kitchen sink. That mightn’t cut it for a High Anglican, but I was brought up in a “Christian” household. In keeping with the pragmatic approach to baptism my Mother sent us along to whichever “Christian” church happened to be closest or most accessible to where we were living. I’ve spent most of my pew-sitting time with the Anglicans and the Baptists, although I now discover that I’m part of two international, multi-ethnic, predominantly Roman Catholic extended families.  As a first generation migrant, Christmas arrived for me in the post. Brown paper wrapped presents from the Aunties with dolls, clothes, jewellery, bags and treasures. There was a special identifiable smell to the brown paper which I loved just as much as getting the present. It was the smell of belonging, of not being alone in a place where people, bewilderingly, did all sorts of things differently from my parents.

Christmas dinners focused on the chicken – it was originally a self-reared treat then when we moved to town, one of those sad and naked little bodies from the butcher and then in a bag from the supermarket. There were roast vegetables and sticky homemade Christmas pudding with coins (wrapped in paper because my mother was against germs and inadvertent coin swallowing). There was at least one homemade Christmas cake – which I would repeatedly raid. And homemade Christmas mince tarts – a lingering addiction. There were only four of “us” in New Zealand and I don’t remember sharing “Christmas” with other families. In the last decade I spent sometime in a job that enabled me to see behind the veil of a district court in one of New Zealand’s most ethnically and culturally diverse areas. The first year I was there, about Christmas time, a small, artificial and unusually shiny object similar to a bonsai pine appeared between the desks of the hardworking staff. We the functionaries put presents – acknowledgements for effort, kindness, going that extra mile, working hours without pay (yes this is New Zealand) under and around this symbol of the season of Christmas.

The next year I bounced in, carrying my assortment of little boxes and bundles – no tree. Asking the culturally inappropriate obvious “where’s the tree; there’s no tree” I was met with shuffled looks and downturned eyes and glances towards our newer migrant staff members. “It’s not culturally sensitive.” My face and eyes smiled, inside my head did not.

If anyone who made that decision had ever been to the multi-generational, “Christmas dinners” of my former husband’s family, New Zealanders of Indian ethnic descent, they’d be bemused. The children rip off the wrapping paper, shout and yell, eat too much, won’t eat, want to go sleep, complain that some bigger child is hitting them, won’t get out of the swimming pool. And the adults – well they behave just like adults at Christmas.

Last year we went to Manjula’s home. She’s a Grandma now with a granddaughter at university and a grandson in his final years at high school. Our Tauranga Christmas gathering was comparatively small. Manj and her husband, her daughter and her husband, the grandchildren, me and my son and a mature single woman we had invited to join us. After eating a traditional Christmas dinner (with a special dish of spiced chicken requested by my son) we sat round the table and discussed our ethnic backgrounds. The map of the world had just had dinner together.

Full of Christmas pudding, I remembered the first Diwali celebration I’d been to. Yes it must have been more than 45 years ago at the Gandhi Hall in Auckland. In those days the “Indian Community” was comparatively small, everyone knew everyone. Wedding invitations were sent out through the Indian Association mailing list. You would find most of the community at the “Indian films” on a Sunday afternoon.

Time muddles memories and now as I’m putting it to writing I can’t affidavit remember whether the small child next to me was sick at the films or at Diwali. All I know is that Diwali has been part of my consciousness for a while and I was delighted a week or two ago to see the Indian-referencing design the ANZ bank has put round the ATM on Grey Street, Tauranga to acknowledge Diwali, the Festival of the Lights. I was pleased, but didn’t go, to the Diwali celebration down on the Strand. And no I haven’t been to the Sikh parade through Tauranga – but I’m glad that community feels sufficiently comfortable and free from fear in Tauranga to organise it. I’m pleased that I can have lunch with someone who feels no fear in wearing a small but highly visible Star of David symbol as jewellery. I’m pleased a family member feels comfortable having a statue of Buddha in their home. I’m delighted when I go into the Tauranga Library that the Korean mother is teaching her young son the Korean language. When a huge temple complex in South Auckland held an open day I went and had a look – it was both huge and beautiful in a totally Asian manner. I’m not sure I want to live next door to a mosque or a temple but then I don’t want to live next door to a school, a police station, a fire station, a pub or a Christian church or anyone who has all-night parties.Ironically the internationalisation and commercialisation of culture and Christmas continues to create a social event that provides an opportunity to meet, mix and “mingle” across the community. Diwali provides the same opportunity as does Matariki. Killing off Christmas isn’t going to reduce racism and prejudice – it’s going to do the opposite. Killing off Christmas isn’t going to make people feel “more comfortable.” Somewhere along the way being a democracy and allowing freedom of all forms of expression has been perverted into suppressing Christmas and Christianity.

Manj and I are down at The Incubator. It’s the pre-Christmas Shakti Refuge prize-giving for CLICK: when love turns sour the youth photographic competition. “Hey Manj, what did you guys do for Christmas when you were kids?” Her eyes sparkle and she starts to recount her childhood memory of Christmas in an inner-Auckland home where English was a second language until school.

Rosemary Balu.     Rosemary Balu is the founding and current editor of ARTbop. Rosemary has arts and law degrees from the University of Auckland. She has been a working lawyer and has participated in a wide variety of community activities where information gathering, submission writing, community advocacy and education have been involved. Interested in all forms of the arts since childhood Rosemary is focused on further developing and expanding multi-media ARTbop as the magazine for all the creative arts in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand.


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