This is how Christmas is. Until, that is, last year – when he was kidnapped.
For many of us, last Christmas was marked by the absence of parents interstate or overseas. My partner and I had planned to go to Melbourne to be with his family, but the Victorian border was closed to anyone from Sydney. Plan B was to spend the day with our friends on the island of Scotland again, but it is in the northern beaches, which were declared at zero point of the last COVID cluster and therefore banned. So we spent Christmas at home, alone, just the two of us and the cat.
Eager to save something, I persisted in cooking the Christmas lunch I had planned for my in-laws: buckwheat blinis with sea trout gravlax and crème fraîche followed by duck with orange, then pudding and custard. It’s a lot of hassle for two people. The ridiculousness of the exercise became evident when I noticed how dejected I felt that the cat hadn’t eaten its sea trout eggs. Instead, it had licked the bright orange beads around and around his bowl, unsure of what to do with it.
I realized that this was what an “Orphans Christmas” really looked like; not in the light way we often use the phrase, but in a biting way, when you have no one to be with.
The previous Christmas had been magical. It was the first one we hosted in our new home. My sister-in-law rummaged with the children in the park to collect sticks, twigs and leaves with native berries and curved them into a wreath to hang on the front door. We folded origami Christmas decorations and baked gingerbread to decorate the tree.
We spent the morning swimming at the Bronte Sea Baths and the afternoon at the Redleaf Pool on the harbor. The tide was low so the water walk jump was a few feet. My nephew, who was then five years old, is courageous but he was not entirely convinced. Until an older boy came out of the crowd and offered to teach him how to jump, keeping his pencil straight so it glided through the water with minimal splashing. And they did, over and over again, until the older boy helped my nephew swim to the other kids on one of the pontoons.
Yes, I’m going to give myself quite a bit of trouble, and yes, at some point I’m probably going to get quick because of the stress of it all.
It was Sydney in its prime; instead of the overwhelming metropolis of arrogant workaholics, it had shrunk into a village where you could easily find parking on a harbor beach and where older children looked after the younger ones.
Boxing Day we ate fried eggs and glazed ham – a tradition in Drummond – and as the sun rose in the sky, we set up the giant umbrella and blew up the remaining Pol Roger. Mom watched the cricket; my father and my in-laws discussed history. When the heat got too hot, we retreated to the coolness of the front room. No one wanted to leave.
And so this Christmas. It was, until recently, an uncertain thing, but with the borders open, we will be able to fly to Melbourne, to be with my partner’s family, as we had planned last year. And I’m going to cook this same dish: the buckwheat blinis, with gravlax and sea trout eggs, the duck with orange, then pudding and custard. And, yeah, that’s a lot of hassle, and yeah, I’m going to give myself quite a bit of trouble, and yeah, at some point I’m probably going to get quick because of the stress of it all. But habits become customs that turn into family traditions. Fixing an elaborate Christmas treat is, for me, how I show people that I love them.
There are a lot of things I learned during the lockdown that I will be keeping. COVID-19 has taught us the value of being still, of reading books on Saturday nights, how nice it can be not to have options, of trying harder to stay in touch with old friends around the world rather than spending so much time with acquaintances who live nearby.
What it also taught me is that Christmas is hard to improve. Family Christmas, however you define it, is the luckiest Christmas you can have.
It’s from Life & LeisureThe 56-page Christmas gift guide, published Friday December 3, in The Australian Financial Review and AFR Weekend on Saturday and Sunday December 4 and 5.