As December well and truly hits its stride, there is no escaping Christmas. Streets are awash with tinsel. Workplace hazards suddenly include drunk colleagues in red felt hats. You can’t go to the supermarket without tripping over a leg of ham or a vat of brandy flavoured custard. Everybody’s making a last-minute dash for sticky tape or wine. Kids sport adorable Santa’s Helper shirts and less adorable gimme-gimme hands. Happily, the good mince pies are plentiful. Joy to the world! Or not, if all things Christmassy make you feel a bit like a polar bear at a luau.
This year, I quit Christmas. There’s nothing like letting go of the holiday altogether to see how sometimes it’s as hollow as a glass bauble.
Don’t get me wrong - I used to be a self-described Christmas tragic. I’d have my tree up and carefully curated by the first of December. I burned Yuletide scented candles and listened to carols. I wore dinky reindeer earrings to my work Christmas party and encouraged my child to believe a guy in a red suit was going to make her dreams come true.
Christmas is such a strong symbol of secular Australia’s casual acceptance of majority Christianity that it feels important to let it go altogether in order to embrace a different faith tradition.
I’d like to tell you that I woke up to the base commercialism of a holiday so entwined in consumption that economists wait breathlessly for late-night shopping attendance numbers, but the truth is I always recognised that and celebrated it anyway. My reason for quitting Christmas is more personal than political; I’m converting to Judaism. My new religious identity and my chosen family make Christmas redundant. Christmas is such a strong symbol of secular Australia’s casual acceptance of majority Christianity that it feels important to let it go altogether in order to embrace a different faith tradition. While for many Australians who are culturally (or nominally) Christian, Christmas feels like a secular event with a family barbeque - not baby Jesus - taking centre stage, there’s no doubt that the real ‘reason for the season’ is a religious one.
As I packed up the last of my old Christmas decorations to pass on a friend last week, I was struck by a sudden wave of sentimentality. “This is the angel I bought on holiday in Christchurch,” I narrated as I passed items across her kitchen table. “These are the soft felt baubles I bought to replace the glass ones when my daughter was a toddler. This star always went at the top of the tree, always after all the other decorations.” As I shook the last of the dried pine needles and tinsel pieces from the bottom of the box, it was like shaking away some of my past. I’ve celebrated decades of Christmases - and it’s hard not to feel as though something important was handed over in that bundle of red and gold tree trimmings.
There’s nothing like letting go of the holiday altogether to see how sometimes it’s as hollow as a glass bauble.
But although my days of carols and Santa sacks are at an end, there are plenty of new traditions to look forward to. My family has fully embraced the Jewish tradition of Chinese food on Christmas day, and I’m already looking forward to the xioalongbao! Happily, Chanukah begins on Christmas Eve this year, so instead of sitting down in front of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl carols, I’ll be frying latkes and lighting the first of the eight candles on our chanukiyah (Chanukah menorah). And there is no shortage of Jewish holidays throughout the year to provide opportunities for feasting and joining together with family.
But the entire season of gift-shopping, festive food and children’s Santa-themed activities does make it a little hard for those of us who don’t indulge at this time of year. Living in one of Australia’s great multicultural cities affords its protections, though. In my area - a majority-Jewish neighbourhood - you’ll find shops sporting Christmas trees nestled beside others with signs warning they’ll close for ‘the December 25th Public Holiday’ serving as the only acknowledgement of the celebration. To my great delight, there’s even a bakery that publishes its Chanukah menu on the reverse side to its Christmas menu; doughnuts and mince pies galore!
According to census data, around 60% of Australians identify as Christian, and this number is declining. The next largest group is those who report no religion (over 22% in the 2011 census), followed by Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. However, it seems that most Australians, regardless of religious affiliation, celebrate Christmas to some degree. Recent research indicates that over half of people belonging to other religions still take part in Christmas celebrations. Kim Asher, a refugee advocate in Melbourne, tells me that “refugees with kids all adore having Christmas trees, even if they are not Christian, and love to give their kids presents anyway. The refugee aid groups also tend to do gift and hamper runs for them.”
This sentiment is confirmed by Iranian-born Melbourne resident Omid Mzadeh, who says: “I say Merry Christmas to all people around me. It makes me happy to see people use the lights and trees and celebrate.” Omid also has a Christmas tree in his home to enjoy with his daughter, not as a religious symbol, but a celebratory one. Likewise, many non-Christians see Christmas as a useful reminder to give to charities; in my neighbourhood, Jews often take over the catering at a local church-run soup kitchen when the Christian volunteers are observing the holiday. The cultural pull of Christmas, around which it seems all social activities revolve for at least the month of December, is hard to resist. And when joy, peace and charity are on offer, that’s not always a bad thing.
“Refugees with kids all adore having Christmas trees, even if they are not Christian, and love to give their kids presents anyway..."
Going not-even-cold-turkey on Christmas might make me part of the minority, but it’s still a step I feel I need to take on my Jewish conversion journey. For many reasons, religious or otherwise, there are plenty of other Australians who won’t be assimilating into the typical seasonal rituals. Instead, they choose to appreciate a public holiday but eschew the egg-nog: at the movies, the park, or online shopping to avoid more shopping-centre carols. I’ve been quite nice this year, but Santa won’t be coming, and I’m really okay with that. Happy holidays!