Christmas, Down Under, is sun, surf and sea! Christmas is the headlong rush to the end of the year! Christmas is finding presents, the juggle of school holidays and work, paying bills, stocking up on groceries, writing cards and then, the final crash into Christmas.
In our family, Christmas is food, family, friends, relaxation, presents and remembering the birth of Jesus.
It all begins with the preparation. As a family, we have developed in our experience of Christmas as we have grown to Mum, Dad and four children, aged between two and 10.
In our home, the Christmas season starts, with preparations normally marked by involvement in a community carols program at a local park. Here, local churches work together to put on an event for the community. The carols are marked by the smells of barbecued food, picnic blankets and glow-in-thedark candles—to satisfy even the most pedantic insurance companies. There is special music, community carols, drama, Santa Claus with his big bag of lollies and a short talk that inevitably draws us back to the birth of Jesus as the reason for Christmas.
Sometimes the storm clouds hover on the horizon as people rug up to stay warm. Other times, the heat has made shorts and T-shirts standard. Melbourne weather in December is always uncertain. Anything can happen— blazing heat, pouring rain and, even on rare occasions, snow has fallen on the local hills! Preparation includes all the necessities.
Cards are mailed. The tree is constructed.
Decorating the tree is always an event for all the kids as tinsel is twined around the branches and the angel is attached to the top—usually successful on about the third attempt!
The special decorations are placed more carefully. Each special decorative item has a story. There are the wooden handmade decorations, bought at a market in Europe and given to each child from their aunt in Switzerland.
There is the shiny ball with a message on it from friends in Adelaide. There are also new, homemade decorations the older children work on during December. Each serves as a reminder of family, friends and special times.
Of course, no tree is complete without presents and so, over several days (the littlest ones don’t understand “no!”), the presents begin to accumulate beneath the tree. They are the cause of longing gazes, multiple guesses and mysterious surmising. In the process, there is an important lesson to learn for the kids. Even when budgets are tight, there are so many people who have less than we do—both in our country and beyond.
There is usually a special trip among the regular shopping trips. A present is carefully selected for another child of the same age, then placed under the department store’s Christmas tree for distribution to those in need.
On the Saturday before Christmas, we participate in a special Christmas worship service at our church. This family time will include singing Christmas songs, Bible readings, drama and a message about the meaning of Christmas.
Often there will be opportunity to bring non-perishable goods for food parcels to be given to families in the community.
The day is usually hot but enjoyed by all is the sense of calm that settles over people as they slow down from the hustle of the preceding week. Lunch is shared among families and guests multiply as people visit from interstate.
Others are drawn to church to just be around people or to seek God at a time when many stop to think about the deeper things of life.
With the arrival of Christmas Eve, preparations are complete. Through the month of December, the children will have eaten a chocolate each day as they count down the days to Christmas.
During the December countdown, the Christmas story picture books will each have been read. The perennial favourite can almost be recited word-for-word as it begins, “Clip clop, clip clop went small donkeys hoofs as they wound their way down the hill into the little town of Bethlehem” (My Bible Friend).
Christmas Eve is a time for immediate family. Any rushing is past and everyone is relaxed. The anticipation for the kids is building as Christmas day draws near. Christmas music plays and one small present is given to each child.
As the dark of the evening builds, the time for storytelling arrives. This time, there is only one story to be told, the story of Jesus’ birth. We read the story from the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. Sometimes, we’ll read it from a modern translation of the Bible that is easy for all to understand. Other years, we have retold the Christmas story with the help of the children. Either way, it serves as a vivid reminder of the reason we celebrate at Christmas. It guides the activities of the season, for to understand the story is to know the God who gave up everything to became a baby in order to save us and offer us eternal life.
At Christmas, God gave the ultimate gift. In the light of this, we want to honour Him with the gifts we give.
Our gift giving on Christmas day will be joyful and fun but we aim not to be extravagant or wasteful. Even if you don’t buy into the spiritual dimension of Christmas, avoiding extravagance is easier on the budget (if nothing else) and it is far less stressful to be free of any financial hangover as the New Year rolls around.
Christmas morning begins early, with the sounds of excited children still rubbing the sleep from their eyes. They stumble out, hair awry and still in their pyjamas. Then the fun really begins.
In almost no time, the sweet aroma of hot cinnamon buns wafts from the oven in the kitchen. Breakfast is about choice—hot or cold. It is the choice of whatever cereals are in the cupboard— usually something extra special that we wouldn’t buy through the year, accompanied, of course, by hot cinnamon buns! If lots of family are around, the opening of presents becomes a staged event that draws the gift giving out longer.
The presents usually begin with those presents that involve just us. Then comes each set of grandparents at different locations. The joy is shared even further because with each set of grandparents, there are all sorts of aunts and uncles and cousins. With the receiving also comes the giving. It is sometimes quite a challenge to be frugal, appropriate and thoughtful in gift giving. But the reward is always there as people receive and appreciate the gifts.
Lunchtime spells relaxation and opportunity to try out the presents.
Lunchtime is picnic time as we head for a park. Under the spreading gum trees, where shade can be found, the lunch is spread across tables and picnic blankets.
All are welcome. Relatives from both sides of the family, friends of the family and whoever happens to be about are welcome.
And so the salads, the bread rolls, the quiche and much more comes out. Dessert will include, among other things, cheesecake and berries—strawberries, raspberries and a collection of other locally-grown berries. And, of course, cherries! Beautiful, dark, sweet, juicy cherries bought from a local grower.
The only ongoing challenge of the outdoors is to keep the everpresent flies from sharing our feast.
When the food is complete, the afternoon inevitably involves a lazy game of cricket. People drop in and out of the game as sleep or conversation beckons.
The game includes the mandatory good natured sparring between siblings and cousins. With no time pressure, the afternoon lingers into the evening as the day begins to cool. For those with appetites, the day is concluded with a light tea as the day winds down to further conversation and another surrender to sleep.
Christmas is a time for celebration of life. Christmas is a time to include family and others who may not have family nearby.
Christmas is about remembering the birth of Jesus, because as we remember, we are changed. We become better people, less focused on materials things and more focused on each other. At Christmas, we are drawn by the power of a story to the one who became God with us. And for our family, that’s what makes Christmas special.