Happy Christmas in July!

WHY DOES the Australian hospitality industry dislocate Christmas by seven months (rather than six)?

My theory is that they borrowed the idea from the northern hemisphere, where Christmas seems merely silly in hot weather.

Although previously not unknown, the concept was popularised in late 1940 by a light-hearted Hollywood movie, Christmas in July. The main-title shows the letters of “CHRISTMAS” topped in snow, and “JULY” in flames.

So, it’s merely anachronistic fun, available to greeting card and other commercial interests.

The southern hemisphere shifting the seasons six months gets to the core of our being.

Plum pudding “at 100 degrees in the shade” is a recognised absurdity. But a summer Christmas upsets not only the foods. The seasonal mood is all out of joint.

I have already complained about the Australian Christmas as doubly stressful – enforcing happy family gatherings amid obligatory summer fun.

Christmas is actually meant to bring the New Year promise that life might be a downer now, but it will soon re-awaken – the snow melt, and green shoots appear.

The familiar symbolism offers a glimmer of hope. Candles pierce the gloom. Yule-logs promise warmth. Fir trees stand out against the snow. Red baubles provide colour. Even family gatherings might lend some relief.

In An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949), M.F.K. Fisher observed under “F is for family” that “deliberately assembled relatives can be one of the dullest, if not most dangerous, gatherings in the world”. She saw no reason why “a given set of ill-assorted people, for no other reason than because it is Christmas, will be joyful to be reunited and to break bread together”.

Yet even she tried her family best at Christmas.

The depths of winter are so gloomy that the number of suicides might be expected to rise. It is the reverse, however. Records from various times and places show the highest suicide rate in late spring and early summer.

In Le Suicide in 1897, sociologist Emile Durkheim explained that longer sunlight allowed more social activity. As well as the days getting longer, activity intensified:

For the countryside, the Winter is a time of rest approaching stagnation. All life seems to stop…. In Spring, however, everything begins to awake; activity is resumed, relations spring up, interchanges increase …

The cities exhibited the same seasonal variation, although the worst of winter was attenuated by the bright lights. In summer, social activity, including suicide, “has more space to operate”. People rub up against one another more, sometimes abrasively, so that violent assaults also increase. And Durkheim concluded

… it is the density of human interactions, and not the environment that caused higher incidence of suicide in Spring or Summer

Depressed people can feel even further out of synch amid the social density and sunnier mood. They can be cast as misfits, not wanting to play beach cricket.

A genuinely wintry Christmas means everyone fears the worst, and might be pleasantly surprised. The darkness gives permission to cheering up.

COLUMNIST Annabel Crabb wrote yesterday about politics here and abroad being like a bad dream. Having called an unusual, winter election, Malcolm Turnbull has only snuck back as Prime Minister, along with racist One Nation. Nonetheless, we in Australia are probably not as dispirited as those in the north, whose summer shines bright with Brexit and Trump.

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We can take heart that Preston Sturges’ “cunning and carefree” comedy, Christmas in July, was released, in time for winter, just after Franklin D. Roosevelt had easily won a third Presidential term.

New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther advised:

As a post-election jog to national sanity, we recommend Christmas in July.

Christmas, a “shallow celebration”?

HERE’S A RESEARCH question – is Christmas more enjoyed in the north than in the south?

In today’s column in Fairfax papers, Wendy Squires argues that any seasonal fun is spoiled by commercialism, family conflict and an ensuing “festive funk”.

That is an increasingly common view, and I sense a growing demand for a Christmas rethink.

The disaster seems too big for my suggested survival tactic of a Champagne anti-party.

Drawing attention to an additional post-Christmas funk, Squires’ column forced me to theorise further, and to suppose the clear benefits of a mid-winter Christmas over our present “shallow celebration”.

Australians have long enjoyed the “joke” that baked turkey and plum pudding are as unseasonal as Santa Claus’s thick coat and tinselly store Muzak. Historian K.S. Inglis pointed to the colonists’ tradition “to enjoy both the heavy Christmas dinner and the absurdity of it”.

Gastronomically, however, more has to be said.

Forget the birth of Jesus, and not merely because of falling church attendances.

Historians have difficulty estimating his birth year, let alone precise date. The choice of 25 December under Emperor Constantine borrowed the mid-winter festival, presumably because the beginning of the year would be appropriate for the beginning of Christianity, too.

Christianity’s local languor has left it too like a sentimental, Dickensian festival. Concentrating on family fun is triply two-edged. Firstly, which family? One practical solution has been for a couple to join one partner’s family for lunch and the other’s for dinner or the next day.

Secondly, it’s for the children, they say. But that should be year-round. Besides, Squires points to parents who just “spent the holidays aching for children in the custody of exes”.

Thirdly, as she reports, happy snaps of elderly relatives and wide-hatted kids on the beach are more than matched by negative stories – this year, one of her mates had a seemingly irreparable falling out with his brother, and a girlfriend’s “strained marriage” finally snapped.

To family woes Squires adds the “general malaise”. Falling into a festive funk, she tends “to ponder what I haven’t, rather than embrace what I have”. She laments another year passing, and flagellates herself for what she didn’t achieve.

And worst of all I make that terrible and oh so common mistake of thinking everyone else’s life is better than mine.

People then return with their holiday stories – about broken families, and about noticing “the empty chair of a lost loved one” – and she realises that “many of those happy snaps I envied should have been captioned ‘help!’”

Squires recommends accepting the Buddhist belief that “life is suffering”. I prefer the formulation in my dear friend Suzie’s long-term email signature, which I suspect she restored especially for the season:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. ~ Philo of Alexandria

My love for Brillat-Savarin rivals M.F.K. Fisher’s, and is helped by him tackling such downers as The end of the world”, which is “Meditation 10″ in Physiology of Taste.

In “Meditation 14”, Brillat-Savarin argues dolefully that table-pleasure compensates for hunger, thirst, and pain. He asserts:

Humanity is incontestably, among the sentient beings that populate the globe, that which is inflicted with the most suffering.

His evidence is people’s unprotected bodies, poorly shaped feet, inclination to war and destruction, and a mass of maladies such as gout, toothache, acute rheumatism and strangury. In his view, the fear of all the pain pushes people to give themselves up to the “small number of pleasures which nature has allotted”.

My suspicion is that contemplative festivity works better when it’s cold, and meals are made from thinning flocks and from fruit preserved in puddings. Christmas thinking is helped by the faint cheer of carols and baubles, attempting to keep close for warmth, and the prospect, however distant, of fresh shoots.

Our Christmas made more sense a year ago in Germany when cantatas and Christkindlmärkte seemed to challenge the cold and dark.

Even and, indeed, especially in a secular state, Christmas ought to arouse what the Christian emperor wanted, new beginnings. New Year’s Eve is beaten hands down by Christmas’s gift-giving, family reunions, intense commercialism, and whatever remains of religious thought.

But we need renewal in the right season. Those Antipodeans who move to a “Christmas in July” are on the right track, trying hard to get even colder and more drab than with a six-month shift to June.

We should not have to mourn among young bodies dashing into the surf. Daylight saving was not introduced to serve melancholy. A world flowing with white peaches, raspberries and, further north, mangoes provides pure pleasure, leaving scant room for reflection.

Plum pudding at a jolly Australian Christmas, 1875

Christmas trifle in the park

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Josh Thomas

If you haven’t caught up with Please Like Me, don’t start with “Christmas trifle”. But, as a fan, you would have marvelled at the season’s finale – fewer laughs, but an artistic triumph.

Episodes have been built around a food or drink, so that Series 1 started with “Rhubarb and custard”, and, after running through such items as “French toast” and “Skinny latte”, we  recently reached the especially brilliant “Coq au vin”, in which the household planned to kill and eat Adele, whose unanticipated crowing was waking the district.

For the Series 3 ending, the writer-star Josh Thomas told the sitcom’s

characters some home truths about their characters, snatched the bowl of Christmas trifle from the table, and ate it alone with his dog on a park bench.

Josh’s parents, partners and house-companions are quite likeable, usually, but Christmas typically brings out the worst in everyone … I get grumpier than ever.

Not that I should be overly blamed because, just this year, in the space of a few days, I heard about two, separate, extended families whose tensions became so overwhelming that members were opting out of the Christmas gatherings entirely, while a third complainer spoke of the opposite problem, being unilaterally informed that this year was the turn of the partner’s family.

On top of family difficulties, add the manufactured stress of gift-giving … frenzied shopping … increased traffic … haphazard parties … interrupted routines … pretend snow  … inappropriate cooking … and I can think of more. More usefully, I can suggest a solution.

 

Apparently, one strategy is to think of the family as someone else’s: they then seem merely eccentric, rather than disturbed. That might reduce family but not retail stress.

My better suggestion is a quiet champagne on Christmas night. That’s with no more than one or two other people, sitting on a park bench with a bit to eat. With this anti-party to look forward to, the whole season can prove less rigorous than anticipated.

I adopted the anti-party ritual about 30 years ago, waiting in Wellington Square in North Adelaide for the Christmas tree lights to turn on every 25th, and it has usually seemed to work, so that I have often enjoyed the season almost as much as professed enthusiasts.

Nigella’s Christmas trifle