The year of (almost) no Christmas

As Christmas partying is cancelled across most of the world, most Australians can celebrate more or less as normal. But what is it we’re celebrating?

Nothing could be more calculated to kill festive fizz than a contagious virus. It took a few hours last weekend for Australians to start asking themselves, could Northern Hemisphere misery be headed our way?

Probably not; we have sea borders and world-class health regimes in our favour. But the Sydney cluster is a nasty surprise, and any festivity in this year of the virus – Christmas included – is a potential super-spreader event. Many Sydney and interstate Christmas gatherings are being cancelled as I write.

Which raises the question, what exactly is it that we think we’re celebrating?

We have always called our December gatherings Christmas and doubtless always will, but both the name and the festival are European. As are the lights, the conifers, the snow, and the fantasies of elves making gifts carried in a reindeer sleigh driven by an unlikely figure out of Greece, or maybe Germany.

Australia might think it is a European country, but it isn’t. Christmas-time here is mostly warm to hot. Yet even as Santa sweats, blowflies buzz and bushfires burn a few hills away, we persist in pretending that it’s freezing and there’s snow outside.

When I was young my parents dragged me and my siblings off to church on Christmas Day, presumably to get it into our young brains that the religious part of the season ought to get a look in.

I never grasped the theology around the birth of Jesus – still don’t – but I did get the politics and drama. The fascinating story of a baby born under tyranny and destined for great things has been told and retold over the centuries by an awesome array of musical and theatrical talent.

But the festival we now call Christmas dates way beyond Jesus, back to the dawn of humanity when Northern peoples first identified their shortest day and began celebrating the returning light. The Romans chose 25 December, a few days after the solstice, as the birthday of their sun god Mithra.

Three centuries after Jesus died, an early Roman pope decided Christians should celebrate his birth. Julius I didn’t know when this happened – there is no date in the scriptures – so he fixed on Mithra’s birthday and piggy-backed on ancient European winter solstice festivities.

The Christmas story eventually took precedence over the solstice narratives, a public relations triumph for Christianity. Puritan efforts to ban it in England in the 1640s were quickly rebuffed, and by the 20th century it was entrenched as the biggest party in Christendom.

Now it is well beyond Christian control: the world’s biggest shopping festival with its own rituals, in which consumer goods serve as a form of mediation between family members and friends.

Christmas is a global phenomenon, but the rituals and décor are still European and will likely remain so forever. And now, in this year of the pandemic, Europeans are hearing that their beloved Christmas, God forbid, will be curtailed, even cancelled.

COVID-19 is most contagious when the weather is cold and people congregate indoors, breathing the same air, sharing food, talking and laughing and singing together. Which exactly describes a Northern Hemisphere Christmas.

The coronavirus, already spreading rapidly through the populations of Europe and that other epicentre of Christmas tradition, the United States, is now at a level of contagion not seen all year. The US experience after last month’s Thanksgiving is evidence that Christmas will eventually take hospital admissions to new heights, threatening to break public health services.

Governments are faced with the conflicting demands of increasingly restive populations and health authorities predicting even more nightmarish scenarios if the virus is not contained soon.

After a year of buzzwords like restraint, separation and isolation, people are keen, even desperate, to reconnect. Now they face a festive season without festivities. In its European homeland Christmas 2020 is being strangled almost beyond recognition. In the US people just don’t know what to do.

Australia’s 2020 Christmas experience is not Europe’s. Despite the shivers the Sydney cluster is sending through the country, most of us will celebrate the day without restrictions. Having lived through this upside-down year in our multicultural, multi-faith land, it’s worth reflecting on the unique qualities of our southern version of Christmas, where cold is hot, days are long and the virus hasn’t quite consumed our lives.

In the final analysis, Christmas crosses all national, cultural and religious boundaries. Some will continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but religious preference is irrelevant to the fundamental Christmas message of peace and goodwill – and good health – to all.

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