How are your Christmas plans coming along? Ordered the ham? Decided on the drinks list? Have you designed the perfect menu that caters to the gourmands in your lot, without alienating the fussy nephew who eats only carbs and Doritos?
Me neither. After close to seven months of some version of lockdown in Melbourne — seven bloody long months — the will and the energy to throw a huge party, to be part of one, has fled me. I am proud beyond measure of what Victorians have achieved but, like many, I am also changed: I’m wan, wary of premature celebration, fearful of relapse.
I am also steeling myself. This will not be a normal Christmas, as this has not been a normal year. And this fact pains me deeply, as I have always loved the reliable dagginess of Christmas; the hokey, homespun cheer; the ungainly embarrassment of carols by candlelight; the terrible jokes in the Christmas bonbons.
I love the offence given and taken among in-laws, the in-jokes shared by siblings, the telling glances that reference old hurts and transgressions scorched into family lore 30 years ago AND NEVER FORGOTTEN.
I love the 4pm Christmas Day slump when we all pass out, run ragged by revelry, presided over by a half-finished banquet of prawns and meats and clotting gravies, our Tudor-like bacchanal abandoned to the heat.
Parents exhausted. Kids crashing after sugar highs. Grandparents yelling at empty rooms to turn the music down, music that speaks of snow and chestnuts and reindeer, while we lie inert under the whoop-whoop of ceiling fans, stuffed on seafood, calling out for fresh ice.
But this year, Christmas will look and feel different for most of us. It is likely that some of our state borders will be eased — and stay that way — but nevertheless, not all of us will be able to gather together. We’re optimistic that we will connect with most of our loved ones, but again: we’re hesitant. Melburnians’ hearts have been broken before, and it seems wise to be cautious, to be tentative, to not assume too much.
This year, my partner and I are preparing ourselves for an orphans’ Christmas, well aware it’s unlikely at this late stage that we will be travelling to Queensland to see my parents. Our family Christmas has never been huge as both my parents are only children, but what they lack in size they make up for in sheer brio and eventfulness.
I haven’t always been loyal to the tradition, and some years I have traded the intensity of the family table for an overseas holiday. But this year — a year in which I have not seen my interstate family in close to 12 months — the absence of those familiar Christmas Day dynamics, the casual picking up from where we left off, will be keenly felt.
It’s OK, we tell ourselves. It will be me, you and the dog, my partner says. What more do we need? We will buy a real Christmas tree and let our home fill with the scent of pine needles. We will decorate the tree with fat Santas and pirouetting ballerinas, and we will see friends, of course, and eventually our families in the New Year. Plus, there will be carols by candlelight! Surely, not even Covid can derail the reassuring spectre of Marina Prior belting out Silent Night, as reliable as the tides.
I’ve experienced an orphan’s Christmas before, back when I lived in London more than a decade ago. Friends gathered at each other’s houses and phone calls were made — 10-minute catch-ups on expensive mobile plans back home to Australia or New Zealand or South Africa. Some ex-pats tearing up as they wished loved ones a happy Christmas, their voices catching in their throat, while the rest of us pretended not to notice, amping up the cheer.
This year it is likely that many Australians will be experiencing some iteration of an orphaned Christmas, unable to fly interstate or overseas to see loved ones but cobbling together some version of merriment that represents if not celebration then a relief that the worst of this year appears to be over. We will gather with as many as is safe to do — it could be more than we imagined, it could be fewer.
I will connect with my interstate family via Zoom; my parents and my brother and his family will be there. Three atomised Christmases – similar menus, barbs and traditions – played out in separate online silos.
My father’s terrible jokes will be missing. So too my mother’s generosity and insistence everyone enjoy themselves, that they eat more food.
Something else will be lost too: the feeling I enjoy with my brother once the second drink sets in, when we’ve advanced beyond polite enquiry and are sitting peaceably in companionable silence, that meditative space that exists between siblings.
I know I am not alone. Many of us will be apart when we need to pull together, and in that sense it will be very much a Christmas for our time, this terrible 2020, marked by longing, tiredness and a certain sweet relief at the end in sight.
• Johanna Leggatt is a Melbourne-based journalist and critic
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