Christmas presence: Kate gives cards to women prisoners, Ahmet takes Muslims to Mass

CPX Senior Fellow, Barney Zwartz writes for The Age about how Christmas can inspire us (and many others) to kindness and hope.

Christmas preparations for Linda Ellul begin in January, when she begins stocking up presents, while food plans start coming to fruition in November. But the heavy lifting comes tomorrow, when she will rise from her bed at 7am and cook a feast for 18.

The Balwyn North grandmother is guardian of a host of traditions for her family, such as a much-loved roasted pork belly with her own hand-ground rub, but especially an old-fashioned Christmas pudding boiled in a calico cloth.

“When it is bubbling away, my family all say ‘mum, it smells like Christmas’. My grandmother, who passed away at 98, always went over the night before to whoever was hosting and made it, and it’s one of my favourite things about Christmas.”

Unlike many of the tens of thousands of Australian women – because it is nearly always women – Linda feels not a glimmer of resentment that almost all the cooking will fall on her shoulders. “Christmas Day is all about cooking for me. I love it. It makes me happy, it’s me expressing my love for my family.”

Scenes like Linda Ellul’s kitchen will be replicated in hundreds of thousands of Australian homes – family, rather than religion, today dominates the holiday. A survey by McCrindle Research finds that 90 per cent of Australians believe that spending quality time with family is the most important aspect of Christmas.

“Christmas as a time for connecting, sharing, looking out for others and having a hope for the future is prominent for Aussies during this special time of year,” says principal researcher Mark McCrindle. Further, 86 per cent say they would invite someone they knew was alone to a Christmas Day event.

Yet Christmas in Australia in 2023 is a complicated affair. It has become a vast cultural construct for Christians and non-believers alike, carrying with it so many hopes, expectations, pressures, and – inevitably – disappointments, in which consumerism often seems the imperative.

According to the Australian Retailers’ Association, the nation will spend $67.1 billion on Christmas this year, a mere 0.6 per cent up on last year but a still significant $394 million. The lion’s share, $29.6 billion, will be spent on food – at supermarkets, but also restaurants, cafés and other hospitality, plus gifts of food, confectionery and alcohol.

“Christmas is super-important,” says ARA CEO Paul Zahra. “Retailers make up to two thirds of their profits in December. And generally, if it’s a bad Christmas, it’s a really good sales period straight after, because retailers have to move their stock one way or another.”

Zahra observes that the big trend is in gift cards, because if people spend them on Boxing Day they go much further, with prices heavily discounted.

He says that even as Australia becomes less numerically Christian, the nation has embraced gift giving. “They may call it the holiday period (rather than Christmas), but they still give gifts.”

What does he say to those who claim retailers and advertising have ruined Christmas through over-commercialisation? “The whole joy of Christmas is around giving gifts. It’s not really about how much you spend, it’s about the thoughtfulness.” And Zahra cheekily quotes Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Still, Christmas is a poignant time of year for many Australians, not least for those with serious illnesses. “Christmas is one of those looming dates in the minds of my patients for good and bad reasons,” says oncologist and author Ranjana Srivastava.

For many people it’s a kind of finish line, whether that’s having a break from chemotherapy and hospitals, or whether this will be their last Christmas.

“Uncertainty is what looms large in people’s minds, but also gratitude. Christmas occupies such a large place in our minds in Western society – it’s not like any other holiday. So it comes with a lot of pressure for all of us, but particularly those who are unwell because of internal and external expectations that they will make the most of Christmas, whatever that means.”

It is a milestone in people’s lives for different reasons. For those surrounded and embraced by family and loved ones it is a good occasion, but often with chronic illness comes abandonment or estrangement, where others don’t know how to react to illness, she says.

There is huge pressure to participate in the joy of Christmas, though a patient may not feel like it. And commercialisation is a problem if a patient cannot shop, buy cards, plan menus, even sit at the Christmas table for a few hours. But if people value and honour the patient, saying ‘we will wheel you out for a while’ or ‘we will sit around your bed’, patients can enjoy knowing others are having a good time.

“Christmas really brings your life into relief. It makes you think about yourself and your relationships, who celebrates with you – and that can be valuable or it can be confronting for those who are alone at Christmas,” Srivastava says.

“Some people would rather stay in hospital because maybe home is worse. Not everybody wants to get out for Christmas, I can tell you.”

Another group likely to find Christmas painful have no choice about going home: women in prison.

“There’s nothing sadder than a mother who wakes up separated from her children on Christmas morning,” says Anglican Prison Chaplaincy coordinator Kate Schnerring. “There’s a lot more emotion at this time of year, a lot of regret that they’re missing out on things, but we also find from a faith perspective that this is a great time when God really works in their lives.”

Schnerring says Corrections Victoria does a fine job, organising family days with presents, and allowing the chaplains to run carol services. The Mothers’ Union provides a pack of five blank Christmas cards to each prisoner, so women can write to their children and still be a presence on Christmas morning.

One lady in solitary confinement burst into tears when she got the cards, and said if she didn’t have them she would have nothing to give her children, nothing to remind them on Christmas Day that she loves them, Schnerring says.

Many women engage through the carol services, familiar tunes and words that help lead to self-reflection. She says: “I enjoy Christmas carols a lot, probably too much for my family, but we find that people really gravitate to the meaning of Christmas through those carols.”

Not every prisoner wants to engage, and not every woman has children. “The children tug the hardest at Christmas, but there’s elderly parents, and they don’t know how many Christmases they’ll have left.  There’s a lot of reflection about what it means to be separated, and what it requires to have that not happen again.”

People of other faiths often tend to be relaxed about Christmas these days. For Turkish-born Muslim Ahmet Keskin, Christmas (as for Christians) is about the birth of the Messiah, “because Jesus to us is the Messiah, we acknowledge his life, that he was anointed and sent to do a job to invite people to belief in the one God and to be a role model”.

Keskin is CEO of the Australian Intercultural Society, a dialogue organisation established by Muslims, which has taken Muslims to Mass to see what Christmas means to their Christian friends. Keskin doesn’t celebrate Christmas Day but, like other Australians, he laments the commercialisation of the season.

“The central figure should be Christ and his message but it’s actually Santa Claus, and that’s how we introduce young people to the concept.” He says Muslims can face the same issue of commercialisation with their equivalent, the Eid al Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan.

“It’s just the world we are living in where secular society is growing, numbers in the traditional faiths are declining, though now many people define themselves as spiritual but not religious.”

Keskin used to find it embarrassing when his children were young and would ask to sit on Santa’s lap like other children at shopping centres. At first he worried what other Muslim families might say if they saw that, but now he is relaxed.

“You’d be hard pressed to find someone in traditional Islamic dress with their wife fully covered who’d let their children go and sit on Santa’s lap. But those who are more secular wouldn’t mind because they wouldn’t want to see their kids miss out. Everyone is at different stages of their integration, and their embracing of diversity, so you see a whole myriad of responses.”

Noted Melbourne philosopher Tony Coady says the point of Christmas for believers is to celebrate the central Christian doctrine of the incarnation (God becoming human), “an astonishing and mysterious intervention by God in human affairs”.

As a young Catholic in the 1950s, Coady was impressed that the Christmas story of the incarnation called on Christians to combine Christ’s call for love with a search for understanding within the world. It tried to unravel the good in the world – to be found in all sorts of places – and to interpret Christianity in interaction with that good rather than constantly standing in dogged opposition to the world as Catholics did in those days, he says.

The Gospel narratives dramatise the birth of man who has a humble beginning in a remote part of the Roman Empire but is extraordinarily and mysteriously in this deep relationship with God and with man, so as to be called both Son of God and Son of Man. “That’s the kind of thing I try to incorporate in my philosophical and normal life, in a very failing kind of way”.

It ties in with having a positive attitude in the world, including all the good things in other religions and cultures. And, he says, it is an abiding benefit of Christmas that the Christian commemoration of the incarnation still echoes through the way people in general come together and try to be nice.

“Of course it’s been over-commercialised, and people complain of that, but virtually everything is over-commercialised in our society.”

Simon Smart, executive director of the Centre for Public Christianity, also believes Christmas still resonates with the non-religious. “The things I love about Christmas are the ways in which it speaks into a rhythm of life and the year.  At its best it brings out the innocence of childish hopes that still speak powerfully to an adult,” he says.

“I love the traditions of Christmas that are probably less adhered to these days but nonetheless speak to something we all need, to situate ourselves within a bigger story.” These traditions include church or carol services, gift giving and feasting that connect people not just with their communities but across the world and even time.

“It always comes with a hint of melancholy in that whatever is lovely and joyful about Christmas is set against a backdrop of loss and heartbreak and sadness, yet always with a strange defiant hopefulness, and there’s real reason for the hopefulness at Christmas,” Smart says.

The clamouring consumerist atmosphere of Christmas has helped disconnect people from the original story, he says, while it is also often sentimentalised, “which is completely out of place, because it’s a story of real darkness and violence and fear that is nonetheless met with light and hope and promise”.

There is great value in interrogating and dwelling on why this particular birth comes to be of such cosmic significance, Smart says. “That is really the fulcrum around which the whole of history revolves, and the mystery of that is both deep and profound and life-giving, and in fact as pertinent today as it ever has been.”

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity. He was religion editor of The Age from 2002 to 2013.

This article first appeared in The Age on Christmas Eve 2023.

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