Who You Are Not Spending Christmas With

Luke 2, 0-6 goes:

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrolment, when Quirin’i-us was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.”

I obtained this quote, not via Google, as I usually would, but from my father Tyl’s only English version of the Bible. We’re at his place, at the beach, in the bush, where there is only dialup, requiring cables stretched across the room, pah.

Tyl claims that he prefers to read the Bible in Latin, or at least in German. He described the “Revised” translation that he has as “pathetic”. When I opened it, I realised that it was my old one that I got when I started at Marylebone Grammar in Grosvenor St, London at age 10 in 1972 (guessing slightly). I recognised the tacky plates instantly.

The first Christmas that Hanna (my sister), Elizabeth (my mother), Tyl and I arrived in London, I remember reading, at age six, those few stick-in-your-memory chapters from Luke that describe, in the most plain terms, the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, culminating in the birth of Jesus, and all that. We were in a small upstairs flat in a terraced house in Belsize Park, overlooking a bleakly wintery back garden. The landlady was Miss Bunbury. You had to put 20p in a slot to keep the gas fire burning. It had knobbed white slats that the fire burned up. They seemed to me to be bones. It was 1968.

The flat was the home of Oma, my grandmother, Tyl’s mother. I loved her. She was kind of religious, which is what led me to the Bible reading. It wouldn’t have been Liz, as she was pretty anti all that. Tyl was philosophical about it, as he is now. Oma, of course was a follower of the Maharishi. She practised yoga, ayurvedic medicine and Transendental Meditation (incl. levitation which she called “flying”). But she wasn’t above a bit of judeo-christianity, especially at Christmas. It was Lutheran, celebrated on Christmas Eve, of course, because we are all German.

In the story that we all know, Caesar decreed a census. Everyone was to return to the place of their origin to account for themself in the context of their family.

Two thousand years later, we in the Christian world faithfully re-enact this, each year at Christmas.

Each year, as the circumstances dictate, we journey or don’t journey to be with our family of origin. While physically we have the choice of being or not being with them, pyschologically we do not.

Last year, Jane and I held a big family Christmas Eve at Durham Castle. Her parents Con and George were there, as well as my stepmother Janet, half-brothers Martin and, freshly married, Karl and his partner Louise, as well as Hanna and her partner David and children Nick, Tom, Jonty and Chloe, Leah and Todd. It’s when we got the nice and much looked-at photo of Jane with a glass of beer.

The year before (Christmas 2003), Jane, Elsie and Ed drove here, to Te Henga (Bethell’s Beach) from Wellington in her “granny car”. It was a big step. Our relationship was still new, tho building quickly.

This year, here we are again, at Tyl’s. For Christmas Eve, Karl and Louise and Martin will join us. Cassima is here, too, dislocated from but conscious of her family. On Christmas Day, most of us will reconvene for a separate celebration with Janet and others of her family.

It’s a familiar format. Christmas Eve with the Germans (candles on the tree), Christmas Day (electric lights) with the English/Kiwi (Methodist/Anglican/denying/Jewish) ones. You get two Christmases, which is quite good. Stretching the presents across the two occasions can be a bit tricky. Each occasion is as defined by who is there as it is by who is not.

Two years ago, Jane and I shared the bed upstairs here. We lay naked in each others arms, soaking in fresh love as the house shook, as it does when the dogs trot around the deck. This year, the house shakes all day in the relentless Westerly.

Elsie and Ed are here but their mother is not. Mary-Anne was here with us at Christmas in past years, even Janet once. But not now. And not Liz, who is in England. Not Hanna and family, who are in Nelson, but we saw them two days ago. Not Leah (my half-sister) who is in Whangarei with her partner Todd’s family. Not Oma. We don’t have as many parents at Christmas as we used to.

I am not with Jane’s family this Christmas. They are gathering in Bannockburn. I spoke with Rogan and Kat today who were on their way; there now, I expect. Gathering for Christmas without Jane, too. I will join them early in January, when we gather to inter Jane’s ashes.

We will be with people at Christmas. We will phone people. We will feel love, delight and sadness, maybe even moments of anger and despair – how can that be at Christmas? Some people we will not phone. Some we will not be able to. Somehow or other, all will be present and accounted for.

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